Karen Van Hook, Ph.D.

American Accent Setting: Foundation for an excellent accent.

Some accent reduction programs focus only on correcting individual sounds. Why a more comprehensive, integrated approach gets you better results.

The “setting” for an accent is the way that speakers typically hold the muscles in the tongue, face, throat and back of the mouth. The setting shapes the overall sound of the accent. You may have noticed that when an American speaks a foreign language, even if their pronunciation is pretty good, there’s usually still something American about how they sound. That characteristic sound comes primarily from the American accent setting. The American quality may sound funny when it’s mixed in with another language, but when you’re speaking American English, the American accent setting makes the pronunciation sound right.

Everyone speaks with a particular accent setting—it’s part of your native language. A large part of a “foreign accent” comes from speaking one language with the accent setting for another.

What are the elements of accent setting? A lot of it is the position of the tongue: how far forward or back the tongue is, how high or low. The tongue feels slightly different for a different accent as well. English uses what is called a “tapered tongue”—the tip of the tongue is thin and light, and the weight of the tongue is shifted slightly back. You may wonder how on earth someone learns to shift the weight of the tongue back. We do exercises to explore the ways that the weight of the tongue naturally shifts, so that you become more aware of what your tongue can do. We also do exercises to increase your control over different muscles in the tongue.

Another aspect of accent setting is the tension in the muscles of the throat and the back of the mouth. We usually don’t think about these muscles when we’re speaking, but they have a powerful effect on the quality of the voice. Some languages sound as if the person is speaking from deep in the throat; others, as if the sound is coming through the nose. These characteristics are controlled by the way the speaker holds the muscles in the mouth and throat.

Some accent modification programs focus only on mastering the individual sounds of English and don’t address accent setting at all. But there are some very good reasons to practice the American accent setting as part of your pronunciation practice. Taking on an accent setting closer to that of native speakers makes you sound more fluent overall, and it actually helps you to master the individual sounds of English. Here are just a few of the specific benefits:

It’s easier for your tongue to reach the right positions. Many of the sounds of English are easier to make quickly and correctly if you already have your tongue close to the right position. The standard American mouth setting puts your tongue in the right position to quickly pronounce all the sounds, from the “th” to the “ng”. If you have to reach the right positions from a very different starting point, it can take a lot of time and effort. Most people feel frustrated when they have to work hard to make a single sound. It’s natural then to start taking shortcuts—simplifying the sounds in order to speak quickly. Unfortunately, some shortcuts make it hard for the listener to understand. If you have your tongue in the same position as a native speaker, you can make the sounds quickly and correctly.

It’s easier to hear fine distinctions. Having a more native-like setting for the accent actually makes it easier to hear the language accurately. If American English is very different from your native language, everything about it sounds exotic. When you listen to sounds that are very similar to each other—like two vowels that sound almost the same—all the “foreignness” is distracting. It’s hard to identify the crucial details that change the meaning, when so many things feel strange. As you practice speaking with mouth and tongue shapes closer to those of a native speaker, you get used to hearing a more American sound in your own voice, and the characteristics of that sound become more familiar and less distracting. There’s less of a feeling of confusion or being overwhelmed by background noise. It becomes easier for you to focus on the same subtle details that the native speakers are listening for.

It’s easier to form the space inside the mouth correctly.  Some pairs of vowels are distinguished mostly by changes in the shape of the back of the mouth. (If you’ve ever had difficulty hearing the difference between “sheep” and “ship,” or “won’t” and “want,” this is the kind of distinction I’m talking about.) You don’t have to have your mouth shaped exactly like a native’s down to the last micrometer, but the closer you get, the easier it will be both to hear and to pronounce the important details. The American /r/ is another example. The distinctive American /r/ sound is made by creating three “chambers” in which the sound resonates—two in the mouth and one in the throat. It’s much easier to get the sound right if you always practice holding the muscles in your mouth and throat close to the way a native speaker does.

Can a person simply focus on learning individual sounds such as “th,” without learning the General American accent setting? Yes, usually a person can make progress by that route. But some of the sounds will be more difficult to pronounce correctly, as explained above. You can think of it this way—you can play golf without learning the right stance, but you won’t end up playing like Tiger Woods. You can practice a musical instrument without learning the right way to place your fingers, and you may even be able to hit all the notes, but it will take more effort and it will be hard to play difficult pieces smoothly. I do work with clients who just want to polish up one or two specific sounds quickly, but for those who really want to master the sound of American English, it’s better to work on the foundation of the accent and the individual sounds.