American English

American English is very different from other forms of English spoken around the world. If you learned English as a second language, you probably learned a British variety in a classroom setting. One of the first things you will notice in the United States is the American usage of English does not always conform to strict rules. Even among well educated Americans, spoken English is very flexible and popular idioms are common - another example of American informality.

To understand American English, listen carefully, relax, and be aware that idioms are often used. For example, an American might greet you with Howya doin?as a way of saying ‘hello’. Other common phrases include Shape up (behave yourself), Suit yourself (do as you please), and Knock it off (stop what you are doing). If you do not understand an American’s phrase ask for an explanation.

Throughout the country, only a few minor dialectal variations exist. Except for some differences in pronunciation, Americans speak a uniform language. This is due largely to American mobility, the national mass media (especially television), and the nation’s education system. In areas such as New England, the ‘r’ may be dropped from the end of a word; in the South, English is spoken at a slower pace that leads to different vowel pronunciations. In general, Americans draw out their sounds, rather than speaking in concise, clipped syllables. Some ethnic groups also have their own variety of English, especially in large urban areas. Spanish is common in many Hispanic communities, and Native Americans speak a variety of Amerindian languages. Many first- and second-generation immigrants continue to speak their native tongues.

A special challenge for newcomers is to understand American idioms. Some for years have learned many English words, but they are still baffled in trying to understand when Americans combine words into expressions.

American English is constantly being enriched by new words, new meanings given to old words. The problem presented by idioms is that these expressions usually include words that are understandable by themselves, but when combined with other words often have entirely different meaning. Also, Americans use the same idiom to mean diametrically opposite things. For example, “That’s just great.” means both “wonderful” and “that’s awful”.

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