Do you have a favorite actor?
Have you seen a movie where they play the part of an American, but you know they aren’t? How do they speak the American accent so well?
How can you be as convincing as they are?
There’s got to be a way.
You may have already discovered that the American accent varies in different regions. Whether you’re in the Southern U.S., New York City or even out in California, the locals all have a different way of saying things.
You may be thinking, “learning English is hard enough! Now I have to learn all these American accents, too?”
Relax, it’s not as hard as you think!
Chances are, you’ve already heard the standard American accent in your learning materials or in movies and on TV. If you want to talk like an American, don’t worry. We’ll show you four simple ways to practice and perfect your American accent.
But first, an important distinction:
The Difference Between Accent and Pronunciation
Before we explore the features of American accents, it’s important to understand that accent and pronunciation aren’t the same.
The accent is where the rules of the language are governed by your location or class. Accent refers to differences in stress on letters in a word.
Pronunciation is more about speaking the language. It’s the way you articulate words for better understanding. Your instructor or tutor can help you with pronunciation.
Accent differences don’t mean that a language is spoken incorrectly. However, mispronunciation can mean that you’re speaking a language incorrectly.
What Makes the American Accent Unique?
While over 800 million people speak English, most English speakers aren’t native speakers. The recognizable American accent is what English learners commonly strive for.
The American accent is actually older than the U.K. accent. The American accent as we know it today was the accent originally spoken by the settlers that first landed in what’s now known as the U.S.
Around the 19th century in the U.K., upper classes wanted a way to distinguish themselves from the poor. Eventually, the accent they developed spread all over the region (people have always wanted to be like the rich). What resulted is the U.K. accent as we know it today, and that’s why it sounds different from today’s American accent.
The primary feature that separates the American accent from the U.K. accent is called rhotic speech. The American accent (with some exceptions, as we’ll discuss below) is rhotic. That means Americans pronounce the “r” in words such as “hard” (har-d). Non-rhotic speakers drop the “r,” and would pronounce the word “hard” like hah-d.
There are some exceptions, of course. Some Americans in the New England area of the U.S. such as Boston, Massachusetts use non-rhotic speech.
Other features of the American accent include:
- The short “a” sound prominent in words such as “man” and “cat”
- The use of an unrounded (relaxed; slack) vowel in words such as a “lot” (pronounced “laht”)
- Dropping words. American English speakers may use shortened sentences, implying words without actually saying them. In the U.K., this is much less common. For example:
Jim: “Are you going to the store on your way home?”
Jan: “I could. What you need?” (I could go to the store. What do you need?)
Regional Differences Across North America
Different areas of North America have their own accents—there’s not just one simple accent that everyone across North America shares. Here are some traits of regional differences you may find all over.
The Southern Accent
Also known as a “Southern Drawl” or “country accent,” the Southern accent is usually slower with shortened words. Southern influences have found their way into American speech all over the country.
Southern pronunciations of words include git (get) and lemme (let me).
For a good example of American accent differences, consider this:
Some school children hear a rhyme from their teachers when they don’t get what they want. In the Northern region of the U.S., teachers might say, “You get what you get, so don’t be upset.” In the South, children may hear “You get what you get, so don’t throw a fit.” (“Fit” being another word for tantrum).
Where to hear a Southern accent:
- TV shows set in the south like “True Blood”
- American country western music artists such as Carrie Underwood, LeAnn Rimes and Tim McGraw
The Midwestern Accent
The Midwestern accent, sometimes known as the General American accent, is what’s commonly heard in American entertainment. It’s understood and spoken across America.
The Midwestern accent makes use of the rhotic speech discussed above. Even though it’s a common American accent, its uses vary so greatly that it’s hard to pinpoint distinct traits.
Where to hear a Midwestern or General American accent:
- National news programs such as CNN
The New England Accent
The New England accent is also known as the “Boston accent.” This regional accent makes use of non-rhotic pronunciations. A famous phrase that demonstrates these accents is Pahk yuh cah in hah-vud yahd (Park your car in Harvard Yard).
Where to hear the New England Accent:
- TV shows or movies set in this region such as “Family Guy”
- Movies set in Boston like “Spotlight” and “Good Will Hunting”
The New York City Accent
The stereotypical “New York” accent may be dying out, but you can still hear some natives use it now and then. The New York accent also has non-rhotic elements. They may also round short vowels like a. For instance, “father” becomes “faw-thuh” and “dog” becomes “daw-ug.”
Where to hear the New York City accent:
- Gang movies set in New York City like “Gangs of New York” and “Goodfellas”
- The character Joey in the TV show “Friends” (more on this show below)
The Canadian Accent
If you’re traveling through Canada, know that Canadians have an accent that differs from the U.S. The Canadian accent is very similar to the General American or the Midwestern accent. While Canadians usually use rhotic speech, they have some different characteristics.
