Five tips for learning to speak English like an American

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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.

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119 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.

      • this is gud stuff but will we ever be able to speak in that language which they speak in their english shows and serials?
        I mean their sentence formation and usage of words which are unfamiliar for us is very difficult to execute by us but its easy to listen and understand

        • I think your wrong on that one. You just think it’s difficult, because you havent gotten into the mood of it.

    • To learn language, study the history and culture of the country. Entomology is the study of words. We learn Latin and Greek to learn English. America is not England, we have many constitutional principles in our language and mannerisms. We are very egalitarian. Good luck. We were all immigrants at one point.

  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.

    • hiiii, steve this is prateek from india
      i love speak engish like a american style , i tried many things but the real expirience comes with pratctice or
      with real friends..i’m really fonds of speaking like an american’s style.. please help me to understad americans expressioin or style

  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.

  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….

    • hey, friend kuju jangpo la…..I am fron northeast india.my name is abhishek toto.dont be nervous when you speak english, speak confidently.being a man of tibeto-barman tongue I can understand that it so hard for a bhutanese to learn English fluently…but when i listen to buthanese radio kuju fm I find that bhutanese speaks English like an European…..do hard work, best of luck…..

  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

  19. Hi everybody,
    Somehow I came across this blog and also surprise to see that my colleague, Jozelle, has posted here.

    In our organization, we help people to practise speaking in English and Mandarin.

    We understand the problems that you have posted here such as you can read well but cannot speak well. Different people may have different obstacles to improve their fluency, however one action we need to take is to have constant practices.

    We provide a safe and constructive environment for you to learn and practise. Please feel free to write to me, or check out our website, http://www.genashtim.com.

  20. hi frd if some one living pakistan so he would like to talkin english ..i can’ t speak english well.i don’ t know way..but i want to speak if some talk to me regularly so may i’ll improve my self…contect me plz.03054855116

  21. This American English is most beautiful language of the world ..I can’t speak well … but when my uncle told me that you do your English well because I am leaving bilaspur so I frd how can I talk to others and I am shifting to loss angeles …. but with the help of this site now ..I can speak English very well and clearly… thanks

  22. Hi my name is frankie, I’m scared of speaking english in public. What should I do to get fluent in english?

  23. hello every body!

    i wanna improve my english.

    And i think everyone here are same me.if so why we dont make freind and help each other for practicing english.There are many ways for practicing english but i think most important we should practice by write and special is listenning and speaking everyday.

    If anyone wanna study english with me please contact by email trinhhai121286@gmail.com and by skype trinhtminhhai .wellcome wellcome.

  24. I’m Brazilian (we speak Portuguese, not Spanish, as you may think) and I intend to become an English teacher soon, but I still have a lot to improve (both in written and spoken language). I follow those tips, but I still haven’t tried the “record your own voice” trick yet. I haven’t found an Amercan friend either, so if there is any born and raised American reading this comment, please contact me on henriquex.95@gmail.com.

  25. I found all this very helpful,well talking about english and how we can improve it is good but what we need then is stop analizing and get a move on all skills should be grow together all are kind of related to each other but dont forget the most important’s speaking like a native speaker so i recommend strongly to listen to them a lot and then imitate the way theyre talking

  26. Hi. im togolese in english department but i have difficulties to speak english. What should i do to make fluent m’y english?Please help me

  27. This can help in speaking English like a native American.For having the american accent,you can watch American Tv shows,Tv News they really help a lot in catching up the American Accent .Because when we watch American Tv shows we try to copy the accent and that try and try can make up learn that.

  28. I have difficulty to speak English. and I am so lazy ….please give me some shortcuts to speak fluently in English……..,……

  29. This article I red this is so much useful
    Everything is dependent with yourself
    Practice practice practice ….as much ias you can

  30. I have difficulty to speak English. and I am so lazy ….please give me some shortcuts to speak fluently in English……..,……

  31. I want to speak like americans, but problem is that till i did not find any one who can help me learning this like any book or resource person or trainer near to my residency, so please guide me what should i need for that.

  32. Comment:i'm a nigerian.. im very fluent in pidgin english as thats our native language and also i have naturally american accent in english but the trouble is i dont knw words to say or speak to people

  33. Hello! I have issue sometimes to speak confidentally because i am not a native english speaker. English is easy language to speak if u concentrate properly. I want conversation partner who know english very well. My email is faizansabir@hotmail.com
    Thank you.

  34. To learn american english the way they speak, first you need to born & raise here. first five years of schooling are enough.

  35. > 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.

    ;))) “English is the most beautiful language I ever knew” – the meaning is amasing and is up to the author.
    Of course, I believe that the only beautiful and powerful language in the world is russian (and it is the fact ;)

    Nevertheless ;) I would like to communicate with any english-native person just to argue on any argueless issue and to exchange real info beside of official magazines/papers info position.

    vladk@nm.ru

  36. Am trying to speak really like Americans coz white and black american have some English accent that’s not the same and its had to pull with those two but as far as I know being like 5 months in america my English speaking is proud of me I mean am proud of myself thou

  37. I am searching for someone who is interested in talking to me in English. Most of the times I watch English series and movies but when it comes to speaking , I really get nervous. I jut want to talk fluently.

