Simple changes can often be the most effective.
This is a guiding principle in most everything I do, including accent and communication coaching.
So often we think that we need to make big, dramatic changes in order to get the results we want.
This mindset can keep us from taking action because we think that we’re further from our goals than we actually are.
When it comes to improving your accent and sounding more like a native English speaker, subtle shifts can have a big impact on how people perceive you, and whether or not they understand you.
In this video, we’re going to talk about three simple changes you can make in order to sound more American when speaking English.
And I’m going to share them with you in today’s video. So let’s get started!
#1: Move your mouth on long vowels and diphthongs.
One of the most effective ways to improve your accent and sound more American is to move your mouth more when pronouncing vowel sounds, especially long vowels and diphthongs.
I once heard someone say that Americans clearly pronounce their vowels while Brits clearly pronounce their consonants.
Whether that’s true or not, increasing how much you move your mouth when saying vowel sounds will definitely help you sound more natural.
Remember, when we stress or emphasize a syllable, we make the vowel sound longer, louder, and higher in pitch with extra clarity.
In other words, moving your mouth more on vowel sounds is a simple way to speak clearly and be more easily understood.
Let’s talk about how and why you need to move your mouth more when saying these vowel sounds in American English.
Understanding Pure Vowels and Off-Glides
Even if your native language has similar vowels to English, chances are these are what we call pure vowels.
This basically means that your mouth stays in one position when pronouncing the sound.
On the other hand, long vowels in English are what we call off-glides.
This means that our mouth moves from the main vowel sound to form a shape at the end of the vowel.
We also do this when pronouncing diphthongs, which by definition contain two different vowel sounds.
Let’s look at some examples so that you can see and hear what I mean.
Practicing Long Vowels in American English
Let’s start with the sound /eɪ/ as in “day” or “train.”
As you can see in the video, you mouth moves into the “y” shape when you pronounce this vowel sound: /eɪ/
Your mouth moves more on this particular sound than a more pure vowel where your mouth stays more or less in the same position.
Your mouth opens to the “y” shape. It almost looks like your mouth is smiling. 😀
When you first start adding this shaping to the vowel sounds at the end, it can feel a little uncomfortable at first.
But it’s absolutely essential to pronouncing the vowels accurately in English. Let’s try it again: day, day, day, train, train, train.
As you can see, your mouth needs to move through different shapes.
Let’s practice with the /iː/ sound, as in the words “see” and “between.”
Your mouth moves once again to the “y” shape at the end of that vowel sound: see, between.
Your mouth opens into the “y” position and then closes back down when you’re done with the sound.
Now let’s look at /aɪ/, as in “sky” and “why.”
Once again, your mouth will open into that “y” shape at the end of the diphthong, and then close back down afterwards: sky, why.
As you can see, moving your mouth more on those vowel sounds helps you pronounce them more clearly.
Let’s move on to the /oʊ/ sound, as in the words “no” and “though.”
Unlike the previous three vowels, we add the “w” shape to the end of the “o” sound.
I often think of this shape as a fish opening and closing its mouth: o, no, though.
As you can see, adding the additional vowel shaping at the end of the vowel sound helps you pronounce the word accurately.
Now let’s talk about the /uː/ sound, as in “too” and “soon.”
Like the “o,” we add the shape of the “w” onto the end of this vowel sound: oo, too, soon.
As you can see, adding the shape of the “w” to the end of this vowel makes it clear what vowel sound you’re saying.
Practicing Diphthongs in American English
Now let’s look at some diphthongs.
Let’s start with the /ɔɪ/ sound, as in the word “boy” or “choice.”
Your mouth needs to move through all of these different shapes to pronounce the sound more accurately.
You’ll end the sound with your mouth in the “y” position: oi, boy, choice.
Next, let’s talk about the “ou” sound, as in “about” and “loud.”
As you can see, your mouth moves to the “w” shape at the end of that vowel sound: about, loud.
Moving your mouth more when pronouncing this sound will help you get it right.
Last, let’s talk about the /juː/ sound, as in the words “few” and “university.”
As you can see, your mouth needs to start in the “y” shape, move to the /uː/ sound, and end with the “w” shape.
This is a really tricky sound for many non-native speakers because you have to move your mouth through so many different shapes on this particular vowel.
Practice Vowel Shaping at the End of Vowel Sounds
If you find it challenging to pronounce these vowel sounds, you just need to practice!
Take some time to make a list of words you use all the time that contain these vowel sounds. Practice adding the shaping at the end of the vowels.
With time, this will get easier, it will feel more natural, and it won’t feel like you’re forcing this additional shape at the end of the vowels.
Creating this glide with your mouth at the end of the sound does more than help you pronounce them accurately.
It also helps you create a natural-sounding transition between stressed and unstressed syllables.
On top of that, when you create the right shape at the end of these vowel sounds, it looks right to a native English speaker who may be reading your lips or watching your mouth in order to follow what you’re saying.
Moving your mouth more on vowel sounds really helps people understand you.
With short vowel sounds in American English, we often include a little bit of vowel shaping at the end of these sounds as well, although it’s not as exaggerated.
