If you studied English in a British school (or with a British English textbook!), you may be up for a big surprise once you arrive in America. Though the variety of English spoken in the US is only slightly different from British English in terms of grammar, the differences in pronunciation are much more noticeable. So, what can you do to sound more like Tom Cruise and less like Tom Hiddleston? We have the answer.
Here are five easy tips you can follow to improve your American English speaking skills before your next adventure in the US.
1. Make your R’s loud and clear
American English is a rhotic accent, which means that the letter R is pronounced much more clearly than in British English, particularly when it appears before another consonant or at the end of a word before a pause.
Whereas RP speakers say like dark /dahk/ and car /kah/, in America the letter R is always pronounced very clearly.
In order to pronounce the American R, you have to curl back the tip of the tongue until it touches the area just behind your alveolar ridge.
- With this tip in mind, read the titles of these Oscar-winning films and make sure your R’s are audible.
The Shape of Water
12 Years a Slave
The Hurt Locker
2. Make your A’s more open
Do you ever get the impression that, in American English, words like “calm”, “start”, and “path” sound more cheerful than in RP? Well, there’s a reason for that.
While British speakers produce a long vowel (/ɑː/) when saying these words, American speakers use a phoneme called “ash” (/æ/), which is sometimes referred to as “smiley A”.
Mind you, this is not a new sound for British speakers. In fact, they use it all the time in words like “back” or “stamp”. The problem is that American English speakers use it much more often.
So let’s get a bit of practice!
- Read the following words aloud and make sure your A sounds are not long and dark as in “car”, but short and smiley and in “cat”:
Past, calm, bath, path, father, start.
- Now let’s practice them in a sentence. Every time you say the highlighted words, your should feel your cheekbones rise as if you were smiling.
In the past, my father used to be very calm. He would start his day with a bath and then slowly walk to work along the path by the river.
3. Drop a few H’s
Most ‘British English versus American English’ comparisons you can find online are based on old-fashioned stereotypes, but one thing is for sure: American English speaking rules are much more flexible.
In Received Pronunciation (pejoratively known as BBC English), speakers would never say “Let’s ‘ave ‘im for dinner”. First of all, they may argue that the best verb here would be ‘invite’, not ‘have’ (“We are not cannibals, son!”). And secondly, RP speakers are just not very fond of elision and consonant reductions!
For American speakers, however, H-dropping is absolutely normal. So let’s do one exercise to practice this very American feature.
- Say the following phrases trying to omit the H sounds. (Make sure you link the word containing H with the preceding word!)
I’ll tell (h)er we’re leaving.
Was (h)e there?
At first (h)e seemed nice.
What (h)ave you done?
4. Reduce your T’s between vowels
One of the most noticeable ‘British versus American English’ differences in pronunciation has to do with the sound of T between vowels. As we said earlier, RP speakers are particularly conservative when it comes to the pronunciation of consonants. American English, in contrast, is much more open to the processes of assimilation, elision, and reduction that occur in every language over the course of time.
When the letter T appears between vowels, as in ‘city’ or ‘water’, American speakers tend to realize it as a D (cidy, wader). This process, called flapping, is one of the most salient characteristics of American English speaking.
- To practice this sound, say these words aloud a couple of times:
Waiting, watermelon, eating, water.
- Now read a sentence containing the words above:
I’m waiting for you to finish your watermelon. Please stop eating! And have some water.
5. Mind the way you say “Tuesday”.
By now, it is clear that American English speakers are much more comfortable with dropping or reducing sounds than British speakers. In the variety of British English that we associate with the BBC news presenters –i.e., the most conservative form of English–, words like ‘news’ or ‘due’ are said with a /j/ between the first consonant and the U vowel: /nju:s/, /dju:/.
But not in American English. American speakers, who have a tendency to simplify pronunciation rules, usually omit the first element in the /ju:/ composite vowel and say /nu:s/ instead of /nju:s/, and /du:/ instead of /dju:/.
This process, known as yod-dropping, is also present in British English (particularly in East Anglia), but to a much lesser extent.
In general, if we were to compare RP with standard American English, we would find pairs of words such as:
|Word||British English||American English|
- Work on your yod-dropping skills by saying this text out loud two or three times:
On Tuesday, I usually play a few tunes on YouTube.
While there are many more differences between British and American English pronunciation, the five main features that we have mentioned in this article should give you a good idea of what makes American English unique!
Just remember: when in doubt, drop it out!
Would you like to start working on your American English speaking skills?
At Listen & Learn, we offer both in-person and online English classes taught by qualified teachers that will help you sound more like a native speaker in no time!
Constanza, our client who took her online English lessons from her home in Los Angeles, says: “I’m happy with my new teacher, she is super responsible and she plans the classes super well. Best of all, I’m doing lots of speaking, which really helps my pronunciation!”
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