Three Reasons You’re Mispronouncing Words in American English

If you’re like most people, you’re probably concerned that you’re not pronouncing words correctly in English.

After all, when we’re speaking another language, it can be hard to know if the sounds that we hear inside our heads are actually coming out correctly.

In my case, worrying about my accent in Spanish kept me from speaking confidently for many years.

That’s why I emphasize helping you speak more clearly so that you’re more easily understood by native English speakers.

I want you to feel more confident than I did when speaking Spanish!

In this article and video, I’m going to share three reasons you may be mispronouncing words in English.

My goal is to help point out these particular mistakes so that you can start focusing attention on them, work on them, and improve them.

That way you’ll feel a little more confident that you’re communicating as clearly as possible.

So let’s talk about the three reasons you may be mispronouncing words in English!

Reason #1: You’re making each syllable the same length.

The first reason is that you’re making each and every syllable the same length. This is a super common problem for non-native English speakers!

English is what we call a stress-timed language.

In a stress-timed language, the rhythm is measured by the beats in between stressed syllables.

Other languages are syllable-timed languages.

This means that the beats are counted between each syllable. These syllables are more or less the same length.

Take a moment and consider this question:

Is your language a syllable-timed language or a stress-timed language?

Chances are you speak a syllable-timed language.

So that means when you’re speaking English, you’re making each syllable the same length.

This means that you’re probably mispronouncing the word.

In English, words include stressed syllables, unstressed syllables, and reduced syllables.

Each word has one syllable that receives the most stress. This is when one syllable is longer, louder and higher in pitch.

If you’re making each syllable exactly the same length, you’re not pronouncing words in English correctly.

When we have a stressed syllable, the vowel sound is going to be incredibly clear and easy to understand. Like I said, it’s longer, louder and higher in pitch.

Longer words may also include unstressed syllables.

This is where these syllables are a little bit shorter, but the vowel sound is still clear.

You’ll also hear reduced syllables.

This is when we make the vowel sound like the schwa /ə/, which is the “uh” sound in “about,” or it sounds like “i,” or /ɪ/, like in my name.

Learn more about the difference between stressed, unstressed, and reduced syllables in my article and video on word stress in American English.

To pronounce words more accurately, you need to pay attention to the stressed syllable.

One syllable will be longer, louder and higher in pitch.

Let me just tell you that one of the reasons I have an accent when I speak Spanish is that I’m still stressing syllables like I would in English.

Spanish tends to have more even syllables.

In order to reduce my accent, I’m going to have to reduce the stress that I use naturally as a native English speaker. It doesn’t sound natural in Spanish!

So now that you’re aware of the importance of making sure one syllable is longer, louder and higher in pitch, let’s talk about reason number two.

Reason #2: You’re stressing the wrong syllable.

The second reason you may be mispronouncing words in English is that you’re stressing the wrong syllable.

Since you’ve probably been listening to English for years, whether you’re listening to music, watching TV or movies, or even interacting with native English speakers, your ear has started to adjust to stress.

You know it exists.

But if you’re mispronouncing a word, it may not actually be your articulation of sounds, or the particular pronunciation of consonant and vowel sounds.

Instead, you may actually be putting stress on the wrong syllable.

A common example I hear is the word “hotel.”

Many non-native speakers stress the word like HO-tel; in other words, they put stress on the first syllable.

This may be interference from how stress works in their native language or simply how it’s pronounced in their native language.

But in American English we pronounce the word “hotel” with stress on the second syllable.

You’ll notice that “tel” is longer, louder and higher in pitch: ho-TEL.

A longer example is the word “experience.”

Some people stress the first syllable EX-per-i-ence, but it should be stressed like this: ex-PER-i-ence.

You want to make sure the second syllable – ex-PER-i-ence – is longer, louder and higher in pitch.

If you shift around the stress, the word is going to sound off even if you pronounce every single vowel and consonant correctly.

Another example is the word, “education.” Native speakers stress the “a”: e-du-CA-tion.

Sometimes non-native speakers stress a different syllable like ED-u-ca-tion and it doesn’t sound natural. In the video, you can hear it sounds a little weird.

Make sure you stress the correct syllable!