After all, short vowel sounds are more relaxed and require less mouth movement.
To get started, focus on moving your mouth more on long vowels and diphthongs and words you use all the time.
Test it out for yourself and see if native speakers find it easier to understand you.
I have a feeling you’re going to be very happy with the results!
#2: Soften your “t” sounds and use the flap “t.”
One of the most obvious characteristics of American English is how we pronounce or even change the “t” sound.
When you first learn the “t” sound, you often learn it as a strong aspirated sound.
That means you should feel a puff of air leaving your mouth when you tap your tongue to the ridge of your mouth.
In order to check if you are producing this puff of air at the end of the sound, you can put your hand in front of your mouth and see if you can feel your breath touch your hand; you can put a mirror in front of your mouth and watch to see if you fog up the mirror; or you can put a piece of paper in front of your mouth and see if your breath moves the paper.
This strong “t” sound is perfectly fine when the sound appears at the beginning of a word, which is when the sound is most distinct and most obvious:
But when you say the “t” sound too forcefully, it can sound aggressive, like you’re spitting like a camel: time, today, talk, ten, too.
Do you hear the difference from the way I said the sound earlier in the video?
In order to sound more natural, I want you to see if you can back off of that “t” sound a little bit.
You’ll still release a puff of air, but it will sound less obvious.
Pronouncing the “T” Sound at the Middle or End of Words
Beyond that, when the “t” sound appears in the middle or at the end of a word, it often sounds a little softer.
Listen to how I just said the word “softer.” I didn’t say “softer” with a really aggressive “t” sound, I said “softer, softer.”
Pull it back a little when pronouncing the “t” sound.
Here are a few more examples:
As you can hear in the video, I’m not pronouncing the “t” sound in the middle of these words very forcefully.
I’m saying it just enough so that you can understand what sound I’m using.
Pronouncing the “T” Sound at the End of Words
When the “t” sound appears at the end of the word, you want to make sure your mouth ends in the “t” position without releasing air afterwards.
If you pronounce the “t” sound strongly at the end of the word, you may actually add an additional sound to the end of the word, like the schwa /ə/ or “uh” sound.
That means the word is going to sound off because you’re adding an extra syllable.
Let’s look at a few examples:
As you can see in the video, your mouth needs to end in the “t” position.
Your tongue will still touch the ridge of my mouth, but you won’t release air at the end of these particular words.
This is especially obvious when one of these words comes at the end of your sentence.
You want to end in the “t” position without releasing that extra air at the end.
Pulling back from the “t” sound will help you sound more American. Once again, try to be more gentle when pronouncing the sounds.
Pronouncing the Flap “T” in American English
Of course, we can’t forget to mention one of the most obvious characteristics of American English, the flap “t.”
The flap “t” is when the “t” sound converts into a soft “d” sound, when your tongue taps against the ridge of your mouth.
The flap “t” happens between vowel sounds, after the “r” sound, and often after the “n” sound.
Here are some examples:
While people will definitely understand you if you fully pronounce the “t” sound in those examples, it will make you sound more British.
Learning to use the flap “t” will help you sound more American.
Pay attention to words where you hear this flap “t” and practice them.
By the way, you can apply this suggestion to soften the “t” sound to other consonant sounds as well.
Think about how you can pronounce consonants a little more gently, especially at the end of words.
#3: Change your pitch consistently.
Last but not least, let’s talk about how you can change your pitch in order to sound more American.
In order to sound more natural, you want to include more pitch variation when speaking.
As you can hear, we consistently move between pitch levels when speaking English.
While this is true in British English, Australian English, and other varieties of English, Americans tend to sound much more expressive.
To improve how you sound, you want to start experimenting with how you use pitch:
- Be sure to increase your pitch on the most important words in your speech.
- Try shifting your pitch up when you’re asking a question for clarification or confirmation.
- Try shifting your pitch down at the end of your statements or when asking for information.
- See how you can pronounce words more clearly by increasing your pitch on stressed syllables, in addition to those extra clear vowel sounds we just practiced.
Be sure to check out the links above for guidelines you can follow for word and sentence stress and rising and falling intonation.
But first, I want you to start experimenting so that you get more comfortable with changing your pitch and get more control over how you use your voice.
When you start playing around with pitch, you start seeing how powerful it is.
Think about other non-native speakers who you think have a good accent. A big part of that is how much pitch variation they include when speaking English.
Once again, simply start experimenting and see if it changes how people perceive you.
So let’s review these three simple changes you can make in order to sound more American when speaking English:
- First, move your mouth more on long vowels and diphthongs. This additional shaping at the end of vowel sounds will help you pronounce words more accurately.
- Next, soften the way you use the “t” sound, especially in the middle or at the end of words. Try using the flap “t” on words you use all the time. This is a really noticeable characteristic of American English.
- Finally, change your pitch consistently throughout your speech. Increase your pitch on stressed syllables of key words. Let your pitch rise when asking for clarification or confirmation, and fall when you’re giving or asking for information.
That’s how you’re going to start feeling more comfortable.
What other questions do you have about sounding more American? What advice has helped you sound more natural? Leave a comment and let me know.