Overcoming the Challenges of Learning the American English Accent
English is often said to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. This is due to several reasons: 1)words in English are often pronounced differently than they are spelled, 2)even though there are rules for pronunciation, there are many exceptions to the rules and 3) some types of words (irregular plurals, irregular verbs) change completely and do not follow grammar rules (ex: goose-geese, see-saw). Because of the many exceptions to pronunciation and grammar rules, many words and grammatical forms must be memorized. This creates a language that can be very difficult to master!
The standard American English accent is considered the professional accent of the language and does not exist naturally in the United States. This is the accent that is taught to professional speakers, such as news broadcasters, public speakers, actors, etc. The region of the United States that comes closest to having the standard or “neutral” American English accent is considered to be the Midwest, around Michigan.
Not everyone who speaks English as a second language has an accent. Learning a new language comes easily to small children and children under the age of about 12 or 13 years old. This is because the part of the brain that is responsible for learning language is not fully developed until the early teen years. As we get older, it becomes more difficult to learn a new language. An adult learning English, therefore, will always have some accent. The amount of the accent will depend on several factors, such as: the age at which English was learned, the ease of learning new languages, and how much exposure the individual has with English.
We can often tell where a person is from by their accent. This is because each language has its own specific sound system and intonation patterns. When a person learns a new language, they naturally take their sound system and intonation patterns with them. They try to match the sounds from the new language with sounds from their native language. Because the new language naturally contains some sounds that are different than sounds in the native language, sounds cannot be matched exactly. This creates an accent and is why we can generally identify a person’s native language by their accent. For example, one can easily tell a Spanish accent from a Chinese accent because of the sound differences and intonation patterns.
There are certain sounds that tend to occur frequently in English and affect the American English accent more than others. The “r” sound is one of these, and is probably the most noticeable. It occurs in English as a consonant and vowel, and is also present in blends and diphthongs. It seems like the "r" is everywhere! The American English “r” sounds like “er” and is formed by rounding the lips and raising the middle of the tongue high in the back of the mouth. The tongue tip curls up, but does not touch the roof of the mouth. In many other languages, the “r” is formed by keeping the lips flat and placing the tip of the tongue just behind the upper front teeth, so that it sounds like a very quick “d” or several quick “d” sounds together. This is often called “rolling” or “trilling.” Because it sounds so different from the American English “r”, listeners often need more time to process and interpret this difference so that they can understand accents, such as Spanish, Russian, and Arabic, for example.
Other consonant sounds that can significantly impact an American English accent include differences in “t”, “d”, “th”, “w”, and “v”. Accented vowel sounds also affect American English, as heard in individuals from Africa and Jamaica, for example. These sounds also occur frequently in American English and can make a significant difference in speech intelligibility.
The goal of accent reduction isn’t necessarily to eliminate an accent, but to improve spoken English so that speech is clear and easy to understand. The bottom line is that an accent should not get in the way of communication, and the individual should feel confident when speaking in any situation.