    • Donot worry about it you have to focus on reading,speaking and listening.leave the grammer and try to speake freely.

  38. this article helped me a lot to improve my english. as im from nepal i can speak english like an american speaker :-)

  39. Comment: yoh Wsup my fellaz,I’m here to teach you how to kill American slang,Follow me on #Twitter #Percy_selowa #Facebook #MasterMind percc selowa

  40. Learning english is not as hard as it may seem at first sight, first allow me to introdyce myself. My name is Orlan, and English is certainly my second lenguage. i still remember when i moved to us. im currently living in miami and everything is gotten much easier. When i came here i was 14 years old and now im 22. My english’s gotten better over time, thanks to my hard work, i mean i literally worked my ass off to pronunciate like Americans and today im proud of myseld cuz I finally accomplished it. Im not saying is impossible but requires tons of hard work. If you set yourself on you’ll getter

  41. Your local public library should give you access to language programs. Go in and find a friendly librarian and ask her. They have audio book and e-audio to listen to that can help tremendously. I had a lot of luck with them when I was learning Spanish. This is my free recommendation. I’m sure audio programs are available for purchase as well. But free is best!!
    Also: buy a frequency dictionary to learn the most important words in English; practice your words and phrases using a SRS system like Anki (also free); watch TV with subtitles and watch the same episode multiple times until you are able to turn off the subtitles, whatever words or phrases you learn should go into your Anki; itlaki.com can link you to people who are trying to learn your language.
    Please don’t be afraid to speak English in public. Fear will hold you back forever, but you need to let go of your fear. Most Americans like foreigners and will be patient with you. Just be kind, and let them know that you are struggling, and that you would like to improve your English. Americans will respect you for trying so hard.
    Good luck!

  42. I can speak English but not that great though.
    I’m always getting nervous when someone’s talking to me using English language :/
    like “what should i say? should i say this or that? what if it is wrong? they’re gonna laugh at me for sure”.
    and i’m always getting shy and nervous when there’s an american walking in our villa.

  43. Comment:Am Nomvula plz help me am african am realy realy want to know how to speak english i live in south africa my problem is i dont understand if person talking to me and how i respond plz help me guys

  44. I’m American and there’s more tips that I would recommend. As a programmer I work with lots of Indians and hear their terrible English every day. I’ve noticed some things I wish non English speakers would do.

    1. TRY! This, as listed above, is the most important part. Soooooo many times I’ve heard my coworker’s just brush their bad English off as if they could care less that they’re not being understood. In fact, I’ve never meet a non-English speaker that actually cared about their poor English and that was at a company where 70% of the workers were from overseas.

    2. Stop with the “I know English” attitude. You don’t or I wouldn’t be able to tell you’re not from here. Nothing is more annoying to an American than to have someone claim to “know English” or to be an “excellent English speaker” and then refuse to accept the reality that they don’t know as much as they think they do. If you can’t speak English well, say it. Don’t act like your English is great when it’s really at an elementary school level. You can say big words? Great! But big words don’t equal good English. Just admit you’re learning still and everything will be fine.

    3. Use words like a, an, the, and and. So many non-English speakers say things like “Dog died” and assume Americans will know what they’re talking about. We don’t. Some languages, like Spanish, assume you mean I or my when something’s left out. English does not! “Dog died”, “English not good”, etc. does nothing to tell an English speaker what context you speak from. Whose dog died? Mine? Yours? His? Hers? That dog over there? This dog here? The dog? A dog? See where this going? You can’t leave words out and expect the person to know what you mean, but I hear people do it alllll the time.

    4. Don’t learn slang. It’s useful, heck (see what I did there), it’s needed sometimes, but it’s not going to improve your English. Sothern’s here in the USA say “ya’ll” all the time like “Ya’ll come back now ya hear” and in some places soda is called pop. Let’s not forget tubular, rad, and hang ten, all from states like California. But these are NOT a part of English in the way that everyone knows them. Say those things in other parts of the USA and you’ll get weird looks and no one will understand you. So they do nothing to help you. Plus, you can quickly learn the slang terms for the area you’re in instead of wasting time learning ones you’ll never use.

