As an accent reduction instructor, people often ask me about tips for improving their American accent on their own. One fun method can be through TV shows. This can help you improve accent, vocabulary, and overall style of communication.
What aspects of communication can watching TV help you improve? First, let’s give a bit of background about what elements comprise an accent.
Spoken language is much more than just a series of sounds! Language is a way of communicating ideas and emotions which includes cultural influences. What’s more, the intonation, stress, rhythm, vocal quality, volume, pitch, and body language all give information about the message being communicated and can vary from culture to culture.
As such, all of these different aspects of speaking, plus pronunciation, comprise what a listener hears as an accent. Carefully watching American TV shows or movies can help you improve all of these elements.
Furthermore, this exercise helps you learn colloquial expressions in everyday speech as spoken by native speakers. Such “figures of speech” often aren’t taught in school and are easier to learn in an everyday, conversational context.
Step 1: Turn on the closed captioning or subtitles in English.
Step 2: Pay close attention to the actors’ pronunciation, the “melody” or intonation of their speech, and which words they stress: these will be the common patterns of American speech.
Step 3: When you hear some lines of dialogue you like, pause and rewind the scene and repeat the actor’s lines until you can mimic them as closely as possible. (This is particularly best to do with actors whose style of speech you admire!)
Step 4: If you find a word or phrase that you don’t know or that is difficult to pronounce, write it down and look it up later. Keep a list these words and phrases to review and practice.
Here are some TV shows where the main characters speak with General American accents (unless otherwise noted).
Comedies with General American Accent:
- How I Met Your Mother
- The Office (American version)
- Parks and Recreation
- The Colbert Report
- Mad About You
- Dharma and Greg
- The Big Bang Theory (the exception is the character Raj)
Dramas with General American Accent:
- The West Wing
- The X-Files
- Six Feet Under
- Mad Men
- Grey’s Anatomy
- House, M.D. (Yes, Hugh Laurie is British in real life, but his American accent is perfect!)
- The Twilight Zone
Bonus: New York Accents
This is by no means a comprehensive list, so please feel free to leave additional ideas in the comments!