Improve Your American Accent 🇺🇸 Advanced Pronunciation Secrets for a More Natural Accent

So you’ve been working on your accent and trying to sound more American when speaking English!

You’ve been fixing your consonants, working on your vowel sounds, and even starting to play around with how you use your voice.

But you feel like you might be missing some essential elements of the American accent, some secrets that would help you get even closer towards your goals.

You’re right!

These four secrets will help you sound more American by slightly changing how you use your voice.

These subtle details will take practice, but it’s definitely worth it. Let’s get started!


#1 Speak With More Contrast By Lengthening Stressed Syllables

The first thing you can do to have an American accent is to speak with more contrast.

Specifically, you want to create more contrast by lengthening stressed syllables, and relaxing on the rest.

Stress is when we emphasize one syllable more than the others by making it longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with an extra clear vowel sound.

Stressing the right syllables helps you pronounce words correctly so that people can understand you better.

For example, consider how we say these words:

  • toDAY
  • aMAzing
  • communiCAtion.

Stressing the right syllables of your most important words will help you clearly communicate your meaning.

In my experience, many non-native speakers struggle to really lengthen the stressed syllables.

They’re used to pronouncing each syllable evenly with regular beats between them.

However, in order to speak with the natural rhythm of American English, you need more contrast between the stressed syllables and the unstressed or reduced ones.

We hold and linger on the stressed vowel sounds, and relax on the rest.

Try saying these words by hooooolding the stressed syllable:

  • toDAY
  • aMAzing
  • communiCAtion.

In American English, the beats come between these stressed syllables. In order to get the right rhythm, you need to lengthen the stressed syllables, and relax on the rest.


Practice Contrast Between Stressed and Unstressed/Reduced Syllables

Let’s practice so that you can get a feel for what I mean.

Take a moment and think about the most important words in this sentence:

The last time I went on vacation, I missed my flight, and had to spend the night in a hotel.

Some words will communicate the meaning, while others are just part of the grammar structure.

Which words would you emphasize to make your meaning clear?

If the word is more than one syllable, which syllable should be stressed?

Here are the stressed syllables of the stressed words:

The LAST TIME I WENT on vaCAtion, I MISSED my FLIGHT, and HAD to SPEND the NIGHT in a hoTEL.

Try saying it again:

The LAST TIME I WENT on vaCAtion, I MISSED my FLIGHT, and HAD to SPEND the NIGHT in a hoTEL.

When we say this sentence, we have to lengthen the stressed syllables of the stressed words.

That includes one-syllable words. We use a lot of one- and two- syllable words in American English.

If you rush through these short words, you’ll sound staccato, clipped, or choppy.

It’s completely normal to rush through these words if you’re pretty fluent in English!

But in order to sound more American, make sure you’re lengthening the stressed syllables of stressed words, including one-syllable words.

Try it one more time:

The LAST TIME I WENT on vaCAtion, I MISSED my FLIGHT, and HAD to SPEND the NIGHT in a hoTEL.

Take your time and hold the stressed syllables.

Create contrast between your words.

With practice, this becomes more natural.

Here’s one more example:

This weekend I’m planning to go out to dinner and then see a movie with my friends.

Once again, take a look at this sentence and see if you can identify the most important words.

Which syllables of these words should be stressed?

Here are the stressed syllables of the stressed words:

THIS WEEKend I’m PLANning to go OUT to DINner and then see a MOvie with my FRIENDS.

Try saying it a few more times:

THIS WEEKend I’m PLANning to go OUT to DINner and then see a MOvie with my FRIENDS.

To sound even more American, be sure to practice contrast in volume, pitch, and how clearly you pronounce your vowels.

Check out this video all about contrast for more practice.


#2 Understand Vertical vs. Horizontal Speaking and How You Move Your Mouth

The next thing you can do to sound more American is consider how your mouth is moving when you speak.

Let’s talk about vertical versus horizontal speaking.

When I do accent consultations, I often notice that my clients are speaking with their mouths moving on the horizontal plane. ↔️

(Imagine if your face is frozen in a smile and pressed up against some glass.)

