Why it’s hard to understand Americans when they talk

Why it's hard to understand american accent

Last Saturday was the 4th of July, the national holiday in the US. That means that Americans everywhere were cooking out (faisaient de barbecues), watching fireworks (des feux d’artifice), and listening to patriotic songs (we have A LOT of them), perhaps played by the Boston Pops Orchestra. I’m not overly patriotic, but I always enjoyed watching this concert on TV on the 4th. Here, you can find lots of videos of the concert on YouTube if you want to see what it’s all about!

This weekend, we just made a few cheeseburgers, but that’s good enough for me!

Today’s episode isn’t about barbecues and burgers, but it is about something typically American: The American accent and what makes it difficult (ce qui fait que c’est difficile) to understand.

It’s such a challenge for many of you that there will be a special series: this video, which explains and demonstrates the difficulties, and then two interactive practice videos to give you the opportunity to work on understanding Americans when they speak “normally”. Look for these in August, after I get back from my vacation in Belgium (because I’m taking a real break from work, and I hope you are too!)


Here are the 2 interactive exercises:

Exercises to help you understand real English, part 1

Exercises to help you understand real English, part 2

“Americans don’t articulate!”

When you talk to Americans (especially 2 or more Americans at the same time), it sounds like they talk with a hot potato in their mouth. “They don’t articulate!”, you think. It can be really frustrating.

If you often work with Americans (or other native speakers), you’ve perhaps gotten used to guessing (pris l’habitude de deviner) in order to understand. You feel uncomfortable asking “Can you repeat please?” for the 4th time, so you just continue to guess (deviner). It seems like they talk so fast!

An American accent + talking fast + not articulating = “Au secours!!” Argh.

I know—that’s how I felt when I arrived in France. I thought it would be so much easier if real-life conversations had subtitles! I had a pretty good level of French, but still, with real French people, the words seemed to run together into some bizarre sound:

My French friend: “Shay pas, chui pas encore allée.”

Me: Euh…Oui?

Then a lovely French friend of mine explained the little tips of understanding fast French speech. “Je sais” and “Je suis” sometimes sounds more like “Shay” and “Chui”. People don’t always say “ne” in “ne…pas”, and sometimes the words run together (se mélangent; ne sont pas clairement articulés). “Je sais” becomes “Shay”; “je suis” becomes “chui”.

Me: “Holy crap! (Mer..credi!) Je comprends pourquoi je ne comprends pas!”

Understand why it’s so hard

I hope today’s video creates that same reaction for you, concerning Americans and the way they speak. You’ll understand why it sounds like Americans talk fast (in reality, they don’t talk faster than you talk in French). You’ll also understand why it seems they don’t articulate (it’s not just because they’re lazy ‘Mericans (‘Ricains 😉

I can’t promise you’ll instantly understand everything your American colleague says, but I can promise you’ll be able to start making more sense of (mieux déchiffrer) the sounds, little by little.

There are also two other very good sites that will help you better understand Americans when they speak:

The YouTube channel Rachel’s English. She goes into real detail about each sound of the American accent.

The site Pronuncian. It has examples and exercises for improving your pronunciation, which also helps your comprehension. Some activities are free, but others require a subscription.

Why It's Hard To Understand Americans

P.S. You’ll have a few weeks to watch this week’s SBFG video. I’ll be on vacation from until July 31, but you’ll get highlights from past SBFG videos so you can catch up on (vous rattraper) some past videos and resources that you haven’t had time to enjoy. I’m not gonna leave you for 3 weeks with no English to do 🙂 

What about you?

Have you ever spoken with Americans? Did you find it difficult to understand them, or was it actually ok?

Share your stories with us in the comments below!

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