The Canadian accent commonly uses the caught-cot merger, meaning that words such as caught, with the “au” sound, and cot, with the short “o” sound, are pronounced the same.
Canadians also raise diphthongs in some words. An example includes “ah-boot” for about.”
Where to hear the Canadian accent:
- Canadian news channels like CTV.
4 Fantastic Ways to Learn an American English Accent
1. Use American Accent Video Trainings
Training is available from many different sources on the internet to help English learners who are interested in the American accent. Some sources to get you started include:
Speaking Your Best, Inc.: Speaking Your Best is a free online course run by a licensed speech pathologist. There are specific accent guides that’ll help you depending on your native language. You’ll learn how to say very precise sounds like an American, as well as more general advice, like why it’s important for American English learners to speak slowly:
FluentU: There’s nothing like learning an accent directly from native speakers. FluentU gives you authentic American English videos, like YouTube clips, movie trailers and more, that’ve been transformed into language learning experiences.
Each video comes with interactive captions that you can use to study any word. Click on a word and you’ll hear it pronounced clearly in an American accent—you’ll also get a definition and visual learning aids for the word. That means not only will you be perfecting your accent, you’ll also be building your vocabulary. All while hearing English spoken the way natives use it!
Let’s Talk: This YouTube channel uploads new videos every other day. Their focus is helping English learners speak with a neutral accent. Their videos include helpful tips and fun facts to make accent mastery fun. Along with accent help, you’ll also get vocabulary and grammar English tips.
Pronunciation Pro: Pronunciation Pro is run by accent reduction professional Annie Ruden. Her accent reduction program comes at a cost but she also provides helpful YouTube videos for free. There you’ll find a wide variety of playlists with pronunciation tips for beginners and advanced learners. She offers specific lessons on American English sounds and rhythms.
If you’re interested in her course, she also includes videos with more information.
Amy Walker’s “How to Do an American Accent” Series: While Amy Walker isn’t an English teacher, her series is fun and useful for English learners. Amy Walker is an actress, so the methods she teaches are the same that actors use to create the convincing accents you see on TV and in movies.
Her series on how to do an American accent includes lessons, exercises and even a demonstration of different American accents.
2. Watch American TV Shows
Many English learners have used American TV shows to help them learn English. A range of American accents is prominent in American shows, though you’ll typically hear something close to the Midwestern or General American accent.
The suggestions listed below are useful for English learners because they’re popular and use everyday language. You can find these shows on DVD or online. You may even be able to access some episodes on YouTube.
You can find even more suggestions here.
“The Simpsons:” The Simpsons is an American classic that has been on the air since 1989. Episodes air all over the world and the characters are so popular that they’ve introduced new expressions into American culture. Any American you meet will be familiar with “The Simpsons.” Some English learning programs even incorporate “The Simpsons” into their lessons.
Note that “The Simpsons” generally uses a lot of topical (related to current events) and cultural references, so it may be better for advanced learners.
“Friends:” “Friends” was (and remains) one of the most popular sitcoms in the U.S. It’s set in New York City, and the characters have different backgrounds and speech patterns. Many of the themes in the program are relatable.
You can watch episodes over and over again to hear how Americans speak and respond to one another.
“Full House:” “Full House” is another sitcom that’s seen all over the world. The characters range from children to adults. Many of the plots appeal to the entire family. Full House is so popular that some have learned English by watching it!
Sitcoms like “Friends” and “Full House” are good for English learners because they’re short and incorporate everyday problems into storylines. They also use a lot of physical humor that’ll help you understand what’s going on even if you can’t follow the dialogue at first.
3. Watch American News Programs
American news programs are great to help you hear the American accent. For the best experience, try national news programs such as the ones listed below. National news anchors tend to have the General American accent.
If you know you’ll be traveling to a region with a strong local accent, such as the South or West, look for videos from local news stations in those areas. You may hear some localized accents.
4. Get Help from an Accent Tutor
Tutors are always the best resource because they can help you with your own specific pronunciation needs. The following tutors or language services specialize in helping learners master the American accent.
American Accent Course: The American Accent Course is an online program that you can access whenever’s best for you. You’ll receive listening exercises and lessons in rhythm and pronunciation. You’ll get quizzes on your progress and live tutors are there to help you with difficulties and to offer feedback.
Cambly: Cambly is a course you can use online or on your mobile device. It offers a free trial option to see if it’s the right course for you. Cambly allows you to practice English conversation with a native speaker so you can get live feedback on your accent.
Rachel’s English: Rachel is an English teacher who specializes in helping learners perfect their American accent. While she provides a lot of paid material, her website also features over 400 free videos to get you started.
The best way to learn your American accent is to listen and practice. Record your voice and compare it to native speakers you hear in American entertainment. Converse with your American friends, tutors or teachers.
Remember, don’t try to force it. Natives will be able to tell. Some may even become offended, thinking you’re making fun of them. Let your accent come naturally.
Keep practicing, and you’ll be speaking like a native American in no time.
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