To sound more American, you need to move your mouth more vertically, up and down. ↕️

This is especially important on vowel sounds. There are vowel sounds that require you to move your mouth up and back, such as /eɪ/, /i/, and /aɪ/.

However, as you finish these vowel sounds, your mouth should close back down to a relaxed position, not end in a perma-smile.

Watch the video to see how I say /eɪ/, /i/, and /aɪ/.

Besides that vowel sounds like /oʊ/, /u/, /ɔɪ/, and /aʊ/ are more vertical sounds where our lips round.

You should feel your mouth rounding on the vertical plane, kind of like a fish.

Try repeating these vowels a few times: /oʊ/, /u/, /ɔɪ/, /aʊ/, /oʊ/, /u/, /ɔɪ/, and /aʊ/.

(Note: /ɔɪ/ is a diphthong that starts in a rounded position and ends in a more horizontal position.)

If you don’t drop your jaw and move into a more rounded shape, your vowels won’t sound natural.

And getting those long vowels and diphthongs right is a big part of sounding more American.


Stretch Your Mouth Vertically and Horizontally with Vowel Warmups

To help you practice the difference between these vowel sounds and how your mouth moves horizontally and vertically, you need to give your mouth a workout.

These vocal warmups will help you move your mouth more and give your voice more space to leave your mouth.

(If you want even more practice, these are the same vocal exercises that I teach in Find Your Voice in English.)

First, let’s start out by waking our mouths up.

We’re going to say the sound /ɑ/, like when you are opening your mouth for a doctor: /ɑ/, /ɑ/, /ɑ/.

As you can see in the video, I’m opening my mouth on that vertical plane: /ɑ/, /ɑ/, /ɑ/.

You really want to do your best to show your tonsils: /ɑ/, /ɑ/, /ɑ/.

Now we’re going to transition between the more horizontal vowel sounds and the vertical ones.

This is really going to help you stretch your mouth, your lips, and your jaw.

First, we’re going to move between /eɪ/ and /oʊ/, the sounds you hear in “day” and “no”: /eɪ/, /oʊ/, /eɪ/, /oʊ/, /eɪ/, /oʊ/, /eɪ/, /oʊ/.

The more you do this, the more you’re going to feel the muscles in your face.

It’s going to help you realize when your mouth is opening out and back, or up and down.

Keep practicing: /eɪ/, /oʊ/, /eɪ/, /oʊ/, /eɪ/, /oʊ/.

Now let’s move between /i/ and /u/, the sounds in “see” and “soon: /i/, /u/, /i/, /u/, /i/, /u/, /i/, /u/.

Keep practicing a few more times so that you can really notice the difference between the horizontal sounds and the vertical ones: /i/, /u/, /i/, /u/, /i/, /u/, /i/, /u/.

Last, we’re going to move between the /aɪ/ and /ɔɪ/ sounds. These are the sounds you hear in “sky” and “toy”: /aɪ/, /ɔɪ/, /aɪ/, /ɔɪ/, /aɪ/, /ɔɪ/, /aɪ/, /ɔɪ/.

(Note once again that the diphthong /ɔɪ/ sound starts in the rounded position of /ɔ/ and ends with the wider /ɪ/ shape. It requires a lot of mouth movement to get this sound right!)

Once again, you can feel the difference between your mouth opening out and back and up and down: /ai/, /oi/, /ai/, /oi/, /ai/, /oi/.

When you’re speaking English, pay attention to how much your mouth opens out.

You also want to notice if you’re holding tension in your face, even when it should be more relaxed.

Here’s another reason you need to pay attention to whether you’re speaking vertically or horizontally.

When your mouth opens out, it forces your larynx into a higher position, which can result in a nasally voice.

When you drop your jaw and move your mouth more forward, your voice will sound less nasal.


#3 Work on Your Resonance and Where You Direct Your Voice When Speaking English

That leads us into the third thing you can do to have a more American accent: work on your resonance.

Resonance is where your voice seems to vibrate when you’re speaking.

When we think about where we’re directing or placing our voice, the vocal system responds.

For the general American accent, you want your voice to resonate in the center of your mouth.

