After almost 20 years in the accent business, my favorite challenge is meeting a new client who wants accent reduction training but does not sound like a non-native speaker. In these cases, I have to listen for a couple minutes to get past what seems like a bona fide “American” accent.
I think the prize goes to a young Israeli post-grad medical researcher whose accent was as American-sounding as a native. But he was quite intent on learning how to sound perfectly “unaccented”, so he signed up for a package of classes.
With one exception, his Standard American English pronunciation was perfect, as was his intonation and rhythm. His “oral posture” (the shape of the mouth and throat and where the speech energy is centered), his grammar, and his “vibe” were all like a native speaker. He even knew how to handle the final T (another giveaway) in words like that, what.
The dead giveaway was the tiny 2-letter preposition “to”.
At the beginning or in the middle of a sentence, if the word to is in front of a consonant, native speakers pronounce the preposition as “t”: a very short /t/ sound with no vowel following. In this case, it’s a word that you can’t even call a syllable!
Instead of: “tooo the store”…
… SAE speakers say: t’the store
TRY IT: Pronounce a very short schwa (a quick, soft UH sound) sound after the T. The schwa is not a true vowel, it’s a tiny vocalization (like at the beginning of the word “about”). You can even shorten the word down to the consonant T without a schwa.
On to the exceptions (what would English be without exceptions?):
#1: This rule does not apply to “two” or “too.” In the sentence “I want two cantaloupes too!” you should pronounce a long OO both times.
#2: This is a bit technical: if “to” is following a vowel or a voiced consonant, you can often say a D-like sound instead of /t/. This is appropriate depending on the linguistic context – and optional – but you will hear native speakers pronouncing “to” like this.
K’n you go d’th’ store? (Can you go to the store?)
I’m going d’work. (I’m going to work.)
It gets a bit trickier when many voiced sounds pile on top of each other:
I have nothing d’do with it.
What are you going d’do about it?
The solution is: skip the hard parts, mumble, and say “gonna”.
Once you get the hang of how to pronounce “to” (and other short connector words), you have jumped to an advanced level of natural, very authentic-sounding American English. It’s little tricks like these that can make a big change in the way you sound to your American friends and colleagues.