How to Speak with an American AccentJan 05, 2021
Any actor worth their chops should know how to speak with an American accent. Hollywood is the biggest market in the world, and the industry is constantly looking for up and coming talent from around the world. Each year pilot season rolls around and actors are inundated with American castings.
However – and I cannot stress this enough – self tapes are notoriously last minute! Nothing is worse than losing out on a part due to poor accent work. A spotty accent can ruin any believability, but a good accent is worth its weight in gold. An undetectable accent not only enhances your performance, but it also boosts your chances of getting the job.
Quick check – do you know how to pronounce this sentence in an American accent?
There aren’t any vitamins in this yoghurt so I’m throwing it in the compost bin and eating a tomato with herbs instead.
Read on for more tips to get your American accent up to speed.
There are 4 Parts to an American Accent
If you want to master any accent, focus on these four areas to find fluency and confidence:
- the Mouth Setting: how the mouth sits in the accent
- the Sounds: the vowels and consonants specific to the accent
- the Music: the rhythm, stress, melody, and intonation patterns of the accent
- the Culture: embodying the character in all aspects, from voice to body language
Here are the most important consonants to master:
The Consonant R
General American is a rhotic accent. This means that the consonant R is pronounced every time it’s written in a word. But be careful! Don’t add in linking or intrusive Rs where they don’t exist. Try this practice sentence:
Rebecca and I adore drinking vodka on the rocks in California.
The Consonant L
The General American accent uses a ‘Dark L’ in all positions. This means that the back of the tongue bunches and raises as the tongue tip rests on the gum ridge. Be sure your tongue root is the main source of the action, not your lips or the tongue tip! Practice now:
Are you available to give Luke a lift to the LA hospital?
The Consonant T
The consonant T is the true chameleon of the American accent – it is always changing its spots! The American accent is much less percussive than many accents of the UK & Ireland so be sure your consonant Ts are not too overpowering. The consonant T can even change to D in between 2 vowels (this is called a tap or a flap). Try this in practice:
Peter said that we better have enough water for the party on Saturday.
Multilingual actors should master the schwa.
The schwa [ə] is the short, unstressed vowel found in weak syllables in English. English speakers of all accents love the schwa, in fact it makes up 20% to 30% of the vowels in spoken English! Even short function words like ‘to’ ‘for’ ‘can’ and ‘some’ use the schwa in quick speech. I promise you that the schwa is key to unlocking a believable American sound. Do you know which of these words use the schwa?
It’s time for lunch, but I need to go to the store! Can you help?
If you’re looking for General American examples...
I have a collection of contemporary General American speakers on my YouTube channel, which you can find here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL5RmcpCllZhqqDpI85yOF4LR8Z6cwZEtL
Additional Tips for the General American Accent
The vowel sounds are more important than the consonants.
Work to master the music of the accent and you can fool 90% of your audience.
Identify your operative words in order to play the scene, not the accent.
But what if you need to pull another American accent out of the hat? Here are some down and dirty tricks for shifting accents quickly across the continental United States.
This accent mostly comprises of the northern Midwestern states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and bits of Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, & Iowa. However, all of these locations are a little bit different so be sure to do your homework.
- the [æ] as in TRAP vowel tenses up, which makes for some interesting pronunciations of words like ‘cat’ ‘bag’ and ‘matter’.
- The consonant R may be even more pronounced and chewy than in General American, leading to a ‘Hard R’ sound.
There is a lot of variety between all of the southern states, so again be sure to do your homework and make adjustments based off of the location and especially the time period.
- The diphthong [aɪ] as in PRICE smooths out to the monophthong [a] vowel instead. Keep your mouth in one place when pronouncing this vowel on words like ‘sigh’ ‘find’ and ‘Clyde’.
- The classic southern drawl is created by elongating vowels and even changing monophthongs into diphthongs. Any vowel can become a diphthong now!
When people think of New England they usually think of the Boston-area accent. But this area also comprises of accents from New Hampshire, Maine, and even Connecticut. Again, they’re all a little bit different, but on the whole:
- The consonant R can disappear if it’s not followed by a vowel. This is particularly true of the classic Boston accent.
- If you are playing an upper-class person from New England you may want to focus the sound forward so that the accent is shaped by the front of the mouth. This is a distinctly New England affect and can be heard in people such as Martha Stewart.
New York City
New York City is its own distinct universe when it comes to accent. Everyone can tell a New Yorker from a mile away, but did you know that neighborhood does not define a NYC accent? The accent differs most between ethnic groups, so be sure to match your accent to the character: Jewish, Italian, African American, Latino, Irish, etc.! That attention to detail will pay off massively.
- There is a difference between [ɑ] as in LOT vowels like ‘not’ & ‘stop’ and [ɔə] as in CLOTH vowels like ‘coffee’ & ‘chocolate’. Be sure to round your lips forward on CLOTH vowels
- The consonant R can disappear if it’s not followed by a vowel. But be sure to pronounce the consonant R in [ʌɹ] as in NURSE vowels like ‘bird’ ‘turn’ and ‘curse’.
- Start by (respectfully) mimicking the accent aloud. Pick short phrases from a speaker to use as a launch pad into the accent.
- Immerse yourself in the accent. We are most comfortable with accents we’ve been the most exposed to. Gain exposure through listening to podcasts, radio shows, and other audio-focused material. This will force your ears to listen instead of watching with your eyes.
Learn more with me!
I hope these tips help you in mastering an American accent for performance or in everyday life. If you want more tools you can book on to one of my courses to see your progress really take off.
Next session running Friday, 15 January at 10AM-12PM GMT or 1PM-3PM GMT. Book here.
American Accent Bootcamp is my monthly practice session for professional actors. Participants speak in the General American accent for the duration of the 2 hours & I give coaching notes throughout our group conversation. Think of it as language learning through immersion. Book here.
5 x 60-minute Zoom sessions over the course of 5 weeks + email and WhatsApp connectivity between sessions. Find out more here.
10 x 60-minute Zoom sessions over the course of 10 weeks + email and WhatsApp connectivity between sessions. Find out more here.