Learning a new language can be pretty complicated. If you’re learning English right now, you probably know it’s a lot different than Spanish – grammar, alphabet, syntax, and of course, the pronunciation. So far, you’ve studied all the grammar and taken hundreds of hours of conversation classes – great job! Now you’ve reached the level where you can work with your English-speaking colleagues in the USA effectively. But then, someone mentions your accent or asks you to repeat yourself – it lowers your confidence.
Even though speaking a completely new language is already incredibly impressive, unfortunately, the reality is that having an accent can sometimes be an obstacle. This tiny detail can lead to people questioning your job skills, disregarding your feedback, or even being rude to you. The only thing we can do when we learn new languages is to try our best to be understood. If there are small changes we can make to certain letters, or double-check where the stress is on a certain word, then we can more confidently express ourselves.
“Having an accent can sometimes be an obstacle.”
Truth be told, it’s incredibly hard to change the way you speak, and it’s impossible to get rid of your accent completely. Statistically, if you don’t gain fluency before the age of 10, then it’s unlikely you’ll sound ‘native’ (take that word for what it’s worth). Most of us hadn’t even begun thinking of our international careers at that age, so we will likely have an accent. I personally have an accent in all three of my foreign languages.
I believe it’s 100% okay for me to have an accent in my non-native languages, perhaps even beautiful, but I also want to make sure I pronounce words in a way that others can understand me so that I can communicate effectively. Those who speak Spanish from Mexico typically have the same challenges with certain sounds when it comes to American English, so if you know the pitfalls for Mexicans, then you can work on those specific sounds. Focus on the tips below, and you will ensure it is easier for you to be understood by your coworkers in the USA, or your new community if you’ve relocated.
What Exactly is an Accent?
An accent – when talking about languages – is a combination of intonation, word connections, pronunciations, and voice quality in the spoken word. If this sounds kinda hard to understand, I’ll make it easier for you: an accent is a way we speak according to our context and how things sound when coming from our mouths.
The muscles in our mouth get stronger in certain ways based on the language we grow up speaking. So when we learn a new language, we have the same muscles, but we’re asking them to do exercises they’ve never done before. And when it is time to make the sounds for the new language, our muscles try to imitate the new sounds, but with the movements that they already know how to do in the first language. And that’s how we have accents.
It’s still possible to improve your communication. We suggest working on the following tips each time you have a conversation in English.
Stop Pronouncing Every Vowel
One of the biggest differences between English and Spanish is that English doesn’t necessarily pronounce every vowel in a word. Especially when there are two vowels side by side.
Here are the most common word combinations and their most common pronunciation in American English:
E + A = E (like the letter in the American English alphabet)
Whenever we have an “e” and an “a” together in a word you’re going to say “E”. A phonics rule that we use for kids is “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” This means that we pronounce only the E, and not the A. For example:
– “eat” (EEt) – “meat” (mEEt)
– “clean” (clEEn)
E + E = E
Also, if you have any word with a double “e” then you’ll do the same thing:
– “sleep” (slEEp)
– “need” (nEEd)
– “bee” (bEE)
Words Ending in -ed
At this point, I’m pretty sure you’ve found yourself wondering how to correctly pronounce words ending in -ed. As said before, one of the main things in the English American accent is the fact that we don’t have to pronounce all the vowels, and this is what happens in this case.
There are three ways to pronounce the “ed” ending of regular verbs in the simple past:
/id/ (Infinitives ending in t or d),
/t/ (Infinitives ending in a voiced sound), or
/d/ (Infinitives ending in an unvoiced sound).
This pronunciation will depend on the sound at the end of the infinitive (normal form) of the main verb and whether it’s voiced or not. A voiced sound is the one that vibrates in your throat or not. This is confusing, so just check out some examples below.
|“Ed” Sound||Example Word||Pronunciation|
American Vowels vs Vowels in Spanish
Spanish and English have the same number of vowels, technically… just 5. But even though they are the same ones, the vowels in English and Spanish are very different and I will tell you why.
English usually uses the letters “a, e, i, o, u” just like in Spanish, but the difference is that in English there are 16 different vowel sounds (some say 14, so you’ll get different answers on this topic).
The Spanish language has a strong intonation and what happens to most Spanish speakers when talking in American English, is that sometimes we tend to put our native phrase pattern onto our spoken English. This intonation is usually towards the end of any phrase or sentence. This means that your word stress is at the very end – or almost at the end – of everything you say according to the correct accentuation in Spanish.
The thing with this accentuation pattern in English and Spanish is that it creates a subtle change in the meaning of what you’re trying to say, for example:
Spanish: “Voy a comprar álgo.”
English with a Spanish Pattern: “I will buy something.”
English Pattern: “I will buy something.”
As you can see here when stressing the English phrase with the Spanish pattern, you are contrasting that you will buy something, but it kinda gives the impression that that “something” can also be nothing.
