What is Standard American English ?
If you are in America, you know that there are many American dialects. Which one is standard and why? Standard American English originated in the midwest and was adopted by Hollywood. Those who enjoy old movies can remember the days of Cary Grant when a different dialect was used to portray upper class Americans. This was called the “transcontinental” American dialect. In these same old movies, you can notice that what is now “standard American” was often used by the lower class or comedic actors. The transcontinential dialect was contrived, though, and after the 1960’s, the idea of a class-based society was no longer a romantic ideal. As Hollywood expanded, standard American English became the dialect of most major characters, whether wealthy, middle class or poor.
All of this occured over time, and the final major influence was the Internet. This means that standard American has only been accepted for about twenty years. The majority of adults today did not learn it; they simply heard it on television and adapted. If you ask most Americans about reduced or dropped sounds, they may speak several words out loud to hear what they normally do.
While British English can be wonderful in its precision, American English has a pleasant, rolling quality. When people speak it well, it sounds soft and fluid. Also, Americans tend to speak in an informal way. We prefer simple, casual words in order to decrease stress in work situations. For this reason, even formal American English may not seem very “formal” to some people. Casual speech, or informal American English, is faster and has more reduced sounds.
What Do I Need to Know Before I Begin?
There are three major points of standard American English that can help many people to achieve clear speech.
1. Point of Resonance
All languages have a point of resonance or a place in the mouth where the sound resonates. In British English, this point is at the front of the mouth. In standard American, it is in the middle. Anyone who learned British English as a child may have to concentrate on relaxing the facial muscles to get the point of resonance in the middle. Here’s another trick: put a nut or small mint on your tongue. Do not swallow. Make yourself speak a little bit while holding it on your tongue. This teaches you that physical point in the middle. As a contrast, put the nut or mint between your lower teeth and your lip and make yourself speak. This is not exactly the British point of resonance, but it should force you to move your face forward as you talk. You can see the great difference in these two points of resonance.
2. Facial Movement
Facial movement changes significantly from one language to another. You may think that Americans move their faces a lot when they speak–or you may think the opposite depending on your language background. I recommend using a lot of facial movement when you are learning pronunciation. When Americans learn sounds as children, we learn to move the jaw, the tongue and the lips to create good sounds. This process builds muscles within the mouth and builds awareness of each sound. After sounds are mastered, we can speak them using less movement. So try exaggerating facial movement while you perfect sounds. Focus on mastering sounds during your practice time.
3. Vowel Sounds
The major difference between British English and American English lies in the vowel sounds. The Brits give them equal or less weight than the consonants, and the Americans stress them. In American English, you can imagine that the vowels are standing out from the page like 3D letters. Moving smoothly from one vowel sound to another is the basis of standard American. In fact, you can even think of the standard American dialect as a consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel language similar to Spanish or Japanese except that in American English, you have to ignore the spellings, combine words in phrases and just think about the sounds in order to hear that.
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