by Alysia Bartley

10 Secrets to Learning the Canadian (& American) Accent

Disguised

We hear a lot about accents in speaking a language.  But, what do we really mean by the word accent?

A. Specific words such as bubbler to mean water fountain unique to an area

B. Certain letters that are put together to make a sound in the spelling of words used in a community

C. Way of pronunciation by a speaker with shared characteristics of a certain locality

Definition of Accent

If you picked the last choice, then you are correct. An accent is the way of pronunciation by a speaker with shared characteristics of a certain locality within the community. Learning English is about practicing exactly how to say the words to reflect how a native speaker would say them. In this blog, I am going to share with you some secrets to learning an American accent so when you pronounce words in English you will sound just like Anglophones living in a community somewhere in the US.  Rest assured that you can learn the American accent – any accent for that matter.  Just ask Diane Kruger, a German actress who often has said, You can learn any accent you want.  It’s a fascinating thing!

Woman looking at arrows on a wall

 

Assessment of your accent

Firstly, let’s do a quick reflection of our accent when we speak English. How often during the day does someone ask you to repeat what you have just said?  Think about how many times you must repeat something, maybe a name or an item on a list, before the listener understands what you mean? Do you notice this?  How does it make you feel?  Does it motivate you to change and work on your accent?  Or, does it make you self-conscious enough to prevent you from taking the necessary risks to speak English?  You may often find yourself thinking: I feel uncomfortable…I don’t understand the rules…It’s not possible…Why should I have to say it that way…People will laugh at me…I tried and can’t…I forgot…

No more! Let me reassure you that you are not alone.  Once you learn where to focus your attention, your English will sound more natural and you will undoubtedly be understood.  Perhaps these 10 secrets will help.

Secret #1 – Listen to the sounds and rhythms of the language

Sometimes it helps to close your eyes and really listen to how the English words sound.   How you hear the language is how you will speak it. That is one hint in how to speak with an American accent. You could listen to others speak or listen to lectures, audio books, songs, or poetry. Even TV shows and movies can expose you to authentic conversations.  Any and all means of hearing native English speakers speak English will help you with your accent.

Secret #2 – Practice useful phrases

Another example is to practice at least 5-10 different phrases so you don’t have to use the same one all the time.  Try writing down a few words you say most often and then listen to see how these are accurately said.  Perhaps some of these words would be on your list…I know they would be on my list.

Ah, I see…

Really?

Oh, that’s interesting!

Got it.

Oh, yeah!

Fair enough.

Right.

Good point.

You don’t say.

Oh, no!

That’s just too bad.

Secret #3 – Know when to use some common non-words

In the English language there are some common non-words that are used often, and in many different ways.  Have you heard some of these words before?  How these words are pronounced and what they mean have a lot to do with the stress on the syllables when you pronounce the words.

See if you can say these words.  The picture clues will help you.  From this exercise, you can see that sometimes you use the same word, but how you say the word implies a completely different meaning.  These pronunciations are shown using what is called staircase intonation.  In other words, you say the words as if they were going up or down the stairs.  If you put the sounds on two stair steps, you lengthen the sound.   Lots of words start high and end low or vice versa.  When you want to stress new words or ideas, you start a new staircase.  Also, when you ask a question, the question rises at the end of the statement like What should we eat? Or Where is my car? Try practicing these useful non-words.  Then, be brave and use them in public.  Watch the reaction of those you are conversing with.  Do they understand what you mean by what you say?

Secret #4 – Listen to a recording and then compare yours

Another suggestion is to listen to a recording of a native speaker.  You can start with one sentence at a time.  Now it’s your turn to repeat the same sentence.  When you think it most clearly matches the model sentence, record your sentence. Then play it and see how closely your speech matches the native speaker’s.  Concentrate on the intonation and pronunciation. As you gain skill and make progress, add longer sentences with more complex words.

No matter what language you speak, you will have different sounds and rhythms than in English.  As you become more familiar with root-words and how letter groupings should be pronounced, you will find yourself more confident using those sounds in everyday speech.  You will be able to transfer the sounds and patterns to other words, increasing the ease with which you will retain the English accent.

Secret #5 – Learn pronunciation rules

If you just don’t get how a word is pronounced or why it is said a certain way, look the word up in a dictionary or online, and try to see from the pronunciation clues why the word is said a certain way.  You might want to find similar and related words so you can further practice the sound.  For example, if you have difficulty saying the word “main”, then you can work on rhyming words like “pain” and “rain”.

