A quick guide for immigrants in the U.S. working to perfect their American English.
Last month I had a wonderful experience: someone asked me if I was born here in the U.S.
Flattered, I told him, “I’ve been in the States for only three years.” He was not satisfied and kept asking me more questions about how I learned English so well.
But there are still times when I feel I have a long ways to go in terms of perfecting my speech. And a lot of other immigrants I’ve spoken to in the U.S. feel the same way. No matter how long they’ve lived here, they still face difficulty in expressing themselves well in English. Others perfected their English in few years. Khalid Hosseini, the Afghan American author of famous novel, “The Kite Runner “ for instance, was 15 years old when his family moved to the States and went on to write multiple bestsellers in perfect American English.
Everyone is different and there is no concrete timeframe for success.
Recently, I talked to one frustrated parent who told me
“I gotta get away from my little kids when I talk on phone because they make fun of me. I hide out in the house so they cannot hear me. It’s my strong accent!! I understand when people talk, but I still cannot speak well despite living in this country for a long time. I mix up my native language’s intonation with American English. Sometimes, it’s hard for the listener to understand me.”
So I decided to compile a list of tips for immigrants in this country trying to improve their English and speak more like American-born speakers:
1. Don’t speak just one word at a time:
Many people who learned printed English do this, rather than stringing their words together as Americans tend to. You end up sounding mechanical and foreign.
2. Mimic dialogue from American movies:
Read it out loud, record it and play it back to yourself. I started out this habit by doing some favorite lines from The Godfather to make people laugh. But it turns out it really helps you develop more of an American accent.
3. Try to hang out often with native speakers:
If you have had a hard time with finding American-born friends, try getting a volunteer position at an organization where people only speak English.
4. Listen closely when people around you are speaking English:
Listen to how they stress certain words in certain situations. Have you ever heard random people arguing about something? Listen to their intonation and watch their body language when they talk. But try not to be too creepy in your eavesdropping!
5. Never stop working on your intonation:
I personally find this to be the hardest part of mastering a language. Without intonation, your speech sounds flat, mechanical, choppy and unemotional. Even if the words you’re saying are technically perfect, your speech will still be very confusing to native English speaker. If English is your second language, intonation cannot ever be fully mastered, but you can always go deeper and deeper and discover more. For example, when I commute on buses in Seattle, I notice when Americans talk they don’t move lips like the rest of the world. Americans create most of sound in throat by using their tongues very actively.
6. Mind your manners:
I bumped into a very interesting book in local library, titled “Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th Edition” which I found to be a must-have. It is well written and easy to read for immigrants who are interested in understanding local American etiquette. The authors provides invaluable advice on situation you might think of, including how to deal with salespeople, small talk, official protocol, sending cards and replying to invitations, job interviews, celebrations like baby showers, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, services of other faiths, weddings, and more.
7. Use American idioms… carefully:
“Put the word out,” “xoxo,” “play favorites,” “run errands,” “sure thing,” “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” “play hooky.” These American idioms remind me of similar idioms in my native language, Pashto. Learn to play with idioms, but use them sparingly – overdoing it will sound awkward. Get yourself an American idiom dictionary like “A Dictionary of American Idioms” written by Adam Makkai. It contains more than 8,000 idiomatic words, phrases and informal English expressions.
Getting proficient in American English will make a big difference in your life. Challenge yourself to experience that change!
And good luck!