Are your flat “a”s failing you? Or rather: are they falling flat enough? English pronunciation, and American English pronunciation in particular, can be tricky, but we’re here to give you some tips.
The easiest way to practice your pronunciation is to drill sounds. Let’s focus on the vowel sounds here. (Much of the trick of English pronunciation is in the orthography, or spelling. Don’t let the spelling confuse you: remember these words from their pronunciation.)
To form the flat A sound in American English, open your mouth wide, pulling your lips back, and making sure your tongue is low in the bottom of your mouth. The vowel sound should come from the very back of your mouth; in American English, the sound often almost comes from up in your nose: hat, bat, cat, rat
Now, keeping your tongue in the same place, relax your lips and cheeks. The sound is like the sigh you make when you eat something delicious. This is the “aw” sound in American English: hot, bought, caught, rot
Now, again keeping your tongue in the same place, push your lips forward into a loose “o” shape (the American English pronunciation has a much loser “o” shape than its British equivalent) and let the sound come from the front of your mouth as you say the following: haute, boat, coat, wrote
Now let’s try the vowel sound that you make with the sides of your tongue pressed against your top teeth, first with your lips and cheeks relaxed and the sound coming from the middle of your mouth: head/het, bed/bet, red/retina, said/set
Now the same placement of your tongue against your teeth, but with your lips pulled into a flat line and the sound coming from the front: heed/heat, bead/beat, reed/treat, seed/seat
Now keep your tongue the in the same place, but make your mouth a round “o” shape and say from the front: hoot, boot, root, suit
There’s one more vowel sound that falls in somewhere in the middle of all of these vowels sounds in American English: the sides of your tongue won’t be touching your teeth, your cheeks and lips are relaxed, and the sound should come from right the middle of your mouth: hood, good, stood, could. In American English pronunciation, the sound comes from a bit farther back and higher up in the mouth than standard British English pronunciation, which is closer to hoot and boot.
Diphthongs in English are a bit trickier: words like height, hide, bite, bide, sight, and side are a combination of “ah” and “ee” but said quickly.
Another very common diphthong in American English is the one you hear in how, bow, sow, cow. It begins with a flat “a” as in “hat” with the lips and tongue both moving forward to end on an “oo” sound, or as if you’re about to start your next word with a “w.” A great word for practicing this sound is “bow wow.”