A fourth common, related example is the word “university.” Sometimes non-native speakers say UN-i-ver-si-ty, but native English speakers say u-ni-VER-si-ty.

If you don’t stress the correct syllable, it may be a little hard to understand you and it’s going to make the word sound off.

Reason #3: You’re substituting a consonant sound from your native language.

A third reason you may be mispronouncing words in English is that you are substituting a consonant from your native language.

At times, there is some overlap between the consonant sounds you use in your native language and the ones we use in English, but most of the time, they’re similar, but not quite right.

When you’re first learning a language, it’s very common to find a similar sound by using a very similar mouth position.

This helps make it a little easier to try to get the sound out correctly when you’re getting started with an unfamiliar language.

But as you continue to advance and you want to improve how you sound and reduce your accent, you’re going to need to stop substituting these intermediate sounds.

In fact, sometimes the sound you’re using from your native language isn’t formed exactly the same way we would shape the sound in our mouths in English. So it comes out sounding like an intermediate sound.

A super common example for speakers of Asian languages is substituting the “l” sound for the “r” sound or the “r” sound for the “l” sound.

Both of those sounds are more or less in the same position in your mouth, which is why it’s so easy to use the wrong one!

I’m not going to get into too many details here, but just pay attention when you say the word “really.”

Consider if you are making sure to say “really” like we would in English, putting the “r” inside our mouth, that American “r,” and sticking your tongue out to make that “l” sound: REAL-ly.

An example for Spanish speakers is the “v” sound in the word “very.” Sometimes native Spanish speakers substitute the “b” sound like in “berry.”

Instead of saying “very,” they say “berry” because they don’t form the “v” by putting their teeth on their bottom lip. (Watch the video to see what I mean!)

A lot of non-native English speakers struggle with the “th” sound. Instead of saying “three,” they say “tree,” or instead of saying “thing,” they say “ting.”

They’re substituting a different sound that’s close enough in order to get as close to the word as possible.

While this may not affect whether or not somebody can understand you, it doesn’t sound like the way a native speaker would say it.

A good way to practice these sounds is to look up “minimal pairs” and practice clearly distinguishing between these two sounds.

Of course, there are many more possible reasons that you’re mispronouncing words in English, but I just wanted to give you a few ideas of what to pay attention to so you can get started reducing your accent!

Three Reasons You May Be Mispronouncing Words in English

Let’s review the three reasons we’ve discussed today:

  1. First, you may be making each syllable exactly the same length. Like I said, English is a stress-timed language. That means that one syllable is longer, louder and higher in pitch. In order to create the natural rhythm of English, you’re going to need to make sure one syllable is longer. (Learn more about word stress in American English.)
  2. The second reason is that you may be stressing the wrong syllable, even if you’re aware of word stress and you’re starting to include it in your speech. If you’re mispronouncing a word, it’s not always because you’re NOT using stress. It’s because you’re using stress on the wrong syllable! You may need to check your stress on words you find difficult to pronounce.
  3. Last, you may be mispronouncing a word because you’re substituting a related consonant or related sound from your native language. You may need to just practice how to move your mouth through the right shape in order to pronounce the sound the way it is in English.

Your Turn

Now it’s your turn! Can you think of any reasons you find it difficult to pronounce words in English? Have you fixed any of the mistakes you were making?

Leave a comment and share below!

To get started working on your accent, be sure to sign up for the free email course, Sound More Natural in English. In this five-day course, you’ll learn my top tips to help you sound more like a native speaker.

4 thoughts on “Three Reasons You’re Mispronouncing Words in American English”

  1. Thanks for sharing these points Kim. It’s interesting that 2 of them are related to word stress and not specific sounds, as English learners might imagine. What you say about the way you stress words in Spanish made me think of how English speakers speak French. We’re always tempted to stress one syllable of the word in particular and I think that’s why it’s easy to spot English natives speaking French – it’s not the only reason, but it’s a big one!

    • Exactly – we bring these habits from our native languages into the way we use our mouths and create sounds in our second languages. With so many different dialects in English, focusing too much on individual sounds can be distracting for most non-native speakers. Word stress really helps with clarity of speech, gives your mouth time to form different sounds, and is so much more important than many people think! 🙂


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