In 2012, we reached the one million mark in the US for legal permanent residents from other countries. The majority of immigrants in most states are from Mexico as you can see in these maps. Indians, Filipinos and Burmese top the population in the most states after Mexicans. The image below shows which countries of origin are represented most in each state (after Mexicans, who are the top group).
When we speak a foreign language, the sound system of our first language acts as a filter which affects how we pronounce the foreign words. This filtering of pronunciation as well as our intonation patterns contribute to what we call an accent.
Our native language influences not only how we sound when we speak a foreign language, but also what we perceive when listening. When listening to English, you hear the sounds through the filter of your native language's sound system. This means it can be difficult to notice your pronunciation differences, because to you, it sounds the same as what you hear when Americans speak.
The good news is, we can overcome these filters and re-train our listening and speaking to include new sounds, and to differentiate between similar sounds. Systematically exposing ourselves to the American English sounds in combination with imitating them can help us learn to produce them correctly. You can read research into this phenomenon here.
When you watch a movie from the 1930's or 40's, you might think that Americans used to have a very different way of speaking. Not quite British, but definitely not what you hear in American media today. The real story, however, is that actors were taught a stylized way of speaking, called the Mid-Atlantic Accent, because it was considered sophisticated. It was a hybrid of the British Received Pronunciation and the modern American accent. You can read more about this phenomenon and see movie clips in this article by Trey Taylor in the Atlantic.
Pronouncing vowel sounds can be challenging in a foreign language. This is because we interpret the vowels we hear through the filter of our native language. We hear a sound close to a vowel sound in our language, and our brain lumps it together with that known sound. Fortunately, we can learn to override this filter and adapt it to include a different set of vowels. But we have to know which words have the new vowel sound, and with the lack of consistent spelling in English, this is a learning process.
Let's look at the vowel sounds one sound at a time. The best way to re-train your brain to hear these sounds is to use listening skills. But being familiar with the variations in spelling will also help you succeed.
The sound /i/; or "vowel ee," is common in most languages, so we will begin with it. In English, this vowel sound has at least nine different ways that it is spelled, and likely more. You can see examples of the sound's various spellings in the chart below. To learn more about pronouncing this sound, you can read here.
An important part of making a change to your speech is knowing which sounds are different in your accent than in American English. When we think of sounds, we think of the letters we use to spell them, but this can be misleading. English spelling does not always correspond to pronunciation. In the word bat, each letter says the sound we associate with that letter: b = /b/; a = /æ/; t = /t/. But add a vowel, and you get bait or boat or beat, and the 1:1 letter sound correspondence is gone. We have 26 letters in our alphabet, but 44 sounds (phonemes).
Here is a chart which shows the sounds, rather than the letters, for the consonants of English. Examples of words with these sounds are listed for the various spellings.
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