Keep reading to learn more about the main areas that you will need to address when trying to reduce your accent. This is only a start, but it will help you understand what you need to before you begin you accent reduction classes.
“Speaking with a standard, neutral American accent is not easy, but it can be done!“
Forget everything you have studied, and all of the enunciation lessons that your school teachers gave you. This article will help educate you about some of the main techniques that you can use to sound more like a native speaker.
Reducing your accent takes a bit of knowledge and a lot of practice.
Remember, everyone speaks a little differently so you’ll hear many different accents as you travel across the country. Today, I will introduce you to some of the speech patterns associated with different people in different geographic areas across the USA.
Accent reduction is not an exact science so keep an open-mind and, most importantly, keep your ears open to try to hear the patterns and techniques I will discuss today.
The “nitty-gritty” of the language
Before we begin, it’s important that you learn, or refresh, the necessary terms below. You probably learned these terms when you were very young, but it doesn’t hurt to refresh.
- Vowel: a, e, i, o, u
- Vowel Sound: an open sound, vocal tract open, no contact
- Consonant: any letter that is not a vowel
- Consonant Sound: a sound produced by contact, produced by a partial or complete obstruction of the air stream
- Verb: an action or state
- Noun: a person, place, thing or idea (a subject or an object)
- Compound Noun: a noun that consists of two words
- Adjective: a word that describes a noun
- Pronoun: a word that is used in the place of a noun
- Adverb: a word that describes a verb
- Preposition: a word which shows a relationship between two words
- Phrasal Verb: a combination of a VERB + PREPOSITION (Sometimes: Verb + Adverb) .
- Syllable: a unit of pronunciation, has one vowel sound and may have consonant sounds
Let’s begin reducing your accent!
VOWELS & CONSONANTS – CORRECT PRONUNCIATION
When you study accent reduction you need to work a great deal on producing the correct vowel and consonant sounds. Speakers of different languages each have different problems when it comes to pronouncing the correct vowel and consonant sounds. Although producing the correct vowel and consonant sounds is VERY important and VERY difficult, I will not be spending too much time on them today. The reason is: each student has different trouble spots. It is very important to work with your accent reduction coach on this point as you may not even be able to hear the mistakes that you are making.
We have 15 vowel sounds in standard American English. Some of you may have as few as five vowel sounds in your languages. Below are all of the the vowel sounds in standard American English used in a short word.
me / in / may / get / mat / pot / the / all / go / look / blue / her / nine / cow / boy
YOU CANNOT SAY THESE CORRECTLY IF YOU DON’T OPEN YOUR MOUTH!Focus on keeping your mouth open when saying most of these sounds. That is not to say that all of these sounds are open sounds, but I have noticed that many students are not opening their mouths wide enough to pronounce many English vowel sounds.
Producing the correct consonant sounds is equally as important as the vowel sounds. Some of the most difficult consonant sounds for non-native speakers are: T, TH, S, L, R, V, F, B, P.
It is important to learn the difference between voiced and voiceless consonants. Most students have problems with the voiced consonants, in particular at the end of the word. To show you what I mean I will give you a couple examples.
Listen to a native speaker pronounce the following words:
You will notice that the native speaker probably doesn’t enunciate the ending consonant very strongly. You should also hear that bag and sad are noticeably longer than back and sat. This is because /g/ and /d/ are voiced consonant sounds. The vowel before a voiced consonant sound is generally slightly longer than those before a voiceless consonant sound. These are just a few of the voiced consonant sounds in English. Did you know that /s/ and /th/ can be both voiced and voiceless sounds.
There is a lot to learn, but in a few accent reduction classes you will have learned the basics and have a better ear to start picking up different sounds on your own.
Have you ever thought that your speech sounds choppy? This might be because you are not linking or connecting the words and sounds which a native English speaker would usually connect. Follow the rules related to linking words to speak more fluidly.
Consonant to Vowel Links
Typically, when a word finishes with a consonant sound and and is followed by a word that starts with a vowel sound, we can connect the two words by putting the consonant onto the vowel sound at the beginning of the next word.
- sound off
- standard American accent
- soun doff
- standar dAmerica naccent
We usually pronounce a /t/ as a /d/ when it is followed by vowel sound.
- put it on
- a lot of
- pu di don
- a lo dof
Americans also often pronounce the /t/ as a /d/ sound in the middle of a word when a /t/ is between two vowels or “open sounds”.
Same Sound Links
We generally link a word which ends with the the same sound as the following word starts with.
- call Larry
- Mom might
- help put
Vowel to Vowel Links
We usually connect words when the first word finishes in a vowel sound and the next word begins with a vowel. Read the word pairs below connecting the two words together with either a /y/ or /w/ sound as written.
- so am
- I am
- he ate
Connecting Other Letter Combinations
Check out some of these common linking or connecting patterns. Practice them to help you sound more like a native speaker. Not everybody uses these specific patterns but they are very common in standard neutral speech.
The following letter combinations are often linked with a soft /j/ sound, as in juice
- d + u education, graduation, schedule
- d + y did you, would you, could you
- d +r drink, drive, dream, drain
The following letter combinations are often linked with a soft /ch/ sound, as in chicken:
- t + u aventura, nature, adventure, actually
- t + y that you, won’t you, can’t you
- t + r train, trip, travel, traditional
WORD STRESS (aka Sentence Stress)
Every language, or even dialect, has a rhythm or stress pattern which is familiar to speakers of that language. English is no different. One of the most important points to pay attention to when studying accent reduction is the word stress pattern, also known as sentence stress pattern.
In English we usually stress what we call the content word(s) in every sentence. The content word(s) can change depending on the meaning and even the context, however we usually place the stress on the noun, as opposed to the verb or adjective. Obviously, this can change depending on the message that the speaker is trying to convey.