    5. Don’t dismiss or lump things. By this I mean the proper words for items. For example, at work just yesterday, my Indian coworker tried to tell my American manager to hit the “(” key. But do you know what he called it? Bracket. He said “hit the bracket key”. Do you know what key is the bracket key? Definitely not “(“. That key is called the parentheses not bracket. My manger hit the “[” key, which IS the bracket and my coworker said “No. The bracket key” to which my manager and I both said, that is the bracket key. The coworker said “the other bracket key” and long story short the manager went through these keys [, {, ( before getting it right. The point though is that the coworker when told the proper name, dismissed the managers’ words and said “I call them all brackets. They’re all brackets to me”. To make things worse, another Indian coworker did the same thing just the next day when he was speaking to me. Don’t do this! It shows the listener you could care less about the fact that it takes multiple tries JUST to understand you. It’s the worst part of my job because every day I spend half my time trying to figure out what my coworkers are saying and everyone just dismisses the correct words. So learn the correct words. Don’t dismiss them or you’ll have a very hard time communicating.

    6. Don’t revert back to your native language. So many people when they can’t speak the correct words will revert back to the language they know. Or…. they start talking and the next second they go from English to their native language mid-sentence. Don’t do this! It will cause the listener to be like “wait, what? Could you start over” and if you’re at a place like work, it looks bad on you since the entire room now has no idea what you just said. I know it’s tempting to just switch and sometimes it just happens but be aware of it and try to control it. Also, when you’re at a place like work or somewhere everyone around you speaks English only, don’t start rambling in non-English. English speakers, at least here, hate when others talk for long periods of time in another language, especially at work. This isn’t to be rude. We just don’t want to be left out of things and it’s distracting since our minds will now pay attention and try to figure out what’s going on. It’d be like you not knowing English at all and me talking in just English around you at work. You’d have no idea what I’m saying and it’d make you wonder what’s so important that you couldn’t share with the rest of the team.

    7. Don’t worry about spelling too much (unless you’re posting online). Even here we have bad spellers. There’s words I can’t spell if my life depends on it. But I can say them. So worry about pronouncing the words before worrying about spelling them. If you can speak English and be understood, you’re 90% there. Now of course spelling is needed but for beginners, it’s not what’s important. If I can’t read what you wrote I can easily ask you to tell me. But if I can’t understand what you say I’m more likely going to walk away instead of waiting for you to write it down.

    8. Stop using British English to learn American English. The US is not the UK and we don’t speak in the same way. This is something a lot of non-English speakers don’t seem to understand. A lot of people learn English from the original authors, England. While this will give you most of the solution to your problem, it will be instantly noticeable when you try to communicate. We just don’t speak like the UK does. For example the word color. No it’s NOT spelled wrong but if you learned British English you may be screaming “COLOUR!”. This is because we say the same words completely differently. And we spell them differently too. So you need to choose what version of English you want. American or British and they’re not interchangeable in some areas. Sure most words are the same, but we don’t speak like British people. They have their own way of saying things. Also, there’s words that aren’t even close to matching. Colour is at least close, but what is a boot? How about a zebra crossing? Queuing? None of those words exist here in the US. Say them and you’ll get blank looks. But they all exist in British English. A boot is called a trunk here. A zebra crossing is a crosswalk and queuing is simply waiting in line here. Then there’s words we both have but mean nothing alike. Know what a thong is? How about pants? They’re not the same in the US. A thong in the US is sexy underwear while in British English it’s a shoe (flip flop here in the US) and those pants are underwear to the British but trousers to the US.

    So don’t use British English to learn unless you understand the differences.

    Finally though, I’d like to use some of the comments as examples.

    “Hey guys am tired of friends not understanding me when on phone, am ready to learn”

    This goes back to missing words. It’s not understood who/what the thing this relates to is. Who’s tired? You, him, her, your dog, sister, mother? What phone? The, a, my, yours, your moms, dads? Who’s ready? The cat, you, the guy down the street? English doesn’t assume. You MUST say who or what. Don’t miss words.

    “i’ve readed all comments and suggestions on this page, you all peoples are really good.”

    Ok, not everything needs an ed. While the I part is there, readed is not a word, they read, not readed. Again though, missing words. What comments? It should be “the comments”. And finally, peoples. That’s not a real word, it’s slang. Don’t learn it. It should be “all you people” or even better “you’re all”.

  45. Hi, I would like to make my addition to paragraph 4 in last article:
    American movies are full of slang and idioms. Don’t learn English through movies like I did. At the beginning I couldn’t understand English in the movies well, and I was depressed that never will learn English. Thank you, Lana

  46. Hi, Best software to learn American English at home at this moment is Rosetta Stone high technology program. It will correct your accent, and you can learn English grammar. You have a mentor for 3 month since you will purchase this program. Phone number to order this program is (540) 432-6166. Thank you, Lana

  47. when I’m lestening to the native english speakers I get lost because of new terms they use.I often read to english newspapers,but I’ll always find a new terms.these terms don’t end.english is expandable.these everyday new terms reduce my love of this world accumulated language

  48. There are a number of aspects of the English language that you’re not always going to find in an academic course book. Things like idioms and phrasal verbs are extremely common in everyday English conversations.

  49. Beautifully presented information here in your article. I am really impressed from the wonderful writing. English language is best known language for better growth in jobs.

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