I watch Sons of Anarchy from time to time. Something that surprised me: lead actor Charlie Hunnam is British.
I had no idea. He worked with an accent coach to develop an extremely convincing American accent. I assumed he had been born and raised in California.
So if you want to make like Charlie Hunnam and speak more like an American, here are some tips.A couple caveats before we get started, though.
First, you don’t have to worry about having a perfect accent. I think accents provide character to a person’s speech, as long as they’re comprehensible. Sofia Vergara was the highest paid actress in Hollywood last year–not just despite her accent, but because of it. She would gain nothing by trying to talk more like Meg Ryan.
Second, if you’re learning English, there’s no rule that you have to talk like an American. There’s of course nothing wrong with the Australian accent, the Irish accent, the various British accents, or any number of other English accents out there. But if you want to adopt an American accent, that’s cool too. It’s natural for someone, say, moving to the United States to want to fit in to the degree possible.
So here’s a list of things you can do…
1. Realize that American accents vary wildly.
The New York Times published a quiz last year in which Americans could figure out which part of the country their speech belonged to. That’s because “American” English has several regional dialects. Just some examples of distinctive dialects off the top of my head:
- New York
- Mid-Alantic (Maryland, Pennsylvania, and parts of New Jersey)
- New England
- Southern (Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina)
- Northern (Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin)
…and if you were to talk to a linguist, he’d probably tell you that those could be broken down into dozens and dozens more.
But don’t get too overwhelmed, because there’s something called General American (GA), or Standard American English.
On the one hand, I can’t really define what makes an accent “neutral,” because neutral to what? On the other hand, if I had to name a neutral American accent, it would be GA. This is the kind of English Americans tend to speak when they’re trying to be professional or understood by large groups of people.
Unless you have a very specific need to adopt another accent, this is the one you should try to emulate.
2. Repeat after newscasters.
Newscasters speak clearly and enunciate. They also speak GA English (regardless of what their at-home accent might be). So a good drill is to parrot them.
- Go to CNN’s page on YouTube.
- Play a video.
- Listen to the newscaster or correspondent speak.
- Stop the video after a couple seconds.
- Repeat what you just heard, emulating the accent as much as possible.
- Repeat steps 2 through 5.
For developing an accent, there’s no substitute for listening–really listening–to a speaker and trying to emulate his or her speech. You can have some features explained (and I’ll explain some of them in the post). But accents, more than any other feature of language, are acquired subconsciously. You have to hear them, absorb them, and imitate them.
I suppose with the newscaster drill, there’s a little risk that you’re going to speak newsy and scripted, like the Japanese students in Better Off Dead who learned English from watching Howard Cosell.
So if you’re worried about that, do the same drill but with TV shows. Be careful, though, because sometimes characters speak with distinctive regional accents.
These accents can vary, even in the same show. On Family Guy, for example, Peter speaks with a New England accent, while his dog Brian speaks with a GA accent. On The Simpsons, Homer speaks a nondescript GA accent, while Moe speaks more like a New Yorker (or Philadelphian–I can’t tell).
If you have a show you want to imitate but aren’t sure what kind of accent the character has, feel free to ask me in the comments.
3. Learn when to use glottal stops.
A glottal stop is a difficult concept to explain. It’s much easier to hear. You basically stop air flow in your throat to produce a kind of “silencer” effect. The Wikipedia article explains it pretty decently.
One way to give yourself away as a non-native American English speaker is to pronounce the T sound all the time. In American English, even in educated settings, some words have their T sounds removed and replaced by the glottal stop. This happens when the T is at the end of a word or syllable.
Some common examples:
- Button, fatten – Pronounced bu’-on, fa’-on.
- Get, Fat, Pit,Cat, Bit, Fight – Pronounced like ge’, fa’, pi’, ca’, bi’, figh’.
- Fountain – Pronounced Fou’-in.
But in some words, you do tend to pronounce the T: butter, batter,
kite, skate, pity.
So you have to be careful. In fact, if you overdo it with the glottal stops, you’ll be emulating British English.
From what I can tell, there’s no easy pattern to learn. So just be aware that glottal stops replace Ts, and imitate the newscasters accordingly.
4. Shorten helping verbs.
Helping verbs are verbs that have no meaning on their own, but help other verbs. They are:
- Have – I have not been to the school. I could’ve been a contender.
- Be – He is running. The report is being written.
- Do – Do you want to eat? He doesn’t know.
(For you sticklers, these helping verbs can also be used as main verbs.)
In GA, these helping verbs tend to be dropped or shortened. Sometimes they’ll be kept in when someone is trying to enunciate, but often they’ll be dropped, even in professional settings.
When have or its contraction ‘ve is following could, should, or would, it tends to turn into a (uh):
- I coulda been a contender.
- You shoulda given me a call.
- I woulda gone to the gym but it was closed.
When be in one of its various forms (am, are, is) is used as a helping verb, it tends to be contracted. It’s correct but unnatural for someone to say “I am going to the store” when they would instead say “I’m going to the store.” Other examples:
- They’re heading to Costco.
- We’re having dinner at 7.
- He’s spending time with his family.
When do is used as a helping verb and preceded by “you,” it gets smashed in to the “You” to almost make a “Ja” sound. Or if you use the “did” form, it’ll become “didja.” Examples:
- Ja wanna eat?
- Didja get my message?
- Ja like your new house?
Honestly, this is just the tip of the iceberg. You could write a whole book on developing a General American accent. But try out these tips, especially the newscaster drill, and let me know if you notice any changes.