In my time as a dialect and accent coach, I’ve discovered that one of my main jobs is to help my actors deal with the dreaded “accent anxiety”. This fear of sounding inaccurate can have the effect of preventing actors from even attempting to ever do any kind of dialect or accent other than their own. This anxiety is incredibly common amongst actors, but much like dealing with regular performance anxiety, there are ways to overcome it.
In this article, I’ve collected a few strategies to combat any negative feelings that may arise when attempting to acquire a new dialect or accent.
BE FORGIVING OF YOURSELF
Let's address the tough part first—you're going to make mistakes. No matter which dialect or accent you attempt, if it's not native to you, it will be imperfect. Despite this truth, you may still feel uncomfortable when first attempting a new dialect. But guess what?
I give you permission to be uncomfortable.
You may not be as good as you want to be at the start, but that's normal when trying new things. Acquiring any new skill takes practice, so why do we often dismiss ourselves when trying on a new accent for the first time? It may be due in part to the fact that we immediately judge ourselves— the new voice coming from our mouth may sound strange to our own ears. However, at this stage, you're likely not a good judge of the new dialect or accent anyway. Until you really get to know the dialect, there’s no reason to be afraid of it.
You may also be experiencing an all too common fear of being judged by imaginary critics. Armchair experts love to critique dialects and accents, but they usually have no idea what they’re talking about. Most people have a very narrow idea of what a dialect is supposed to sound like, because they’ve only been exposed to certain versions of it. In reality, every dialect and accent has an incredible amount of variety. Think about it—did the people you grew up with all sound exactly the same? Of course not. You have much more freedom in your accent acquisition than you may think.
START WITH WHAT YOU KNOW
When you’re just starting out and deciding what dialects and accents to learn, it might be most comfortable to keep it in the family – literally. Do any of your relatives (or even close friends) speak with a different dialect than you do? It’s likely you can point to one or two examples. If you’ve been exposed to these dialects and accents for some time, you will have a stronger frame of reference to start from.
It's also helpful to begin with dialects that you genuinely enjoy listening to. Perhaps your favorite character on TV speaks with a British accent, or you’ve always an affinity for an exaggerated Southern drawl. Whatever the reason may be, that attraction will give you a stronger connection to the target dialect, and you’ll be less likely to tire of practicing it.
You should also endeavor to immerse yourself in the dialect by surrounding yourself with it as much as possible while learning. It’s easier than ever to find quality resources online of any accent you can imagine. Listen to those audio references as you go about your day, trying to repeat the sounds you hear whenever you can.
REMEMBER YOUR JOURNEY IS UNIQUE
Although you're comparing the sounds of your accent to another to some degree in order to make changes, be cautious about comparing your version of a dialect to another’s. Your voice is unique, therefore you’re building a character that is unique to you. Unless you’ve been cast to play an existing person and are trying to imitate them exactly, your voice will quite literally speak for itself. Start by figuring out what you would sound like with the dialect or accent. You can make adjustments and get creative from there as you develop the character. This approach will give you agency over your dialect choices—there is no one-size-fits-all in this line of work.
Acting is an artform, and there is no such thing as perfection in art. That’s why it’s important to be careful when comparing yourself to actors who have built careers on fantastic dialect work. Everyone started somewhere, and those actors likely received excellent training. But no matter how good or acclaimed an actor’s dialect work may be, I guarantee you they’ve made missteps. Does that make their work any less great? Of course not. It’s not about having the most incredible dialect of all time; it’s about giving an honest and nuanced performance, which just happens to be accented.
THERE’S A SYSTEM THAT WILL WORK FOR YOU
If you’re lucky, you might have some natural talent with mimicry that will suffice in imitating dialects and accents, especially for those with which you’re already somewhat familiar. But raw natural talent with speaking in different dialects is actually quite rare, and mere mimicry usually will not suffice when exploring a dialect you have little exposure to. That’s why it’s important to find a system for dialect acquisition that works for you.
The internet offers countless instructional video and audio resources for many dialects and accents. Thoroughly informative books (often with recorded components) exist in multitudes. The International Phonetic Alphabet can unlock the building blocks of speech for a very scientific approach. You might even opt to work with a dialect coach, such as myself. Regardless of how you learn, I truly believe there's a right path for everyone—it's simply a matter of exploring the available options.
LEARN TO ACCEPT YOUR NATURAL VOICE
If you’re not recording your practice and listening back to it, you’re likely doing yourself a disservice. We’re exceptionally bad at hearing ourselves, and often don’t sound the way we think. Listening back to our attempts at a new dialect is the only way to accurately hear what it is we’re doing, and whether we’re hitting the mark or not.
Most people dislike the sound of their natural voice when they first hear it played back, and many never learn to like their own voice. Actors must quickly get over this in their training because they need to watch and listen to their performances to adjust and grow (sidenote: if you’re new to acting and haven’t taken any basic classes, start there before diving into dialect and accent work). Logically, if we cringe at the sound of our natural voice at first, we might cringe when hearing ourselves with a completely different voice. Learning to accept your own speaking voice will help eliminate any roadblocks when listening back to yourself in accent practice.
If you’re not there yet, that’s OK. Start with small recordings every day. Record a thirty second audio message on your phone as if you were leaving yourself a voicemail and listen back to it. Do that every day until it no longer bothers you.
KNOW THE INDUSTRY WANTS YOU TO SUCCEED
Actors often tell me they're afraid of auditioning in a dialect or accent because they worry about making a fool of themselves in front of their representation or casting directors. If you have good representation, you probably don't need to worry—they won't submit a tape that would embarrass you or them. But here's the thing—most actors on an agent or manager's roster are also afraid of doing dialect work. When an accented audition comes in, they must often scour their talent list for suitable actors who list the dialect on their resumes.
But casting isn’t looking for the best dialect; they’re looking for the best actor. If your dialect isn’t up to par but you’re the right actor for the role, a production will likely hire a dialect coach to work with you. Coaches are quite common on set these days, and we know how to help you succeed.
I’m not saying you should list a dozen dialects on your resume if you’re not actually proficient in them. However, even if it scares you, consider saying "yes" the next time your representatives reach out and ask if you can do a German accent for an audition. If it's not right, they don't have to submit it—but it's excellent practice, and your representatives will appreciate your willingness to tackle accented auditions.
If you don’t have an agent or manager, you might think this advice isn’t relevant to you, but that’s not true. YOU are your own agent, your own manager. When you’re self-submitting on various casting websites, don’t skip over the role that might be perfect for you just because it has an accent. Take the shot, you might surprise yourself.
Want guidance on your specific Accent Anxiety issues? Schedule a free virtual consultation with Scott Alan Moffitt, The Actor's Dialect Coach.