Are you a native Spanish speaker? Because your first language is Spanish, you are likely to have certain accent patterns when speaking English. Our new online course, SMART American Accent Training for Spanish Speakers, will walk you through all of the accent patterns in your speech to help you understand and improve your American Accent. Get your free trial today!
Having trouble with American v and b? Check out the difference in this video. Then, practice some b and v words here.
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When L is at the end of the word, we add an extra sound before the l, and hold this sound into the L sound. This extra sound is the vowel schwa, which sounds like "uh." To get this sound, try slowing down and sliding from one vowel to the next. For example, try the following words using the recording below:
tool (too-w-uh-l) tail (tay-y-uh-l) feel (fee-y-uh-l) fuel (fyoo-w-uh-l)
The American R can be a challenging sound for non-native speakers, even those who speak other English dialects. In some accents, the r sound is rolled or trilled. In others, it sounds more like vowel schwa, or the sound "uh." Did you know that the "r" sound is different depending on where it falls in the word? You may have no trouble saying the "r" in red or really, but struggle with the "r" sounds in bird or forever.
Whatever your difficulty, this may be a sound that needs practice at the phoneme and syllable level. Rather than trying to start by saying words with r, practice the sound by itself and in nonsense syllables. You might find the trouble is not with making this sound, but rather with breaking the habits of your old pronunciation in words. Use the recordings below to try the sound, syllables, and words in a new way.
Vowel sounds are always voiced (the vocal folds buzz when saying these sounds). Consonant sounds can be either voiced or voiceless, and they come in pairs called cognates. Why is it helpful to know about voiced and voiceless cognate sounds? A frequent error in accented speech is the de-voicing of final consonants. What this means is that the speaker does not use any or enough voicing (buzzing of the vocal folds) on the last sound of the word, so it sounds like the voiceless cognate. This occurs for various reasons. The speaker's native language may not have words that end with voiced sounds. The speaker may be listening to American English speech, and not really hear or notice the voicing on the ends of words when listening to Americans. Or the voiced sounds might be part of a group of consonants at the end of the word, and the challenge of producing this consonant cluster makes using correct voicing difficult.
Whatever the reason, attention to this error is important because you may sound like you are saying a different word than you are. Your listener will likely understand based on the context, but having to interpret what you are saying puts an increased cognitive load on the listener, and they may struggle to follow what you are saying as a result.
The pairs of consonant sounds are as follows:
voiceless: t voiced: d Examples: to, do
voiceless: p voiced: b Examples: poor, boor
voiceless: k voiced: g Examples: came, game
voiceless: f voiced: v Examples: fan, van
voiceless: s voiced: z Examples: sip, zip
voiceless: sh voiced: zh Examples: mesh, measure
voiceless: ch voiced: j Examples: choke, joke
voiceless: th (IPA /θ/) voiced th (IPA /ð/) Examples: thigh, thy
One helpful way to ensure you are pronouncing the final consonant with the correct voicing is to lengthen the vowel sound before the voiced consonant. For example, when we say the word "bead," we hold the vowel ee for a little step down because the "d" is voiced. When we say the word "beat" we don't hold the vowel ee for any additional length. Listen to the pairs below and try making a longer vowel and voiced sound to end the word. Then try some of the words in the list on your own.
Do you have some words which you find difficult to say? Do you know which sounds are different in your accent? Whatever your pronunciation difficulties, understanding the approaches to changing pronunciation can help you address your goals.
While accented speech is comprised of several elements, pronunciation is one aspect which many speakers and listener can identify as sounding different. Some sounds in American English are infrequent or nonexistant in other languages and must be learned and practiced in a hierarchy to develop the sound. Others are easier to say, but hard to use in running speech. Understanding the levels of practice is an important step to changing your speech.
1. Sound level (phonemes): This level is single sounds. Practicing at this level is usually only necessary when the sound is new to you, but knowing how to say a sound by itself correctly is helpful and can be used as a tool when working at more challenging levels. Use the recordings below to try some of the American English phonemes which are most frequently mispronounced in accented speech.
