Five tips for learning to speak English like an American

The author and English language learning friends on a visit to the Pacific Science Center

When I moved to Seattle from the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan to study journalism through the State Department’s Northwest Community College Initiative, the biggest surprise was the language barrier. I had studied English for fifteen years, but suddenly I knew I was in trouble.

The slangs just were flying over my head and everybody talked so fast. I heard “pissed off’, “drive me nuts”, “heck”, “laugh my face off” and countless other words and phrases that were totally unfamiliar. I sighed and thought: “What am I gonna do about it? I thought I was pretty good in English.”

But I soon realized I had a Victorian way of speaking, rife with synonyms, antonyms and idioms. Most folks just couldn’t understand the way my learned British accent commingled with my native Pashtun accent.  “Oh, okay! You mean blah blah,” some folks would respond.  Others would say “this guy is not from here.” It embarrassed me.

So I decided to compile a list of tips for folks new to this country trying to improve their English. When you work hard, there is no way you won’t be able to learn English. But don’t be too hard on yourself. It doesn’t happen over a night. There is no royal road when it comes to learning English. There is no time-frame for learning English. There are immigrants I met who have been for ten years or so and they still speak like they just got off the plane because they have never taken it seriously.

Here are some tips for success:

1. Record Your Own Voice:  If you don’t already have a smartphone with a voice notes feature, buy a cheap MP3 player with a voice recorder. Read articles out loud out to yourself from an online newspaper or anything else you can get your hands and record your voice. Play it back and listen to yourself: can you understand what the hell you’re talking about? Hang in there! You have to straighten this language barrier out sooner or later if you’re serious about it. This practice can go on for months. It all depends upon how you move your jaw muscles, lips and tongue.

2. Mastering the American Accent with Audio CDs: This combination book and audio instructional program is designed to diminish the accents of men and women who speak English as their second language. It will help them speak standard American English with clarity, confidence, and accuracy. Specific exercises concentrate on vowel sounds, problematic consonants such as V, W, B, TH, and the American R, as well as how to employ correct syllable stress, link words for smoother speech flow, use common word contractions such as won’t instead of will not, and more.

3. McGraw-Hill’s American Idioms Dictionary: I dug and dug until I found this dictionary. It’s got all the stuff that Americans actually say. If you’re having difficulty understanding expressions in everyday speech, you need a comprehensive reference for idioms, common phrases, and sayings of American English. This is it! Also, read online American newspapers and you will notice journalism is completely different from other countries. The language of the American newspaper is very descriptive and you will be addicted to it once you start reading.

4. Intonation: In the end, this is the hardest thing to learn. Observe people around you when they talk; the way the pitch of their voice changes and certain kinds of body language. If you’re from another country, you will be tempted to bring in intonation and body language from your native language and listeners will not be able to understand you. To get rid of this, watch American movies and TV and listen to radio a lot.

5. Make American friends:  You will be tempted to hang out more with friends from your home country. Don’t! You need to spend more time with American friends to improve upon your English. It won’t be easy because of the language barrier and culture differences, but just take your time, smile, be friendly and relax. You will find folks who would love to speak with you.

In a nutshell, American English is the most beautiful language I ever knew. When Americans write and speak, they paint you a picture. And that’s why I’m still digging and learning this language.

The author is a journalist from the northwest of Pakistan where state security forces have launched an offensive against Taliban militants. He lives in Seattle and can be reached at mismailjournalist@gmail.com

Ever wondered how telemarketers based outside of the US learn to lose their accents? Check out “Up All Night,” an audio story from the CLP about a call center in Lahore, Pakistan.

Mohammad Ismail is a multilingual translator, journalist from the tribal areas of Pakistan, where state security forces are at war with Taliban militants. The Seattle’s drizzle and beautiful summer keep him around and can be reached at mismailjournalist@gmail.com.

58 COMMENTS

  1. This Difficulty I met when travelling by Air from chicago to detroit . I could not understand her english what she was speaking to me at Airport.

  2. This Difficulty I met when travelling by Air from chicago to detroit . I could not understand her english what she was speaking to me at Airport.

  3. I’m a Nigerian but I love to speak like an American…anytime I speak to my dudes,dey wonder how I got to pull that up…I watch American movies a lot but still I need sources ,mostly on the accent…I rili do need your help..

    • you can study street talk books or listen musics in english and memorize the phonetic symbols .my english is too week and because of losing confidence my speaking become week too but i hope we learn it like americans just try dude.
      this is my email we can keep in touch vipnegar@yahoo.com

  4. I’m an American (born and raised) and its still hard to keep up with the slang here. My tip for you, is to not worry about it. Slang in America is very diverse. You can live in the southern states all your life but once you come to New York the slang is different. So don’t worry about it. I’m from the Northern part of the U.S. and find it hard to understand Southerners, those from New England, and Texans.

