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Let’s speak American! (Language level B1-B2)

Ottobre 2015
Tra i suoi allievi ci sono molti attori di cinema e teatro, ma anche business people che per lavoro hanno bisogno di avere una buona pronuncia americana. Ecco la ricetta secondo la speech coach Susan Cameron: esercizio costante, ascoltare con attenzione e ripetere mille volte. Arrivare alla perfezione si può ma... ci vuole orecchio!

di Laura Giromini | vivereny.it

File audio:

Susan Cameron
Susan Cameron

For many non-mother tongue speakers, understanding what an American is saying can be difficult at first. Americans, like other Anglophones, enunciate far less clearly than the Italians. Not only that, they tend to use a lot of slang and other expressions that you’ve probably never heard before. This can be demoralizing, even if your English isn’t bad. You just need to practise.


The same applies to your own speech in English. Many people are finding help from a book by Susan Cameron called Perfecting Your English Pronunciation. It is particularly popular with two groups: actors and businessmen/women. Actors need to learn  ”Standard American” if they are to land a role in a movie or TV show, whereas business people (particularly from the Far East) must be able to make themselves understood in English, if they are to have a successful career. There are various techniques for improving your accent: one is to study English phonetics, but a far more fun way is to watch an American movie and repeat every line out loud. But Susan Cameron has other methods...    




Speaker: Chuck Rolando (Standard American accent)

When you learn a language you also need to learn the accent, and this can be very difficult. But one person who can help you is Susan Cameron, who has written a book called Perfecting Your English Pronunciation. She is a speech and dialect coach who works with people in all walks of life – including actors – in order to improve their American accent.  We asked her what were the main challenges for Italians who were trying to do this:

Susan Cameron (Standard American accent)

Well, it really depends on how heavy the accent is. I mean, in the heavier accents there’s a lack of a “th” sound; it’s made into a “t” or a “d.” So that’s the first thing to correct: also, sometimes there are heavier “r” sounds: you guys have the “vrrrrr” and we have “err,”  so it’s quite different in the mouth. I find that those are easier for Italians to correct, though. The more subtle sounds are the harder ones, particularly a few of the vowels: the “i” sound, the short “i” sound; we say “hit” and “will,” and you guys say “heet” and “weel.” 


And that’s not all:

Susan Cameron

There’s also what they call the “cup” sound.” It’s usually spelt with a “u” as in the word “cup,” sometimes with an “o” as in the word “mother,” and you guys tend to put it farther back, so instead of “cup” you say “carp,” all right? Or “mather,” way back there. There’s the “e” sound, which is the short “e” sound, as in the word “get” or “let.” It tends to be a bit more open like “gat” or “lat,” and then, lastly, the “o” sound: we have what’s called a dipthong; it’s two vowels sounded as one. We say “oh” as in “goh,”  and you guys have the pure “o,” “go.”


And then there are other factors:

Susan Cameron

But in addition to that, rhythm is quite important: we have what’s called “operative words,” meaning the ones that carry the meaning within a sentence, and then we have inoperative words that we just throw away, and we reduce them to weaker forms. We don’t say, “I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO HAVE GONE TO THE STORE”: we say “I would have LIKED to have GONE to the STORE.” So there are a lot of words that are merely in our language to provide syntax – and not meaning – that we throw away.


So how often do you need to practise?

Susan Cameron

30 minutes to an hour day, if you really want to nail the accent, and by that I mean the dedicated practice: you need to walk around all day long and listen to it, and feel how it feels in your mouth because it’s a musculature, it’s a different placement in the mouth, and that’s something that has to be retrained and takes a bit more time. It just requires a real commitment and that daily repetition is far more important than sitting down and practising for two hours. It’s much better to practise 20 minutes a day than twice a week for two hours.  


So does she believe that an Italian can obtain a perfect American accent?

Susan Cameron

Yes, I do, but again – and I don’t mean this to sound as a cop-out –  it really depends on the individual. It depends on how good your ear is, it depends on how much you practise, it depends on where the commitment is. And it is easier if Italians are here in America listening to English and listening to American accents all day long than if you’re trying to get a perfect American accent while living in a different country.


Australian Cate Blanchett and Britons Kate Winslet and Hugh Laurie have excellent American accents, although they have a natural advantage: English is their mother tongue. Perfecting an American accent is a lot more difficult for Spain’s Penelope Cruz or Austria’s Christoph Waltz  (bottom). And it’s curious that British actors speak with American accents when they play “normal” people in American movies: when they play the “bad guy” they tend to keep their British accents! But you will only appreciate this if you watch films in English: don’t watch the dubbed Italian versions!

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You guys. Voi. Qui Susan Cameron intende dire “voi italiani” ma il termine you guys si può riferire anche a solo due persone e vale sia per uomini sia per donne. È un’espressone americana informale, ma una volta una guida l’ha usata mentre parlava con il Presidente Bill Clinton e sua moglie Hillary!

Put it farther back. Metterla più indietro. Qui Susan Cameron sta descrivendo la posizione della lingua nella bocca, che è fondamentale per la pronuncia. Ad esempio si dice che il modo migliore per pronunciare correttamente la parola the è quello di mordersi la lingua!

I don’t want this to sound as a cop-out. Non voglio che questo sembri una scappatoia per non rispondere alla domanda. Cop-out è un termine slang che si usa in tutti i paesi anglofoni per indicare una scappatoia, una soluzione troppo facile. Probabilmente deriva da cop (sbirro): si diceva di un criminale che confessava tutto per evitare guai che “he copped out”.