Get it Wrong to Get it Right- vowels

Many of my clients tell me they want to speak English like an American. They want that standard American English accent.  They want me to correct them, and they want me to tell them how to pronounce the words correctly.

Here’s the irony- would you believe me if I told you that in order to sound right, you need to mispronounce some of your speech sounds?  Seriously, if you want that natural sounding accent, and you want to minimize that foreign pronunciation, you must mispronounce some sounds. That will make you sound right.

Allow me to explain.  When a non native English speaker tries to speak English clearly, he will often try to emphasize every syllable in a word.  We know, however, that multi-syllabic words contain one syllable which is more emphasized.  It’s the one that has the accent.  And if you emphasize one syllable, then the others should be de-emphasized.  What happens when you de-emphasize a syllable with a vowel is that usually, that vowel loses its correct pronunciation and becomes almost inaudible.  You barely notice it.  That barely noticeable vowel becomes a sound which is actually the most common sound in American English, although it’s not an official English letter.  It’s called a schwa. The schwa is a character in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and it looks like an up-side-down and backward e– ə. I don’t recommend learning the Phonetic alphabet, but I wanted to demonstrate the sign for this sound, so you can see when to use it.

Here’s an example.  Say the word banana.  Do all three a‘s sound the same? They shouldn’t. The first a in banana should sound almost undetectable, as if it’s not there, and you’re saying bn, without the a.  The second a should be emphasized, as this is the syllable within the word which is accented. This second a should be pronounced like the a in the words bat or at. (The a in bat or at can be difficult, as this sound does not occur in several languages, such as Hebrew or Spanish.) And the last a in banana? This one should also be de-emphasized, as if it’s hardly there. It also becomes a schwa. Think of a schwa as the sound you make when you say uh. You don’t specially shape your mouth or lips for this sound. You just relax your mouth and let out a short flow of air and voice. Uh.

So, instead of trying to sound right and pronouncing banana with an emphasis on every sound and syllable, we pronounce it as bə n΄a nə, with an emphasis on the middle a. And the other a‘s become “mispronounced.”

Here’s another example. Say the sentence, Here’s a thought.  Did you pronounce the a in the middle? Or was it reduced to a schwa (ə) sound, as it should be? What about Nine o΄ Clock?  That middle o should be pronounced like a schwa (ə). You can think of it as nine uh clock.

These have been examples of correctly incorrect vowel sounds in American English.  These small changes can help your spoken English sound more natural. There are other sounds we mispronounce in normal, natural spoken English. Next time, we will examine those.

Pronunciation, especially in English, can be challenging and confusing.  It can also make the difference in sounding as intelligent in English as you do in your native language, especially for meetings, presentations, and media appearances. For questions, or to work on it with a coach, contact me via email for more information at:  jsrebro at gmail dot com.

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