Whenever you’re speaking in English, try to focus more on the most important word. As seen before, in the sentence “I will buy something”, “I”, “will”, and “something” is not important.
Another example could be that if you are held hostage in a bank, and you have to put up words in the window to get someone’s attention to help you, you could put, “Please help me. There is someone robbing the bank and I am being held hostage.” But if you want to know what words to stress in English, the most important thing is to get your point across. “Help”, “robbery”, and “hostage” – and those are usually the words you need to stress.
The American “TH” (to Mexican ears) Sounds Like a Spanish “D” Sometimes
If you find it hard to pronounce the “TH”, just remember that the tongue has to stick out from between the teeth, for words like teeth and think, and air flows through above the tongue and below the tongue. This is the voiceless “TH”. Spanish speakers (except for Spaniards) don’t have the “TH” consonant sound in their sound repertoire, so you probably tend to keep the tongue inside the mouth or touch the tongue to the roof of the mouth. This is wrong though and can cause confusion between words like three and tree, thought and dot.
There are two “TH” sounds. To simplify – one with air (voiceless) and one with a slight vibration (voiced). The one with air coming out is used for words like think and teeth. Try not to say tink and teet. The one with vibration is used for words like they and then. Try not to say day and den.
You can consult the IPA chart with sounds so you can make sure you’re doing the correct sounds for both voiced and voiceless “TH”.
Tips for Making the Two Distinct “TH” Sounds in American English
Put your hand in front of your mouth and your tongue touching the bottom part of your upper teeth. Now say “TH”, as in think. You should feel air hitting your hand.
Now for the “TH” as in then and they, you should feel NO AIR hitting your hand. This is the most similar to the Spanish “D” sound as in dedo.
A good way of practicing these sounds along with the IPA chart, is to hold a mirror in front of you and read silently the following words:
Voiceless (Airy Sounds)
thin, thief, thirsty, nothing, thumb, toothpaste, birthday
Voiced (No Air/Vibration)
the, this, thank, these, other, father, brother
It should be visible each time you come to a “TH” sound that you need to vibrate your cords so you can pronounce the word correctly and this is when you’ll have your voiced sounds. Then, you can compare them to the other “TH” sounds and make a list of which sounds are voiced and which ones are voiceless.
American Musicality vs Méxican Musicality
Have you noticed that when you imitate any language, even though you don’t speak it, you can sort of pretend you are? That’s musicality.
Each language has its musicality and this is also a big factor whenever we try to speak a language. Again, remember that we tend to project our native language setup, so fixing this is going to help you with your American accent.
Mexican Spanish (and English with a Mexican accent), has a musicality a little bit slower than the American accent. But why is that? Well, because in Mexican Spanish, we pronounce almost every word and vowel that we see. But, what happens with the American Accent musicality? This leads us to our following point.
As you might have noticed now, vowels in English can certainly be complicated to pronounce. This happens because Spanish is a vocalic language, meaning that the most important part of the word are the vowels whereas, in English, the most important part are the consonants (consonantal language).
The English language has approximately 16 vowel sounds while in Spanish we only have 5 and none of them are even close to the English sounds.
Word Connections (Consonant + Vowel Sound)
As mentioned before, in the American English accent, the words won’t be pronounced one by one, which makes the musicality of this accent a little bit fast-paced. When talking with the American English accent, the end sound of a word that ends in a consonant is attached to the beginning of the next word if it starts with a vowel sound. For example, “I did it” sounds like “I dih-dit.” This is because in American English there’s a hum (or rhythm) that only breaks when you get to a period or dot.
Tip Number One
Remember that the first thing to be more easily understood is the staircase-like intonation. And now that you’ve mastered that, the second thing is to start connecting all those stair steps so everything sounds like a biiig long word.
Tip Number Two
Words are connected every time a word ends in a consonant and the next word starts with a vowel sound. For example:
My name is (Mai nay-mis)
Hold on (hol don)
I miss you (Aimis iu)
Now that you have the idea of how to link words, remember that this is a matter of practice. A good exercise to get better at this point is to repeat things just as you hear them and then just try to untangle your tongue until you’re able to follow this pattern. This will help your mouth muscles to get used to the natural way of speaking English and I swear that once you master this, you’ll be sounding like a native American English speaker.
What to do now?
Getting rid of an accent is not an easy thing to do, so don’t expect this to happen overnight. The cool thing is that even though this is a little bit complicated, it is a very possible thing to do.
Practice makes perfect, pay attention to everything you hear, and make comparisons to your way of speaking. Listen to music, podcasts, or watch your favorite tv show in English and repeat the dialogues, but don’t stop practicing. I’m pretty sure that by practicing along with the tips that you have above, you’ll be improving almost immediately. Good Luck! If interested in an accent coach, check out one of our English tutors!