Speaking English like an American

A question asked by many US immigrants is: Why don’t I understand Americans when they speak? Did you win a US Green Card, just moved to the USA and realize you have trouble understanding Americans when they speak? Don’t get frustrated, it is completely normal to not get every word and we have some reasons why that is the case.

Linguistic Reduction

One of the reasons why you may have difficulties understanding American English is because Americans do not speak as if they are reading English. As with all languages, native speakers have a major advantage and tend to speak differently than how you are taught in school.

This different way of speaking is not considered as American slang or even improper. It is totally normal for native speakers to leave out certain vowel or consonant sounds while they speak. When sounds in words are left out of the word completely or pronounced differently, this is referred to as linguistic reduction. Below, we look at linguistic reduction in English pronunciation, contractions and word stress.

Function words: Stress in American English

When speaking English, it may be hard to know which words can be reduced, i.e. shortened or left out. Especially if the language is new to you. Yet, native speakers of English do this automatically. Just think about your own language, we are pretty sure you find some examples of reduction there as well. There is a certain pattern for American English though, that if you recognize will help you know which words you can reduce and which you can stress.

  • UNSTRESSED: Normally words that can be reduced are referred to as function words. Function words are unstressed words which do not have meaning on their own. These words are usually prepositions, conjunctions, articles, pronouns and helping verbs.
  • STRESSED: The words that you should stress in English are called content words. In general, these are nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

When speaking, function words are usually unstressed, spoken with a lower pitch, reduced or not spoken at all. Function words influence pronunciation in American English, that is why you might not get every word. Let’s now take a look at some examples of pronunciation and contractions in American English to make the complex theory more concrete.

Pronunciation like an American: Missing sounds

When learning a foreign language, you try to carefully pronounce your words. The challenge in learning English is to leave out sounds while speaking. We have prepared a few examples of missing sounds so that you can understand Americans better:

  • AND: In most cases, the word “and” when spoken is pronounced as “n” only. In speaking, it wouldn’t be apples and bananas, but “apples n bananas”.
  • MOUNTAIN: In many cases, when there is a “t” in the middle of a word followed by a schwa and an “n” sound, it is not pronounced. In some cases, you will hear people speak of the “Rocky Mounains” or be “cerain” of something rather than certain. Speakers tend to swallow the “t” sound.
  • Other examples where the “t” sound is swallowed are: sentence, button, kitten, cotton, curtain, forgotten, written
  • HIM/HER/HE: What does he want? Normally Americans drop the “h” sound when words like he, her, or him are not stressed. Most likely you will hear, “What’s “ee” want?” or “Did you tell “eer”?” instead of her.

Practice your English skills with a simple trick and listen to American radio, podcasts, watch American television or movies. You will notice all the words that Americans do not fully pronounce. As a Green Card holder you can listen to the pronunciation in your neighborhood or at work.

Contractions in American English

Another important aspect of American English is contractions. Contractions are a type of linguistic reduction where two or more words are said as one. When you learn English, you usually learn about how words contract grammatically.

In speaking, however, Americans combine words into almost new ones. See below for interesting examples, which make you an absolute English expert:

Modal Verbs + have:

  • coulda = could have
  • mighta = might have
  • musta = must have
  • shoulda = should have
  • woulda = would have

Word + of:

  • kinda = kind of
  • lotsa = lots of
  • outta = out of
  • sorta = sort of
  • typa = type of

Word + you:

  • betcha = bet you
  • doncha = don’t you
  • gotcha = got you
  • whaddaya = what are you
  • wouldya = would you

Some other popular contractions you will hear everyday include: gonna (going to), gimme (give me), lemme (let me), donno (don’t know).