I was talking with a client this week, and she said in frustration that what she learned in school in her home country about how to speak English isn't really how people speak at all in America. This is not the first time that I have heard this sentiment, and there is truth to her statement.
But before you get discouraged, know that most everything you learn in your English studies has value at some level. Even if your teacher only focused on how to write formal letters and how to appropriately address the president of a country, it is still useful information because it gives you a point of comparison.
I doubt that you had a teacher like this, but, just in case, I want to let you know of a few words and rules that Americans use that usually don't show up in the grammar books (or if they do, they don't get the appropriate emphasis).
In other words, this article is for my client who wants to know how people really talk in America.
3 Words That We Use A Lot, One That We Don't, and Why Do Americans Pronounce T's like D's Sometimes?
We use the word got a lot. It's super versatile, and there are many ways we use it. But I want to focus on a couple of common uses of the word:
to get = to arrive
In a casual setting most Americans will say:
"I got to work at nine" instead of "I arrived at work at 9."
Now, there is nothing wrong with saying "arrived." It just sounds formal, like you are giving testimony in court. Okay, maybe not quite that formal, but you get the idea.
Another common use:
to get = to understand
In a casual setting you might hear:
"I get what you're saying" instead" of "I understand what you're saying."
Or, you might hear more succinctly:
"I get you," which sounds like this in American English: "I gitcha." Or, you can also use the past tense variation, “I gotcha.”
I'm gonna grab a coffee.
You're gonna be late.
She's gonna do her homework later.
You can't be in America for more than a couple of minutes before you hear someone say this. You might already know that it is a shortened variation of "going to." Rarely do Americans enunciate every sound of "going to." Instead, the words blend together into this new form: gonna.
One word of caution: Be sure that you always include the helping verb (is/am/are) when using "gonna." I often hear my clients use gonna quite fluently; however, they sometimes forget the helping verb. The helping verb is required to make the sentence grammatically correct.
I wanna hold your hand. (Credit to the Beatles on this one)
Do you wanna grab a drink?
I wanna get a new phone but can't right now.
As you may already know, "wanna" is how most Americans pronounce, "want to." Just like "gonna," few Americans will pronounce the "t" sounds in these two words. Are we just too lazy? I don't think so. Our mouths just want to be more efficient! Saying "wanna" is simply easier - try it for yourself.
The Word We Americans Don't Often Use
Despite the fact that it appears in almost every textbook...
What can I say? In American English, we simply don't use this word very much. If we do, it's really only to ask questions that are suggestions in disguise or questions that are attempts at agreement.
Shall we go? (Or, simple, "Shall we?")
Shall we wait a few more minutes to see if she comes?
Shall we have another glass of wine?
You might hear questions such as these, but to be clear: They sound formal. You definitely wouldn't hear my 5-year old using "shall." Again, this does not make it wrong; it just means that it doesn't get the same use as it does in other English-speaking countries.
If you're curious about using shall, do an informal experiment this week to see how many times you hear it. Honestly, I'd be interested to hear what you find out!
And, last but not least...
The Middle T
I've had more than one client ask me how to pronounce the word "water." One told me that she tried to order it in a restaurant, but the waiter didn't understand her. I understood her pronunciation, but I think I know what the problem was. Most Americans pronounce the "t" in the middle of the word more like a "d." So, for example, the word "little" rhymes with the word "middle." "Kettle" rhymes with "meddle," and so on.
If you choose to pronounce the middle "t" as a /t/, it's not a big deal, and on your list of English priorities, learning how to pronounce the middle "t" might be pretty low. But, in my opinion, it's always good to be aware of the differences.
So, I imagine this list of how Americans really talk could go on forever, but I'll stop here. Are there some other things that you could add to this list? What have you noticed during your time here in America or while listening to American TV shows, movies, and podcasts? I'd love to hear your feedback.