  5. Salam Ismail saib, taso da kom zi na yai pa KPK ke? I m really crazy about American English but don’t know how to step up with it, as I am in Pakistan and don’t get much chances to communicate with the natives, so I was wondering if I could get your Facebook or other contact that we can connect through, it will be a great favor.

    • for beginning, I’m an American ( I was born and raised) . I’m 20 I think any language is difficult to learn, but now its depend on you. make an effort , Be strong we will see. read it .

  6. I am an Americana. I know its hard sometimes to understand us but the longerf time you spend with us it would be easier. Just try to make friends that are american

  7. hi,
    I’m from Bhutan and it’s been my dream to speak English but some way or the other i use to fail…..Being a Bhutanese it’s hard for me to cope up with spoken English.Really,I love English….help me….

  8. I hung out mostly with guys from my group and as a result I am struggling now with English where I have to interact with Americans….!

    • me too i think we should practice more and by watching films or listen musics in english we can improve it
      good luck

      • listening and speaking ! it is so important to improving english skills , we need to talk about all of events around the world in english language together , via skype, oovoo or another way s !

  9. I’m nigerian and I love to speak American english. I am trying and also making good progress as regarads intonation. I’m learning quick though. i just need to work a lot more on the idiomatic expressions. The tips are great. Thanks

    • Sentence structure correction by a native English speaker:

      I am Nigerian and love to speak American English. I’m making very good progress with intonations. I feel I am learning quickly. I do however need to work more on my idiomatic expressions. These tips are great. Thank You.

  10. o man that dictionary doesn’t contain the meanings of the words , it would be gud like if it had literal meaning of words along with sentence formations idioms phrases etc etc. Nonetheles a gud dictionary

  11. Hi, friends.
    I have many problems about it.i start to learn English newly . I’m on initial steps . Sometimes I think I can’t never learn and understand English. What do I do?

    • Sentence structure correction by a native English speaker:

      Hi Friends,
      I am just starting to learn English. I have had many problems with it. I am just in the beginning steps. Sometimes I think I will never learn or understand English. What should I do?

  12. think that to speak a gud english we hav to read more and more im algerian and here in algeria students love english and try to use it between them.what about frensh are you okay with it?????waitin for ur answer

    • Sentence structure correction by a native English speaker:

      I think that to speak good English we have to read more often. I’m Algerian and here the students love to speak English. They try to use it during their conversations. What about French? Do you speak it well? I am waiting for your answer.

      • You could also structure the first sentence this way:

        I think that to speak English well we need to read more often.

  13. Actually, I can speak in english well. But sometimes I can’t understand some speaking Americans because they speak too fast.

    • Sentence structure correction by a native English speaker:

      I speak English well actually. There are times however that I can’t understand Americans because they speak too fast.

  14. There´s no magic formula for learning english, than listening to english spoken the most of your time.
    I am from brazil, and the methods of learning english aren´t so essential because to learn to speak english naturally we should not start learning it by grammar or textbooks.
    Start listening mini-stories, american songs and natives speaking english by vídeos.
    Read an article out loud and listen to your own voice.
    This is a good method to improve your understanding.
    In short, to learn to speak english, you need only to try to speak.
    The more you practice, more you will speak.
    Look at this example:
    The children don´t need to study by any method like books, grammar or even verbs and rules, and they learn normally and naturally.

  15. OMG! It’s true! My boyfriend from Jordan think that I’m crazy… for him
    is no differences between American and British english … English is English.
    My english is good… very good. but if i must use american english i don’t know what to say. if i use british it’s so much better…

  16. Thanks Mohammad!
    You have put words to my feelings. Its almost a year now in the US but still I feel the exact same way you have described. Also I would like to add that there are regional differences in spoken English. I live in the South and people here have a very different accent. So my natural tendency is to grab the ‘southern’ intonation but then that is NOT how an average American speaks!!
    That being said, I think the solutions you have put down are very practical and something that, if I follow, I know I will improve. So thanks again for that!

  17. i’m only 14 yrs old…..n’ i’m startin’ learnin’ this now….i hope i’ll be able to master it….THANK YOU

  18. hey!
    guys I am krish from India but I am shocked when listen to English to native countries .
    English is very difficult for me, because I dint have any friend for communication that why I cant learn it if some one will help then I will sure to say, 00971508140463/ or by krishandevjogiram@gmail.com
    thanks for attention
    KRISH

Leave a Reply