5 things you must know about American pronunciation if you hope to understand “real” American speech
How often have I heard learners say “Americans speak so fast!”, “They don’t make any effort to articulate” or “They eat their words! It’s like they have a hot potato in their mouth!”
It’s true that real American English can be very, very different from the English you learned in school. This is especially true if you learned by sitting in a silent classroom, listening to carefully scripted audio recordings, where the speakers took care to speak clearly and slowly.
Maybe it sounded like this:
“He-llo John. What – are – you – go-ing – to – do to-day?”
“I’m go-ing to go in-to the ci-ty to buy some-thing.”
That is totally different from the way Americans really speak, where it sounds like this:
“Hey John, whatcha gonna do’duhday?”
“Imma go tuh thuh siddy tuh buy sumpthin tuh eet.”
How can you understand those strange sounds?!
It’s true that real spoken English is messy. The words crash together. Syllables disappear. The sounds don’t match the spelling.
You see a phrase written as “What do you…” but you hear “Whudduhyuh…”
You read “I’m going to…” and you hear “I’m gonna…” or worse “Imma…”
Here are 5 things to know about American pronunciation if you hope to understand Americans and help them understand you.
You write: “What do you want to do?”
You hear & say: “Whutchuh wanna DO?”
In all the examples we’ll look at, you’ll notice that Americans love to reduce the “little words” in a phrase. Often “the” is pronounced “thuh”, “do” becomes “duh”, and “you” sounds like “yuh.”
When you put the “t” in “what” next to the “d” in “do”, there’s even a sound that seems out of place: “tch”. As in “whutchuh” to say “What do you…”
You write: “I’m going to go out to Wal-Mart. Do you need anything?”
You hear & say: “Ahmma go ou’tuh Wal-Martchuh nee danything?”
Maybe you already learned to say “gonna” in place of “going to.” This is the way Americans usually pronounce it. But you may also hear another pronunciation of “going to”: “Ahmma.” So you read “I’m going to”, but you can say “I’m gonna” and you may hear “Ahmma.”
Here are a few examples where you could hear “Ahmma” in the place of “I’m going to”:
“Ahmma get Kerry a birthday present. Any ideas?”
“Ahmma call and see what time the flower shop closes.”
“Ahmma check with Lisa what time she wants to leave.”
You write: “Yeah, get me something to eat.”
You hear & say: “Yeah, gemmee sumpthin tuh eat.”
Instead of articulating “get-me”, the two words run together to sound like “gemmee.” And instead of a clear “some-thing”, the two parts of this compound word run together to sound like “sumpthin.” Sometimes, it’s better to not articulate every syllable if you want to sound natural!
We often use the word “something” with lots of “little words” that we mentioned earlier. Here are just a few examples of how to pronounce these phrases like Americans:
“Sumpthin tuh do” (Something to do)
“Sumpthin tuh talk about” (Something to talk about)
“Sumpthin yuh wanna get” (Something you want to get)
You write: “Let me give you some money.”
You hear & say: “Lemmee givyuh suh money.”
Here’s another example where the words run together and the sounds change. There’s “let me”, which is spoken as “lemmee”, similar to the previous example with “gemmee.”
At the end of the phrase, instead of saying “some-money”, the sounds change, and the final “m” in some blends into the first “m” in “money”, and it sounds like “suh money.”
This often happens when the last sound of one word is the same as the first sound of the next word:
Lemmee ass Kim (Let me ask Kim)
Lemmee prin two copies (Let me print two copies)
Lemmee ha Vicki’s bag (Let me have Vicki’s bag)
You write: “Are you going to go into the city at three-thirty?”
You hear & say: “You gonna go intuh thuh siddy at three-thurdy?”
In American English, the “t” in the middle of a word sometimes becomes a “d” sound. It takes more effort to clearly pronounce the “t” sound, and a clearly pronounced “t” can even sound funny to many Americans. In some cases, they may not even understand you, as happened to my French husband many times during our visits to the US.
Here’s how to pronounce 12 everyday words the way Americans do:
- Bitter = “bidder”
- Bottle = “bodduhl”
- Butter = “budder”
- City = “siddy”
- Computer = “compyooder”
- Daughter = “dawdder”
- Eighty = “Ayddy”
- Forty = “fordy”
- Little = “lidduhl”
- Settle = “sedduhl”
- Seventy = “sevendy”
- Thirty = “thurdy”
While it will take some practice to train your hear to interpret these sounds automatically, just being aware of them can help you better identify the sounds and progressively master them. Start by listening for examples of these changes in conversations around you. Start trying some of them when you speak. You’ll see how much it improves your fluency in English, both when you’re listening and when you’re speaking.
About this week’s guest author
Christina Rebuffet is the creator of Speak English with Christina, where you’ll have fun becoming fluent in American English. She’s currently putting together an American Accent Survival Kit, to help you speak and understand American English more easily. If you’d like to know when this free resource is available, join her email list at christinarebuffet.com.