Vowels: The Key to a Clear American English Accent, with VIDEO
Updated: Sep 10, 2021
By Lilly Lichaa, M.S., CCC-SLP, Accent Coach
If you want to speak with an American English accent, focus on the vowels. Have you ever wondered why British and American speakers sound so different even though they are speaking the same language? Yes, there are significant language differences. Americans say "trunk" for the back of the car while the British will say "the boot." We say "elevator" and they say "lift."
It's also true that the prosody (intonation and stress) between the two languages are distinct. Still, it is very clear that it's not only the choice of words and prosody that differ between American and British English. The accents are different.
The reason has mostly to do with the vowels. Americans and Brits pronounce many of the same words with different vowels. Within English, these vowel differences are what we perceive as different accents.
Vowel Pronunciation in the American English Accent
To paint a clear picture of the vowel differences, consider the pronunciation of the word "been," as in, "Where have you been?"
A British speaker might say this with "ee" (with a long e, rhyming with "teen") while an American speaker would say it more like "bin" (with a short i, rhyming with "tin").
If a British person hears the word "bin," they might think of a trash bin. If an American hears "been" the way a Brit says it, they might think of a bean, as in, please add more beans in my burrito.
To give another example of a pronunciation difference, Americans will say "mom" with an /a/ sound (the short o, as in "hot") while the British say the same word as "mum" (with a schwa sound). When Americans hear "mum," their minds often go to the word "mummy," as in the embalmed corpse found in Egyptian tombs.
The American and British accents have nearly all the same vowels in their inventories, but there are differences in how forward or backward we pronounce them in our mouths.
The difference in tongue position is what makes the words sound distinct, even though they are spelled the same way.
The differences between the two accents are lengthy. For now, let's focus on the pronunciation of the American English vowels.
The Importance of Mastering the Vowels of the American English Accent
From infancy, native speakers of a language (English, in this case) are primed to speak with the accent that they hear. It's effortless. It's automatic. This ease, however, is not typically available to the adult language learner. You can blame a number of biological factors (namely, cellular death) if you fall into the category of an adult language learner.
Taking into account that vowels constitute roughly 70% of the English language, not being able to pronounce them accurately can be a hindrance to effective communication between two speakers.
It is very common for English learners (non-native English speakers) to not hear the difference between two vowels, and therefore, not be able to say the words accurately or distinctly.
The diagram to the right is a representation of where the vowels are produced in the mouth (high, mid, or low, and front, central, or back).
It is a clear demonstration of how using different vowels in the middle of "b_t" can change the meaning of words. Many English learners do not hear the difference between "beet" and "bit," or "bat" and "bot" because they might not have one of those vowel sounds in their own language. If the non-native American English learner is not able to accurately and consistently pronounce the words using the distinct vowels, confusion may - and often does - occur.
For example, if they mispronounce "live" and say "leave" instead, the listener may not understand their message, especially if the context is unclear. The diagram shows just how close these two vowels are in the mouth. They are located in the top left where it shows "bit" and "beet."
The goal of learning another language is to communicate, but when mispronunciations (or having a non-native accent) interfere with that, effective communication is blocked and replaced with time spent on trying to clear up any misunderstandings.
Have you ever been misunderstood by someone of your own language? Even speakers of the same language experience the frustration of having to clarify their intentions. Imagine how frustrating it can be for two individuals with different language backgrounds to express the true meaning of what they wanted to say.
Using the appropriate vowel can facilitate effective communication and reduce misunderstandings.
Learning a new language is a task to be admired. Some people pick up English easily and for others it may take more effort. Learning an accent can be difficult, so if you want to speak clearly with an American English accent and are looking for a place to start, focus first on your vowels.
Script from the above video:
Do you know what the most important sounds of the American English accent are?
Hi everybody. My name’s Lilly. I’m an accent coach and I help people speak American English clearly, confidently, and effectively.
I have a background in speech-language pathology and I use my expertise of phonetics to teach YOU how to pronounce sounds accurately.
So, the most important sounds that you need to MASTER in order to speak with an American English accent are your VOWELS. Using the appropriate vowels will help your LISTENER understand the word you wanted to say. Did you want to say "live" the office or "leave" the office? "Hit" the button or "heat" the button? I started working in accent modification to help you feel confident in your communication, and I do that by teaching you EXACTLY how to pronounce the sounds of American English.
I’m so happy to connect with you here and have you in my network. Feel welcome to comment below this video or to message me if you’d like to introduce yourself as well.
I’m looking forward to learning more about you! See you in the next video.