2. Syllable level: This level is target sound plus an additional sound. If the target is a consonant, the additional sound is a vowel, and vice versa. While two sounds together can make a word, syllables can also be part of a word or just a nonsense word. Practice at this level is useful when breaking down difficult words, integrating a difficult target into words, or changing a habitual pattern with the target sound. The recording below demonstrates how to add various vowels to the challenging target voiceless th (IPA symbol: /θ/).
3. Word level: This level is the target sound in real words. The target could be in the beginning, middle or end of the word (initial, medial or final position). Depending on your native language, you may only need to practice one word position. Sometimes speakers have an accurate phoneme in the initial position, but make errors when the target sound is in word-final position. For example, you may be able to use your voiceless th sound correctly in the word "think," but have an error pattern on the word "teeth."
You can try some words with initial, medial and final voiceless th sounds using the recordings below.
4. Phrase or Sentence level: The next step to changing a pronunciation pattern is to use the target sounds at the phrase or sentence level. Once you have achieved accurate productions at the word level, you can imitate or create sentences using the same words you practiced at the word level. This is more challenging because you are having to hold the new target in your mind as you say the sentence. If needed, you can practice at different levels within this step. Easiest, imitate a sentence with the target word at the beginning of the sentence. Next easiest, imitate a sentence with the target word in the middle or end of the sentence. Next, create your own sentence with the target word at the beginning of the sentence, and last, create a sentence with the target word in the middle or the end of the sentence. Use the recordings below to try the target voiceless th in imitated sentences. Then make your own sentences with voiceless th words.
5. Conversational level: This is the goal and the final step in changing pronunciation. Sometimes transitions between steps 4 and 5 are necessary, such as practice while reading aloud. There are many techniques to moving from the sentence to the conversational level, including raising awareness of where your targets occur and repeat motor practice to gain automaticity.
One of the most common errors for those learning the American accent is the vowel in the words it and him, referred to on this site as “Vowel I" or /ɪ/. This sound is frequently confused with the vowel in the words eat and seem, “Vowel ee or /i/.”
These two sounds are similar, but Vowel ee /i/ has a more exaggerated smile posture for the lips, and the front of the tongue is slightly higher in the mouth. Vowel ee /i/ is a tense vowel, meaning that the muscles in the face are engaged. Vowel I /ɪ/ is a lax vowel, meaning the lips and face need to be relaxed. Practice going from one sound to the next to feel the different postures for your lips and tongue. Use the video to help you.
One way to solidify the distinction is to practice with minimal pairs, or words that differ only by this vowel sound. Listen to the following sets of words, and practice making a clear contrast between vowel ee /i/ and vowel ɪ.
For even more practice, use these short phrases which contrast the ee and I vowel sounds.
When the letters “ng” are together at the ends of words, they sound different than when they are in the middle of the word. In the middle of the word, they are usually pronouncing with the “ng” sound, plus a hard “g” to start the next syllable. For example, the words hunger and finger can be broken into two syllables: hung+ger and fing+ger. At the ends of words, however, the “ng” combination only makes the single sound “ng.”
A common accent error in American English is to add an extra sound to the end of ng, similar to ng in the middle of words. This makes words sound like thingk or doingg, and is a noticeable error. To change this accent pattern, try listening to the following pairs of words. Notice how the ng words do not have a stopped k or g sound at the end. Next, try saying the words, making a distinct difference between the nk word and the ng word.
Many words in English begin with an “s-blend,” which is when the letter s is followed by another consonant. For example, the words state, space, school, and special all begin with s-blends.
Some non-native speakers of English have difficulty with combining consonants because they don’t use this construction in their native language. In Spanish, words with these sounds begin with an “e,” such as especial, escuela, and estado. Consequently, a common accent pattern in English is to add an additional “e” sound before s-blend words.
Listen to the following pairs of words. Note that the words are similar, but the Spanish word has and "es" and the English word has only "s."