So, what is stress, as it relates to speaking? Stress is elongating the main vowel sound in the content word. Read the sentences below drawing out the vowel sound in the bolded words. Note that if there are two or more stressed words, the last stressed word is usually stressed the most:
- I have a dog.
- My dog is called Tom.
- My dog Tom likes bones.
- “I have a dooog.”
- “My doog is called Tooom.”
- “My dog Toom likes booones.”
The word or words we choose to stress can change the meaning of the sentence. Read the sentences below placing the emphasis on the bolded word.
- She speaks pretty well.
- She speaks pretty well.
- She speaks pretty well.
- She speaks pretty well.
Stressing Phrasal Verbs
Native English speakers use a lot of phrasal verbs in their speech. We use phrasal verbs in both casual and formal speech. A phrasal verb is a verb followed by a preposition. When we use a phrasal verb in its verb form we generally stress the preposition. When we use a phrasal verb as a noun we stress the verb. Read the conversation below placing the stress on the vowel sound in each bolded word:
- He dropped out.
- She shows off.
- He picked me up.
- He’s a drop out.
- She’s a show off.
- He has a pick up.
Stressing Compound Nouns
A compound noun is a noun made up of two words. These words can be separated as two words or combined into one word. We generally stress the first word in the pair. See what I mean by reading the words below stressing the bolded portion.
- parking lot
- cell phone
Stressing Numbers, Dates, Names, and Acronyms
Read the numbers, names, dates, and acronyms below stressing the bolded parts. Do you notice a pattern? In English we generally push the stress to the end. Remember, stress is making the vowel sound longer not louder!
- (305) 521 9434
- Barack Obama
- Miami Beach
- nineteen ninety-nine
- three-oh-five five-two-one nine-four-three-four
- Barack Obama
- Miami Beach
Don’t get too carried away with all of these rules and techniques to forget to breathe. When we speak or read we make small pauses and break up our sentences into little groups, often called thought groups. Sometimes these thought groups are set apart with commas and other punctuation, but many times they are not. A good rule of thumb is to pause, even for a split second, after every stressed word.
SYLLABLE STRESS (aka Word Stress)
So now you know which word to stress, but what if the word has more than one syllable? Learning which syllable to stress, or elongate, is equally as important as learning which word to stress within a sentence. Let me explain what I mean. Read the name Argentina. Now sing it like Madonna did, “….don’t cry for me Argentiiina…” Why did she stretch out that particular vowel sound? The answer is, I don’t know, but she did.
There are few rules or patterns to guide you with learning which syllable stress. In most cases, like everything else when you study accent reduction, you will just need to have a good ear and the willingness to give it a try.
I will give you a couple of some common syllable stress patterns below.
Two Syllable Noun / Verb Pairs
In English we have some common two syllable words which can be verbs or nouns. When these words are used a noun we generally stress the first syllable and when used as a verb we generally stress the second syllable. Read the word pairs below stressing the bolded vowel sound.Noun
Words Ending in -ate
Stressing the syllable in words ending in -ate is very difficult for many students. This is because in many languages these words are very similar and the stress is placed on the last syllable. In English, however, we place the stress two syllables before -ate or on the first syllable. Read the words below, elongating the bolded vowel sound.
Further study suggestion: After practicing stressing the correct syllable, try to hear if you can hear how the vowel sound within -ate changes when these words are used as adjectives and nouns.
- to graduate
- to estimate
- a graduate
- an estimate
Can you hear the difference? If not, I am here to help! Just ask me to explain what I mean and I will prepare a lesson for you.
Many -ate words get the the suffix -ation when they become nouns. When a noun ends in -tion, or -sion, we stress the /a/ before the suffix. Read the following words placing the stress on the /a/ sound.
Are there more rules I can learn about syllable stress and/or word stress?
Yes, there are quite a few more. Too many for me to list them all today. That’s why, we titled this article Study Accent Reduction in 20 Minutes. However, by now you will have started hearing some of these common patterns. The key is to learn each rule or pattern step by step and then throw yourself into practice and repetition.
Just as every language has a rhythm, every language has an intonation pattern. There are several intonation patterns which are standard in spoken North American English. Today, I will highlight the three most common intonation patterns.
Intonation in a Statement
We usually lower our voice at the end of a sentence or statement to produce a falling intonation.
…………………..↘ ↘ ↘
My name is Dan. I am from Florida. I like baseball.
Intonation in a WH-QUESTIONS
We usually lower our voice at the end of a WH-question (open question) to produce a falling intonation.
……………………..↘ ↘ ↘
What’s your name? Where are you from? What kind of food do you like?
Intonation in a Yes / No QUESTIONS
We usually raise our pitch at the end of a Yes/No-question (closed question) to produce a rising intonation.
……………………..↗ ↗ ↗
Is your name Dan? Are you from Florida? Do you like Baseball?there are many more intonation patterns. It is important to remember to pay attention to your intonation because we use intonation to show emotion.
That’s it! 20 minutes!
Have you reduced your accent? Not completely, I am sure. However I hope that I have been able to give you some pointers and answered some questions for you about getting started with accent reduction.
The above lesson was only an introduction to some of the most important concepts you need to begin working on in order to reduce your accent and sound like native English speaker.
It is a lot of work, but it is possible! If you implement the techniques we have learned, people will understand you better and won’t question you as much.
To begin reducing your accent today, call us and we will send you a free accent screening and information about accent reduction classes.
Instruction for Private Accent Reduction Classes is provided by Premium Languages, the private tutorial, foreign language, and test preparation partner of Language On. Courses provided by Premium Languages are not accredited by CEA and do not qualify for F-1 (student) visas.