Perhaps you are familiar with Eliza Doolittle, a fictional character in the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (1912) or the musical version of the play My Fair Lady, and how Eliza learns the English accent by repeatedly saying, “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.”

Secret #6 – Master your pronunciation skills with tongue twisters

Try repeating some of these favorites to train your tongue to say words quickly. Try to imagine the words in different situations. You can also make up and practice your own phrases using a target sound.  For example, if you have trouble saying words with the vowel /I/  try a tongue twister of your own like I wish to wash my Irish wristwatch. Or if you have trouble with the /tt/ sound, you could try A bottle of bottled water held little water but the little water the bottle held was bottled. Here are some others you might enjoy saying:

  • Peter Piper picked a pack of pickled peppers.  How many packs of pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?
  • She sells seashells by the seashore.
  • A black bug bit a big black bear but where is the big black bear that the big black bug bit?
  • Betty bought butter but the butter was bitter, so Betty bought better butter to make the bitter butter better.
  • A skunk sat on a stump. The stump thought the skunk stunk and the skunk thought the stump stunk. What stunk?  The stump or the skunk?
  • A sailor wet to sea to see what he could see.  All he could see was the bright blue sea, sea, sea.
  • I thought I was thinking of thinking of thanking you.
  • Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear.  Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair…Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?
  • I scream.  You scream.  We all scream for ice cream!
  • How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Secret #7 – Read aloud to polish the accent of different words

Newspaper articles, short stories or your favorite book written in English can be read out loud.  As you read, you can practice saying the words by concentrating on the correct accent.  If you have a question on how a word should be pronounced, make note of it and then study it later.  Again, you could look in a dictionary for help or ask an English-speaking friend.

Secret #8 – Join a conversation group

Maybe you have a few friends who also want to work on their American accents.  How about starting a conversation group?  You could meet weekly or monthly just to talk, or you could have a different focus for your meetings.  Maybe you might want to eat at an American restaurant and talk around the food.  Maybe you could meet at each other’s houses and talk about current events or a book.  Make it a rule not to speak in your native language at all costs.  Whatever you have a common interest in, and whatever helps with your English-speaking, this would work out great.

Secret #9 – Cultivate an English-speaking friend

Maybe there are some native English-speaking people at a local recreation center, sports club, or your own neighborhood.  Invite them out for coffee, perhaps it will be the start of a new friendship.  You can learn so much from someone who knows the language and the culture.  You might ask them about how to say a certain word, what an expression means, and even encourage them to tell you when you say a word incorrectly.  Just by having casual everyday conversation with an English-speaker would help you with your accent.

Secret #10 – Take a class

And the last secret is to take a class.  There is no excuse for you to not take one; many classes are tailored to your specific needs.  There are convenient times and a whole range of prices that are guaranteed to fit anyone’s budget.   Time spent in class will offer a chance to work on reducing your accent’s interference speaking English with like-minded students.  The teacher can help you with any area of concern.  Don’t forget that you are never too old to improve and you are not alone in wanting to study English.

Recall when I asked if you often find yourself saying…I feel uncomfortable…I don’t understand the rules…It’s not possible…Why should I have to say it that way?…People will laugh at me…I tried and can’t…I forgot…? Well, by taking a class at a community center or local college, or online through a qualified English-learning programs like TalktoCanada.com, you will banish the negative thinking and realize that You can feel comfortable, that You do understand the rules, that It is possible!  You will know why you have to say a sound or word a certain way, People will not laugh at you, You will try and do it…and You will remember!

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I look forward to reading your comments submitted in the box below. (Uh huh, I really do.)  Feel free to share a story (uh huh) about what works for you in learning the American accent.

About the author:

Alysia is a co-founder of TalktoCanada. Since founding the online English teaching company in 2006, she has gone on to teach over 10,000 hours of online classes and managed large and small English training projects around the world. During her free time you can find her listening to the latest business book, travelling and going to the gym.

  • samir

    Alysia firstly i would like to say warm thanks to you for this gr8 blog! and secondly i am adding one point here for those people who want to learn natural American accent is that to crying like an American kids and keep practicing by imitating them; surely it will get natural accent and much faster.

    • Alysia Bartley

      That’s a great tip, Samir! Thanks for sharing!