The American Accent: How is it Different?

Learn about the common struggles non-native speakers face.

Lillian Diaz

1/1/20254 min read

Dear non-native speakers of English,

In this post, you will find the key parts to the American Accent. You will find that it is not a phonetic language, that it has a focus on stressed vs unstressed words and syllables, and that there are some common struggles for non-native speakers. These struggles include vowel sounds and all their variations, certain consonant sounds and reductions they might undergo (I’m looking at you, Letter T), the stress placement in words and in sentences, and finally the rhythm and melody of English.

English is not a phonetic language.

This means that the spelling of the words doesn’t necessarily tell you how they sound. Take, for example, the word “read.” In the present tense, it sounds like /reed/, and in the past tense, it sounds like /red/. Now think about the city Baton Rouge. In this context, “baton” sounds like /BA-n/ whereas when used in reference to the stick that dancers throw in the air during parades, it sounds like /buh-TAHN/. English pronunciation doesn’t rely on spelling as much as it relies on stress and function.

In English, there is a focus on stressed vs. unstressed.

Stress is another word for emphasis, so if a syllable or word is stressed, it is given emphasis. For example, in the word “banana,” we have three syllables (or three “parts”) in the word: ba-na-na. However, we don’t pronounce each syllable with the same emphasis and duration. When we say the word, “banana,” it sounds more like “buh-NA-nuh,” with the emphasis on the middle syllable. That middle syllable is longer in duration than the others. Notice also that the middle syllable is the only syllable that receives the true pronunciation of Short A, whereas the other syllables sound like Short U: /uh/. The reason the 1st and the 3rd “a” don’t sound like a true Short A is because they are in unstressed syllables. Oftentimes, unstressed syllables undergo reductions, or loss of their true sound.

English is focused on vowels more than consonants.

Many of my clients have trouble not because they cannot pronounce vowels correctly, but because they pronounce their vowels in a short, cut-off manner, giving more emphasis to the consonant sounds. This ends up making their speech sound clipped and intense. Especially in short words, like “not” and “but,” it is vital that you give enough duration to the vowels in order to be better understood.

Common struggles for non-native speakers include:

  • 5 vowels, numerous variations. The vowel U, for example, has more than 4 different sounds just by itself. Pair it with other vowels, and you’ll find even more variations. Some examples include: hug (short U), huge (long U), rumor (relaxed long U), and push (relaxed short U). Furthermore, a common misconception is that long vowels are longer in duration than short vowels. However, vowel sounds differ not so much in length as they do in mouth movement, such that a “long vowel” includes movement of the mouth and tongue, whereas a “short vowel” has a static, or stable mouth and tongue when producing the sound.

  • Consonant reductions. If certain consonants (like K, P, and T) are in unstressed syllables, they often undergo reductions, which means that they lose their true pronunciation. The letter T is the most commonly reduced consonant in English. In each of the following words, the T is pronounced completely differently: temper, little, certain, internet, and smart. “Temper” has a true, aspirated T sound. “Little” has a quick D sound (Flap T). “Certain” has a glottal stop T, or an imitation T sound that comes from the throat. “Internet” drops the first T completely, and “smart” holds the T at the end, so that you don’t hear the puff of air afterwards. This causes a lot of confusion for non-native speakers, but not to worry! There are patterns for when and how to use each one, which will be discussed in a later post.

  • R sounds. The American R is distinct for its tongue/mouth position and the fact that it often overtakes preceding vowels. For example, in each of the following words, the sound /ur/ as in “fur” is the prevailing R sound: learn /lurn/, work /wurk/, first /furst/, person /PUR-sin/, occur /uh-KUR/. Beyond that, the American R also has combinations, so that you might hear /AR/ as in “heart,” /OR/ as in “court,” /AYR/ as in “bear” and /EER/ as in “here.”

  • Stress placement. Many words that come from the same root sound completely different from each other due to the shift in stress. Take the words “execute” and “executive.” “Execute” has the stress on the first syllable, making it sound like /EK-suh-kyoot/ whereas “executive” puts the stress on the 2nd syllable: /eg-ZEK-yuh-div/. Notice how the X in the “execute” sounds like /EK-suh/ while in “executive,” the X sounds like /eg-ZEK/. Stress changes the pronunciation of each syllable, so it is very important to learn.

  • Rhythm. American English speakers have a stress-timed rhythm to their speech. This means that the rhythm of their sentences don’t depend on how many words or sounds there are, but what words provide the most meaning in the sentence. They speed up and reduce words that aren’t as meaningful, while they slow down and emphasize the most meaningful words in the sentence. For example: “The cat had been sleeping for a while.” It might sound like: /th-KA-did-bin-SLEEP-ing-fur-uh-WYL/. The emphasized words are “cat,” “sleeping” and “awhile” because they provide the most meaning in a sentence. Further more, the non-content words like “the,” “had,” “been,” and “for” are reduced.

  • Melody. When speaking naturally, a native English speaker will have varying pitches and intonations. If they’re excited, for example, the pitch will rise, or if they are upset, the pitch will tend to be lower. The intonation also rises for the key words of a sentence, and depending on the importance of each key word, you can have varying pitches. With practice, a non-native speaker can develop the variety of pitches necessary to imitate the melody of American English.

This may seem a little overwhelming as an introduction to the American Accent, but I promise you that accent improvement starts at the very beginning, perhaps mastering a specific sound or consonant reduction. You don’t have to know all of the above to have a better accent — you just have to start with one thing, and little by little, your pronunciation will improve. Your colleagues will notice when you start pronouncing common /UR/ words like “early” “first” and “learn.” Your friends and family will see a difference when you stop dropping difficult syllables and instead pronounce words that you’ve worked on clearly. You might even get to the point where new acquaintances don’t say “What a cute accent” or ask “Where are you from?” when you’ve been living in the United States for over a decade. Accent reduction takes focus and practice. Here’s to you for starting!