When you speak, direct the sound to the center of your mouth.

Aim up and out. Visualize where you’re directing the sound.

You should feel like the sound is filling the center of your mouth, and then moving forward and out.


Experiment with Resonance and Where You’re Directing Your Voice

Let me show you how resonance can change how you sound.

In the video, you can hear how my voice changes when I direct it to different places.

Remember that my normal resonance is at the center of my mouth.

Try it for yourself, repeating this simple sentence:

  • Mouth resonance: Every morning I make a big cup of tea and have some toast.
  • Chest resonance: Every morning I make a big cup of tea and have some toast.
  • Nasal resonance: Every morning I make a big cup of tea and have some toast.
  • Top of the head resonance: Every morning I make a big cup of tea and have some toast.
  • Back to normal resonance in the center of the mouth: Every morning I make a big cup of tea and have some toast.

When I bring the sound back to the center of my mouth, that’s when my voice sounds richest and fullest.

In fact, as I was practicing this exercise, I found it easier to direct the sound to the center of my mouth after I tried moving it around to other places.

You may notice that regional American accents resonate in different parts of the mouth, jaw, or head.

But I suggest you work on directing your voice to the center of your mouth. It will help you have a general American accent.


#4 Increase Pitch Variation and Use Pitch Intentionally for Stress and Intonation

The final secret that will help you sound more American is to increase your pitch variation.

Pitch is the highness or lowness of your voice, and it plays an important role in stress and intonation.

If you have very little pitch variation, your voice will sound more monotone.

In the video, listen to me say this sentence without much pitch variation: Every morning, I make a big cup of tea and have some toast.

With more pitch variation, you’ll sound more expressive and interesting.

Listen to the video again to hear me say this with lots of pitch variation: Every morning, I make a big cup of tea and have some toast.

When you’re first exploring your pitch, you may be tempted to just speak with more pitch overall.

But we actually change our pitch for emphasis and clarity, so you want to use it intentionally.

When words are unstressed because they don’t really matter, we speak at our baseline pitch, or where our pitch naturally rests.

In the example, it’s how I say the words “I,” “a,” “of,” “and,” “some”:

Every morning I make a big cup of tea and have some toast.

When a syllable is stressed, we move our pitch one step above the baseline pitch.

Listen to how I say “every,” “make,” “big,” “cup,” and “have” in the example:

Every morning, I MAKE a BIG CUP of tea and HAVE some toast.

When we’re saying the most important words in a thought group or idea, that’s when our pitch will rise to its highest level, two steps above the baseline.

Listen to how I say “morning,” “tea,” and “toast”:

Every MORning, I make a big cup of TEA and have some TOAST.

These rises and falls in pitch give English its natural melody.

\We also use changes in pitch to help people follow what we’re saying through intonation.

Listen to the rise after each idea, and the fall at the end.

Every morning, (rise) I make a big cup of tea (rise) and have some toast. (fall)

When we fall at the end, we hit our lowest pitch, one step below the baseline.

Every morning, (rise) I make a big cup of tea (rise) and have some toast. (fall)

As you work towards a more American accent, consider how you’re using your pitch.

Most people I work with are just moving between the two pitch levels, baseline and stress.

You need more pitch variety to sound more interesting, engaging, and of course, more American.


Your Turn

Now it’s your turn! Leave a comment and let me know which of these four American accent secrets you’re going to work on first!

For even more practice with vowels, pitch, stress, and intonation, check out these videos:

Want to work on your pitch and learn to use intonation to express yourself more clearly? Check out the five-day intonation challenge.

3 thoughts on “Improve Your American Accent 🇺🇸 Advanced Pronunciation Secrets for a More Natural Accent”

    • I’m glad to hear that you’ve been experimenting to see where you should direct your voice. By resonate at the center of your mouth, I mean when you are speaking and your mouth is open, to fill that middle space. However, keep in mind that resonance is not exactly precise; it’s about where you are directing your attention.. When you tell your voice where to go with your thoughts, the body responds. If focusing on the palate helps you and sounds good to you, that’s great! This is why experimenting is so important.

      Reply

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