To avoid this problem, start by practicing s-blend words alone. Then slowly add words before your s-blend word, being careful to start your target word with an “s,” not an “es.” It might help you to draw out the “s” sound a little longer.
After saying s-blend words by themselves, slowly add more words to your phrase until you are able to say the s-blend word correctly in a sentences. For example, use the recording below to try this exercise:
provide special service
we will provide special service
Native Spanish speakers sometimes have difficulty with the pronouncing words that begin with the letters y and j. Specifically, they will switch these two consonant sounds. It is helpful to practice each sound on its own, then try contrasting words to make sure you are putting the correct sound on the correct word.
To say the “y” sound, think of the Spanish y or ll. This sound is called a semivowel because the tongue has limited contact with the rest of the mouth. If you say the sound very slowly, you’ll notice it sounds like two vowel – vowel ee and vowel uh. It slides from ee to uh – “ee-uh.”
Use the recordings to try the “y” sound by itself, in words, and in short phrases.
To say the “j” sound, we press the front of our tongue up behind our top front teeth, then open the mouth quickly and release the tongue. The “ch” sound is made in the same way, without the voice. If you have trouble with this sound at the start of the word, try putting a “d” before the “j” sound.
Use the recordings to try the “j” sound by itself, in words, and in short phrases.
Words that end in “n” and “ng” can be difficult for some people to differentiate, especially those whose native language is Mandarin. Both sounds are made by closing off the path of the air in the mouth. The difference is that the "n" sound is made with the tip and blade of the tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth at the ridge behind the teeth (see illustrations below) and the "ng" sound is made with the back of the tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth in the middle back of the palate. Try saying "t" and then "n" to feel the location of the tongue in the front of the mouth. Now try saying "k" and then "ng" to feel the tongue in the back of the mouth. Listen to the recording below, and try saying the words with contrasting sounds at the end.
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Final "j" is sometimes mispronounced as the voiceless "ch" sound. "J" is made in the same location in the mouth as "ch," but you use your voice on the "j" sound. Listen to the contrasting words on the audio file below to hear the difference between the "ch" and "j" sounds at the ends of words.
Still having a hard time? Can you say "j" at the beginnings of words, as in the word "jump?" If so, try the phrase "a jump" (ay-jump), running the two words together. Say it slowly, then speed up. Eventually, leave off the "-ump" and you will be saying the word "age" with a final "j" sound. Use the recording below to practice.
You’ve mastered the past tense verbs. You’ve changed see to saw, am to was, and added the “-ed” for the regular past tense. You’ve read, learned, written, and spoken: but did you say it correctly? Even though we add two letters (“ed”) to make a verb past tense, we usually only add one sound. Sometimes, it’s a voiced “d” sound, as in played or listened. Sometimes, the “ed” is pronounced as the unvoiced “t” sound, as in “looked.” When the sound preceding the “ed” is voiceless, like the “k” in “look,” the “ed” will also be voiceless. When it is a vowel or voiced consonant, such as in play or listen, the “ed” will also be voiced. But when the verb ends with a t or d, we add a syllable, pronouncing the “e” as well as the “d,” and is “treated” or “headed.” Look at the lists below for more examples, or listen to the recording to practice the correct pronunciation.
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When a native Spanish speaker speaks English, they are likely to have some difficulty producing the “v” sound. In Spanish “b” and “v” make the same sound. In English, “v” has its own distinct sound. To make an American-sounding “v,” try placing your upper teeth on your lower lip. Use your voice and blow air over your lip. Looking in the mirror can help you see if you are making the sound correctly. Now try an American “b” sound – put both lips together, then use your voice and pop your lips open. These words are good for practicing the difference between “v” and “b”: vote, boat; vend, bend; vat, bat; dove, dub; vase, base. Click on the audio file to hear the difference and try for yourself!
