I have a question for you, and I need you to be honest with me:
Do you think Americans are loud?
If you answered “yes,” don’t worry! I completely agree with you.
Whether we’re living our daily lives in the United States or traveling abroad, many non-native speakers hear Americans like me speaking English and they turn, look at us, and stare.
Americans are so loud!
I first noticed this when I moved to Argentina fifteen years ago. I would walk around Buenos Aires with my American friends, and I realized that everyone was staring at us.
My friends spoke both English AND Spanish with this incredibly high volume.
( As a shy person, I didn’t like attracting attention, so I controlled my volume more. But let’s be honest – I definitely don’t when I’m in my own country. 😳)
But while you may think Americans are loud, the truth is, you’re probably not speaking loud enough!
Why Volume Matters when Speaking English
Volume plays an important role in speaking English clearly and effectively communicating ideas.
We use different levels of loudness to signal which words are important, what we want you to understand from our meaning, and which ideas most require your attention.
Culturally, being loud is something that Americans are used to.
While there are shy, quiet Americans just like in any other culture, most people expect you to speak up and express yourself using a variety of different levels of volume.
If you want to be understood by native English speakers, you need to start thinking more carefully and intentionally about your volume.
How We Use Volume to Create English Rhythm
Beyond emphasizing important words or concepts, volume is also necessary when creating the natural rhythm of English.
After all, volume is an essential element of word stress.
When we stress a word, we make one syllable l-o-n-g-e-r, LOUDER, and higher in pitch.
(If you need more guidance on stress, start with my detailed article and video on Word Stress in American English.)
Today, we’re going to focus on LOUDER.
Even in a two-syllable word like “focus,” one syllable is l-o-n-g-e-r, LOUDER, and higher in pitch. To say focus correctly, you need to increase the volume on the stressed syllable, FO, in order to pronounce it correctly.
If you don’t make one syllable louder, the word is going to sound “off,” even if your pronunciation, vowel length, and pitch are all correct.
This increase in volume and emphasis on making one syllable LOUDER continues throughout the sentence.
The content words, or the most important words in the sentence, are the ones that receive this extra stress, emphasis, and volume.
(You can learn all about the difference between content words and function words in Sentence Stress in American English.)
The increase in volume makes it clear which words are the most important in the sentence.
You can make stressed syllables l-o-n-g-e-r and higher in pitch, but if you’re not consistently making them LOUDER, it’s going to be hard for native English speakers to understand you.
The good news? It’s easier to make a stressed syllable louder than it is to consistently make them longer or higher in pitch.
If you’re trying to reduce your accent in English, you probably want to start with your volume!
Why Your Volume Might Be Low
When you’re speaking a language that isn’t your first, you might feel a little embarrassed about your accent. (That’s how I used to feel when speaking Spanish.)
If you feel shy, you might decide to reduce the volume of your speech.
But this can actually just make matters more confusing! When native speakers can’t hear you, the problem is NOT actually your accent, it’s the fact that your volume is really low.
As we discussed earlier, native English speakers expect to hear more volume variety because it’s an essential part of how the language works.
So here’s the tough love: YOU NEED TO SPEAK UP.
You have to speak louder because we’re used to hearing people speak at a higher volume.
If you speak at a higher volume, we’re much more likely to understand you!
It really is that simple!
(By the way, this topic was recommended by a native Russian speaker who is currently living in the United States. She told me, “You have to tell your followers that they need to speak more loudly!” So now you know.)
Using Volume for Effect
In addition to using your volume to create more accurate word stress and to ensure native speakers can actually hear you, you can also use volume for effect.
First of all, volume can be used in combination with intonation in order to make certain syllables or certain words more clear.
Using louder volume helps you bring extra attention to your emotions and attitude and emphasizes which words are most important.
Varying your volume can also create more interest when you’re speaking.
Think about when you listen to actors on television shows and movies. How do they use different levels of volume?
Sometimes you speak more quietly because what you’re saying is a little bit secret.
Other times, you speak with so much emotion and energy because you’re angry or you’re excited or there’s some other attitude that you want to express through your volume.
Even if you’re not acting, but you’re giving a presentation or leading a meeting, you can signal which words are most important with your volume. You can direct your listener’s ear to the points which most require their attention and which you’re most concerned that they hear!
In the video, I play with volume a little bit to show you that changing up your volume beyond using word and sentence stress correctly can help native English speakers pay more attention to what you’re saying.
(I also talk more about the importance of volume in my article on Seven Ways to Use Your Voice and Breath to Sound More Professional in English.)
You Need to Increase Your Volume
Remember, if you speak with a meek, little, small voice, nobody can hear what you’re saying and we’re not going to listen to you.
It’s not personal, it’s not your accent, it’s not that you’re a foreigner, it’s very simply that we can’t hear you!
I really want you to consider your volume from now on.
Think about how you can speak more clearly, more loudly, with more volume and with more control of how you sound when you’re speaking.
(You may want to consider the other reasons that native speakers can’t understand you or your accent.)
I hope this helps you understand why Americans tend to be so loud when speaking – and why you need to speak up too.
You *can* control your own volume in order to speak English a little bit more clearly and ensure that you’re understood by native English speakers.
Now it’s your turn! Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you didn’t speak loudly enough?
Has anyone ever asked you to speak up? Have you attempted to increase your volume already? How do you feel when you do so?
Leave a comment below and share your experiences with volume when speaking English.