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The American accent mission: Singing Sinatra, and getting phonemes corrected


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Today you get two fun videos about my very tiny American accent project! And tons of audio files (scroll down to hear) to show my actual attempts at an American accent 🙂

Mimicking American accents with Idahosa

The first video is a chat with Idahosa (“Ee-dow-sa”) regarding some of the things I learned.

Idahosa has written tonnes of guest posts on this blog, such as Sound Rehab: A 5-Point Program for Kicking Your Visual-Addiction, Cloud-Tutoring – Combining Automated Teaching and Personalized Learning, The “flow” of fluency: How to freestyle rap in a foreign language, How I Learned to Rap in 4 Languages I don’t speak in 1 Night Using the Free Application “Audacity”, and How to receive language feedback for free and provide it for profit using Soundcloud.

In this project, we implemented a lot of his suggestions from that last post about getting specific advice on Soundcloud, and you will be able to follow precisely what changes I made in the embedded sound files below! Note that this video has no American accent attempts, but does discuss a lot of important concepts behind accent reduction.

You can see that rather than try to pass myself off as an American, I was more interested in learning about what makes accents different, and how to go about reducing an accent. These things I learned will be essential for my future projects with foreign languages. Here's our chat:

In this video, we discussed Idahosa's email list where he teaches you (for free) some vital aspects of phonetics, explained in a very fun way. Sign up if you want to find out more.

Singing Sinatra in a piano bar with Susanna

Next, for more fun, myself and Susanna took some of Idahosa's tips specific to the Sinatra song “I've got you under my skin” and tried to make certain parts of the song that I would sing in a more Irish way, to be more American. You can hear Susanna and I discuss this in an old movie cinema before we hit the piano bar to actually sing it out!

And this isn't the first time Susanna and I have recorded a video together in the Bay Area! Last time I was there we went out to show the world how multilingual San Francisco is. She is the author of Language is Music, and as such was great to help me understand accent issues relevant to singing! You can also find her on Createyourworldbook and her Youtube channel. See us have a little fun with it in this video:

sinatra

You can read Idahosa's feedback as I sing the song for the parts that I was to change, on Soundcloud here.

Actually trying to speak with an American accent: Mimicking my Portland friend Sean

The above videos are fun, but I know you all want to hear me genuinely try to speak with an American accent! I only put a couple of hours into this project over the summer, so I'd need quite a few more to internalize all these rules to actually try to speak with this different accent consistently. Having said that, I feel I have the basics to give a much more convincing attempt now!

To show you what I mean, let me take you through my learning curve!

What I did, was to pick one person/accent to aim for; the Portland or Northwestern accent. Of course, you can't speak with “an American accent” generally, because there are many different flavours of American accents. Since I'd spend most of my time in the Northwest (3 weeks in Portland), I thought it would be easier to aim for that. Note that picking Sinatra to sing wasn't ideal, because his accent is different to the Northwestern accent in many ways. Consistency is important in a project like this, so I'll have to keep that in mind in future.

As Idahosa's website title Mimic Method suggests, the best way to try to sound more native is to simply mimic a native speaker. I chose my Portland friend Sean Ogle (without him knowing…) by taking a clip from a podcast interview that he did online, and to try to see if I could say it exactly like he did. Here is that clip:

He said “So, when I started the blog, I had no intention to turn it into a business. I was completely clueless, there was no brand; it was pretty much an outlet for me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life”

So this is how I would naturally say this same phrase, with my Irish accent:

Sound good so far? Well, trying my best to imitate Sean, this was my first attempt at an American accent:

I thought it was OK, but Idahosa informed me of something I found just fascinating; apparently when we try to imitate anyone, we tend to over-nasalize them! I have found this to be true for accent imitation, as well as even when you are mocking people. You can hear us discuss Idahosa's feelings for why we do this, in the video chat between the two of us.

So of course, I had to make this way less nasal.

Next, what he did was to slow down my recording, slow down Sean's and put various parts of them side by side. When he did this, the annoying nasalization I had applied was made extremely obvious, yikes! Below you can hear several examples Idahosa took and repeated back to me in slow motion to really emphasise the differences, explained in more detail below:

By clicking each individual file for the comments, here is what Idahosa said for me to consider:

  • Sean says the second vowel of “turning” with the vowel sound from “ninjas”. You're saying it with the vowel sound from “Nina”. Also, Sean ends the word with the /n/ sound which is made by placing the tip of the tongue against the upper gumline, but you do the /ŋ/ and a/g/- both sounds are made by placing the back of the tongue against the soft palate, or velum.
  • Sean's tongue is higher in the mouth (more CLOSED vowel) for the first vowel in “started”. Funny enough, this is also characteristic of Canadian English. I personally would say “started” the same way you did.
  • For outlet, this /aʊ/ is very characteristic of American English. Try to tune your pronunciation to it.
  • “So” is a good sound to focus on. A characteristic sound of English is the /oʊ/ dipthong in words like “so”, “no”, “go”, etc. You are doing just one vowel sound – /o/, but if you listen closely to Sean you can hear that he actually does two vowels sounds – /o/ and /ʊ/, which has a slightly higher tongue position.
  • In general, you are speaking a lot more nasal than Sean. Nasalization is when you let air pass through your nose while you speak, and you do it a lot throughout the track. This word “I'd” is perhaps the most obvious example of you doing it. Focus on making a clear “oral” diphthong here, and also try to extend it a bit. I think in general American English has longer diphthongs.
  • “For me to” Here sean is articulating the “r” sound in “for” but your are not.
  • Figure: Sean is doing a /j/ sound (we typically think of it as “y” in English) that you're not doing – “fih-gyer”
  • Clueless: There is a difference in tongue position for the vowel here. Sounds like yours is a bit more open. Anyways, this is another thing that sounds characteristic of Irish English to my American ear, so it's good to spend some time listening closely to this vowel and trying to mimic it.