English prepositions have specific meanings in some contexts (out: from the inside to the outside of something), but how do you know which preposition to use in a verb phrases? Errors in prepositions are common for non-native English speakers, because they are idiomatic and don’t necessarily follow a logical pattern. Beyond memorizing, how can you figure out which word to use? Don't stress out, there are ways to figure out what's up.
Over the long run, reading, listening for prepositions when talking with native speakers or watching tv or movies, and practicing their use will get you most of the way. When you learn a new verb, adjective or noun, find out which prepositions are used with it and learn them as well.
When you encounter an immediate question, ask a native speaker, or use a learner’s dictionary that lists the prepositions together with the word in question. Some useful resources are Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Collins Cobuild Dictionary. Online, you can use http://www.learnersdictionary.com/ or http://www.ldoceonline.com/ to help you know which is the correct preposition. Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it in no time!
A common issue for non-native English speakers is the pronunciation of words that end in the letter “s.” Written words can lead us astray, as letters stand for different sounds in different contexts. When a word ends with the letter “s,” it is frequently pronounced with voicing, or what we think of as the “z” sound. Here are some guidelines for knowing when to say “sss” and when to say “zzz.”
The word ends with “ss”: Pronounce “sss.” Examples: glass, across, less, miss
The word ends with “ce”: Pronounce “sss.” Examples: ice, face, space
The word ends with “se”: These words are split.
For some, pronounce “zzz.” Examples: because, these, close
For others, pronounce “sss.” Examples: house, goose, lease
When in doubt, use your online dictionary resources to listen to the correct pronunciation of the word.
The word ends with “s”: These words are split.
For most, pronounce “zzz.” Examples: is, was, has, says, goes
For some, pronounce “sss.” Examples: us, yes
When in doubt, use your online dictionary resources to listen to the correct pronunciation of the word.
For plurals, the “s” or “z” sound depends on the voicing of the letter preceding the “s.” So the word “goods” has a “z” pronunciation, because the “d” is voiced. But the word “gets” has an “s” pronunciation because the “t” is voiceless.
Accented speech always contains vowel errors. Vowels can be tricky to correct, because they do not have obvious placement targets for your mouth. We also have to overcome the mapping in our brains. We actually hear a different vowel than is being spoken when we listen to a foreign language. This is because our brain likes to sort the vowel sounds into our own familiar sound system. When learning American English, it is helpful to create word sets and re-organize how we hear vowels. A good place to start is to listen to the vowels by themselves. You can find recordings of words and isolated vowel sounds online. Check out this handy chart with recorded vowel sounds created at the University of Kansas.
Every accent has its own distinct character, but often one of the elements that can make you hard to understand has to do with the ends of words. In American English, we usually pronounce sounds at end of a word, unless the word ends with a silent “e” (such as in the words name, goose, slice) or the word has been adopted into English from a foreign language (such as the words bourgeois, gourmet). A common error found in many foreign accents is de-voicing final consonants (for example, saying “bet” instead of “bed”), saying the final sound of the word too softly or leaving it off entirely. This error can be compounded by the speaker’s lack of confidence and desire not to call attention to his or her accent.
Practice reading aloud, and slow down enough to say all of the sounds you see in the written words. You will feel your mouth moving more than you are used to. Next, try having a short conversation using this same technique. You may find that people can understand what you are saying better because you are putting the end sounds on your words.
One of the most commonly mispronounced sounds in American English is the "th" sound. This is likely due to the fact that the “th” phonemes are rare sounds, not found in most European and Asian languages. When we do not have a sound in our own language, the natural tendency to substitute a similar sound, such as “z,” “d” or “t.” Unfortunately, this has a big impact on accent, because the “th” sound is found in 20% of the 25 words we say the most in English. The most commonly used word, “the,” begins with this sound. So when we mispronounce “th,” it is very noticeable in everyday speech.
Common mispronunciations of this sound involve improper tongue placement. To make the “th” sound, the tip of the tongue needs to rest between the teeth. Try making the “th” sound by itself. First make the “quiet th,” as in the words “think” and “with.” Then add voicing to make voiced “th,” as in “that,” “them” and “the.”
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