As an English learner, you may have wondered how to get an American accent.
But what exactly is an American accent? The truth is, there are many accents that come from the United States: How a person speaks depends on the region they’re from.
The accent you’re probably thinking of—the one you’ve heard in Hollywood movies and TV shows time and time again—is the neutral American accent, which we call “General American.” This neutral way of speaking is considered by most Americans to be “accentless.”
In this post, we’re going to look at a few different American accents before diving into how you can achieve a General American accent!
- Different American accents
- How to speak like an American
- American slang words
- Tips to perfect the American accent
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Different American accents
Before we discuss how to get an American accent, let’s explore a few notable accents from across the United States.
Eastern New England
Also known as the Boston accent, the Eastern New England accent comes from the states of Maine, New Hampshire and the eastern part of Massachusetts. This accent is most well-known for being non-rhotic, meaning the “r” is dropped in words like “car” (“cah”) and “bar” (“bah”). Another feature is that the “a” in words like “father” and “palm” sounds similar to the “a” in “cat” and “bad.”
New York City
The New York accent is another non-rhotic one, so the “r” sound is dropped. Also, the vowel sounds in words like “talk,” “north” and “brought” sound like “taw-uhk,” “naw-uht” and “braw-uht,” respectively.
Yet another non-rhotic accent, this southern accent has a slower drawl. A person with a coastal/lowland southern accent would pronounce “butter” as “buttah” and “never” as “nevah.” Another common feature is that speakers turn single syllables into diphthongs; for example, the word “bet” would sound something like “beh-uht.”
The Inland Northern (aka Great Lakes) accent is found in cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit. One prominent feature of this accent is that the “a” sound in words like “bat” and “sad” is raised and made into a diphthong so that the words sound like “bee-uht” and “see-uhd.” Additionally, the “o” sound in words such as “pop” and “lot” make them sound more like “pap” and “lat.”
The Western American accent is the one you’d hear in the mountain and western states, including parts of Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado. This accent can sound slightly southern or even a bit Canadian but is generally quite neutral. The Western American accent is influenced by the “cot-caught merger,” meaning the vowel sounds /ä/ and /ô/ in words like “cot” and “caught” are pronounced the same (whereas they’re pronounced differently from each other in other regions).
How to speak like an American
Now that you’ve learned a little about some of the accents you might hear in the United States, let’s talk about how you can get a General American accent!
American pronunciation and enunciation
To pronounce words like an American, there are a few tips you should keep in mind:
- Link your phrases. Americans tend to connect words and phrases without much pausing or distinction between them.
- Don’t over-articulate consonants. In the same way that you should link your phrases, you should also try not to pronounce each consonant sound separately. To sound natural, be mindful of how a consonant works with the letters around it.
- Use back resonance. Neutral American speech requires you to make sounds toward the mid-back of your mouth rather than the front.
- Relax your face. Contrary to some other accents, the American accent doesn’t require much facial movement; the facial muscles should be relatively relaxed. The movements in the mouth are much more subtle than in many other languages.
The “schwa” sound
If you’ve been studying English for a while, you’ve probably heard of the “schwa” sound. If not, let us explain! The schwa is a reduced vowel sound that can be pronounced in three ways: a short “u,” a short “i” and a short “e.” In the General American accent, the most common schwa sound is the short “u.”
You can find the schwa in two main situations: It’s used as an unstressed syllable in a multi-syllable word, and as a reduced vowel sound in a function word like “the,” “but” or “and.”
Here are some examples of where you’ll find the schwa sound in various words (indicated in bold):
- Vitamin → VIT-uh-min
- Electric → uh-LEC-tric
- Analysis → uh-NAL-ysis
- Celebrate → CEL-uh-brate
The stressed “r”
To have a neutral American accent, you’ll need to emphasize the “r” sound when you speak. The General American “r” comes from the back of the mouth—the tongue should be nowhere near the ridge of your teeth when you’re making this sound. Instead, you should raise the back of your tongue, making sure the sides of your tongue touch your back teeth. The center of your tongue should be a bit lower than the sides, allowing air to pass through.
The voiced and voiceless “th”
There are two “th” sounds in General American English: voiced and voiceless. While the voiced sound requires you to vocalize, the voiceless sound is made by pushing only air through the mouth. Despite their differences, both “th” sounds have the same mouth position: teeth slightly open with your tongue touching the back of your top teeth.
Here are some examples of voiced and voiceless “th” words:
American slang words
Sure, the accent is important, but a huge part of sounding like an American is using the right slang. Here are a few terms to get you started:
What it means: To leave quickly or to cancel plans
We were supposed to go to the party together, but she bailed.
What it means: To be rich; to have a wealthy lifestyle
He grew up really poor but he’s ballin’ now!
What it means: A male friend
Bruh! How are you? I haven’t seen you in so long!
What it means: Lying
She told me she used to live in Paris, but I think she’s capping.
What it means: Spending time with friends; not doing much
You should come over later. We’re just chillin’ at home.
What it means: Excellent; cool
My vacation to Kenya was dope! I went on safari and saw tons of lions.
What it means: Awesome; excellent
Your hair is fire! Did you just get it cut?
What it means: The greatest of all time
I know you like LeBron James, but I will always think Michael Jordan is the GOAT.
What it means: Upset; shocked
Today I learned that I have a long-lost brother; I am shook.
Tips to perfect the American accent
Here are a few pointers to help you achieve the General American accent you want:
- Make local friends. When you chat with native speakers, you’ll be able to hear how a proper American accent sounds. On top of that, you’ll have the chance to practice your pronunciation and be corrected as needed.
- Watch American TV and movies. Netflix and YouTube are great for this. Choose an American program (like a 30-minute comedy, for instance). Turn on the subtitles just to make sure you don’t miss anything. Then listen to a character speak, pause the show, repeat what they said (and how they said it) and continue.
- Record yourself. You may think you sound a certain way, but recording yourself will give you a clearer perspective. Every evening, take a few minutes to record yourself talking about anything: how your day was, what your plans are, etc. Then play it back to listen for any mistakes you might be making or sounds you need to work on.
How to get an American accent fast
If your goal is to have an American accent, remember: focus on your enunciation, pronounce your “r” and “th” sounds, master the schwa and start using some American slang. And make sure you practice consistently—by chatting with native-speaking friends, by watching American TV and movies and by recording yourself to identify errors. Before you know it, you’ll be speaking like an American!
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Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and children, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.