With all this in mind, I sent him back the individual sounds one by one to see if I could make them sound better based on his feedback:

I think several of these sounds are a huge improvement, especially “figure out” since that “y” sound in figure is a very American sound to me.

Next, I was ready to go through the process for a second phrase, and keep all of Idahosa's feedback in mind to make it sound much more authentic. This is another sentence that Sean said:

He said “I can do something on my own. And so, the first way I approached that, is I actually submitted a remote work proposal”

And here was my attempt at it:

Now, I don't know about what you think, but I think this sounds way more American, and could be convincing enough if I were able to apply this consistently enough to everything I said.

Even so, there was room for improvement, and this is what Idahosa then sent to me:

His feedback was:

  • Roundness examples: Here's an important category of sounds for you to focus on – the ‘u' and ‘o'. I realized while correcting this that one major feature of European English is that you guys “round” these two vowels a lot more. Rounding is when you purse your lips during the articulating of a vowel. Americans do it too, but British and Irish do it a lot more. I know because whenever we imitate the British accent that's one of the main things we exaggerate. For example, when we say “hello”, our lips don't move that much, but when you guys say it it moves a lot on the final vowel. Same with words like “you” and “who”. So if you develop an awareness and control of this lip movement then you'll get a good ROI on your accent Americanization.
  • “Way I approached”: You are adding a syllable here. Sean actually merges this into two syllables: “wɛ…pro”, with a ‘silent syllable' in between for the dropped article ‘a'. You are articulating each syllable as “wei….ai…ə…pro”
  • “I can do some”: This is classic American and a good thing to focus on. When we speak fast, we reduce a lot of vowel sounds to the short /ɪ/ vowels sound from the words “in”, “him” , “big”, etc. So instead of “ai…kẽ…do” like you're saying it. It's “ai…kɪ…do”. Also, you are doing a different rhythm here. This reduction occurs on unstressed syllables, which the word “can” happens to be here. You on the other hand, are putting stress on the “can”. If you are familiar with my method for transcribing rhythm (I talk about it in Flow Theory 101), here's how it would be: Sean: DA di di DA… Benny: di DA – di DA
  • “First (southern R)”: This is really difficult to hear but when you say “first” it is very reminiscent of an American from the deep south or rural parts of the country. I can make fun of this accent and say it the same way, but I'm not quite sure what I'm doing differently between this souther “first” and my normal “first” (which is what Sean does). When I switch between the two, feels like I'm raising and retracting my tongue more to make a stronger r sound. This makes sense for you, since other English speakers imitating the American accent will have a tendency to exaggerate the r sound. So I guess the advice here is not to overdo it on the r, or you might overshoot it and end up in Texas!
  • “I actually”: Here's another rhythm discrepancy. Sean combines the “I” into the first syllable of “actually” to make “aik…shə…li”, where you say four syllables: “ai…æk…shə…li”
  • “Proposal”: You are “velarizing” your /o/ a lot, which is when you move the back of the tongue toward the soft palate. Probably doing it in anticipation of the Velarized /l/ sound to follow in the next syllable. You can hear that Sean is doing a clean, non velarized o. This is not a big deal for your accent though, since an American could say it the same way you do. I know I personally would say it more like you did.

As you can imagine, if I was to continue tweaking like this, analysing the specific differences, then I could quickly mimic any phrase in a much more convincing way, and then I would just have to apply this universally to how I speak. This second much improved (but still with room for improvement) attempt at an American accent was after just an hour or so of work, so you can get very far very fast!

After this, we worked for another hour on me trying to sing a particular song with an American accent, but going into the details of that would make this post much longer, so I've suggested that Idahosa share the post on his own blog soon instead.

Overall, I found this experience absolutely fascinating!! You can improve your accent through mimicking native speakers incredibly quickly when you compare your audio recording to a native saying the same thing, and really hear the differences yourself, or have a native explain them to you and then mimic them better a second and third time.

In the third month of my upcoming next three month mission, I'll certainly be implementing this accent reduction to sound more authentic (there's no point in my opinion in working on your accent in early stages unless it really hinders your ability to be understood), and then next year I'd like to apply it to my current languages where my accent may be quite noticeable still.

It was only just a few hours of work, but I am glad that I gave this mini-project a spin, even if it was for another English accent to make things easier as a first attempt. Now that I've had plenty of fun in English, it's time to start a new three-month mission to learn another language though 😉

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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