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While many actors can do a simple impression of a French accent of English that borders on parody, it is a notoriously difficult one for the American actor to pull off authentically. This simple tutorial is meant to serve as a starter guide in your exploration of the French accent.



INTRODUCTION

Before we jump in, there are some finer points to discuss about the accent presented in this tutorial. It can be incredibly challenging for English speakers to pick up on the subtle nuances between different dialects of a language they don’t speak, just like non-native English speakers may struggle to differentiate between accents of English. For that reason, we’ll be attempting to capture a “broad” version of the French accent without any hint of regionalism. And it probably goes without saying, but we’ll be focusing on the sounds of France, as opposed to any other French speaking countries–though they may share many features due to their common language.


Anytime you explore an English as a second language accent, you must consider your character’s proficiency with the English language. Has your character spoken English for many years, or only learned it recently? Did they learn in childhood, or as an adult? Do they speak it everyday, or infrequently? Decisions like these will affect the accent choices you make, just like it does for real world speakers.


And they are indeed “choices”. In reality, speakers of ESL accents like French are often inconsistent when speaking English. They may speak a word a certain way in one moment, and pronounce it differently the next. This comes from the fact that many “features” of an ESL accent are arguably unintentional mispronunciations. But while inconsistency is common in real life, as actors we must endeavor to make consistent accent choices, so that our performances are repeatable. 


Now let’s get into some of the most common sound shifts you’ll want to try when attempting a French accent, beginning with vowels.



VOWELS SHIFTS

1) The “short /i/”, [ɪ] as in KIT may move to a “long /i/”, [i] as in TREE

"Bring in six images of the big ship."

Tip: This change is simple to note on your script, simply replace every “short /i/” sound with “ee”


2) [ɑ] as in LOT is lip-rounded, closer to [ɒ]

"I thought of calling Shaun this fall."

Tip: Round your lips on this sound, almost like you’re making a kissy-face. On its own, this sound change may feel British–but trust that when we add the additional features of the French accent, it will be distinct.


3) The “short /u/”, [ʊ] as in FOOT, may move to a “long /u/”, [u] as in GOOSE

"The cook put away the book after he took a look. "

Tip: Once again, focus on rounding your lips on this sound, while simultaneously raising the tongue slightly in the back of your mouth.


4) The “long /u/”, [u] in words like GOOSE, will move towards a sound foreign to most Americans. While making the “long /u/” sound [u], try to keep the tongue high in the mouth while bringing it forward toward the teeth. It may sound a little like “ew”. 

"Stu put the blue shoe on Cooper the goose."

Tip: Another way to find the same sound is to make the “long /i/” sound, [i] as in TREE, and round your lips over the sound.


5) The vowels [eɪ̆] as in FACE and [oʊ̆] as in GOAT are two part vowels for Americans; the French speaker may cut these sounds in half, resulting a sort of pure, “punchier” version of the vowel.

"As a favor, my favorite flavor was placed on my plate."

"It’s only a stone’s throw to Rio."

Tip: To practice these changes, try singing the American version of these vowel sounds in slow motion, then abruptly stop your voice before the vowel “finishes”.


6) [ʌ] as in words like STRUT and ABOVE might change based on the spelling of the word, and the speaker’s assumption that English honors the spelling (which it often doesn’t). For instance, “strut” may be pronounced “stroot”, “above” could be “abowv”, etc.

"My brother stumbled into a clump of shrubs above us. "

Tip: This sound does not “need” to change, and you should carefully choose the moments to utilize this feature–don’t alter the pronunciation so much that listeners can’t understand you.


CONSONANT SHIFTS

1) In exploring the French <R> sound, there are a number of possible versions we may hear. The most extreme version is the trilled uvular [ʀ], which is a rapid flapping of the appendage at the back of the mouth. But this sound can be difficult to reproduce for many Americans that have no practice whatsoever with this foreign sound. If that’s you, try substituting it with a “retroflex <R>”, where the tongue is further bunched or pulled back in the mouth.

"The enriched rich red rose grew rotten."

Tip: You may opt to altogether drop “post-vocalic” <R>s, or ones that come after a vowel sound within a syllable, in words like “mother” or “father”–this is often a result of the French speaker being more influenced by British English, which drops its’ <R>s, as opposed to American English, which doesn’t.


2) Initial <H> sounds are often dropped altogether.

"The happy hippo held his head high."


3) <TH> sounds will often change to [s] and [z].

"Give those things to them or they will go without."

Tip: You may also substitute with [t] or [d].


4) <CH> will soften to “sh”, while hard <J> sounds may soften to “zh”.

"Jerry chopped the cheap sandwich for the judge and jury."

Tip: The soft <J> sound is the same found in the French language, as in “je t'aime”.



MUSICALITY

French tends to be spoken much more fluidly or connected than English is, with little to no separation of sound between the words. Therefore when speaking English the native French speaker may squeeze their words together in a much more melodic manner. Practice this melody by saying the following phrase as if it were all one word on a single breath: “All Americans eat every ounce of avocado.”


The French language is also much more nasal than English, which can result in lots of nasal resonance on the French accent. Practice finding the resonance by putting two fingers on either side of your nose and attempting to feel the “buzz” of your nasal passages, and see if you can increase the buzz by shifting your resonance upwards.


Finally, in terms of the musculature of the mouth, I find that there is greater tension and roundedness on the lips for French speakers compared to American English speakers. Holding the lips in a sort of pursed position can aid in finding some of the rounded and more fronted vowel sounds of the accent.



WORDS WITH FRENCH ROOTS

Much of English is derived from French, and because of this, when speaking English the primary French speaker may occasionally revert to the French pronunciation of the word. This may happen on obvious words such as “croissant”, but also with less obvious words like “nation”, “admirable”, and “information”. 


The likelihood of this occurring with your character may directly correlate to their proficiency with the English language–the better they are at the English, the less likely this feature is to occur. When in doubt, research the French pronunciation of every word in your script that you may suspect has a French origin and try it out. It’s unlikely you’ll use them all, but adding a few here and there in your performance may help with the accent.



CONCLUSION

French is one of the most difficult accents for English speaking actors to perform naturally, without going over-the-top. Don’t be afraid of using an extreme, almost caricature version of the accent to begin with. Practice all of the sound shifts on your own text. Then, imagine the “thickness” of the accent exists on a dial from 1-10; what happens if you turn the dial down a little bit? Then a little bit more? As in life, you’ll encounter characters who exist at every point on the dial. There is no right or wrong in regards to pronunciation when performing ESL accents, only how many features may sneak through to the English pronunciation. When in doubt, opt for simple choices that suggest the French accent without going over the top.


I’ve provided some links to example speakers below; be sure to give some a listen to hear the accent demonstrated properly.



EXAMPLE SPEAKERS:

Note, Scott Alan Moffitt, The Actor's Dialect Coach claims no ownership of the material in the following links--they are provided for educational purposes only. Certain links may contain language or content not suitable for children.


Cassel, Vincent (secondary) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwD4JZsAuew

Students react to Notre Dame burning - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4z286QuQuQ

Parisians Try To Speak English - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwto58Wc2bg



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This tutorial will cover the basics of a British RP accent of English. It’s one of the most valuable accents actors can have in their repertoire, and this beginner’s guide is meant to serve as a simple jumping off point in your exploration of the accent. But before we jump in, let's first explore the history of the accent.



HISTORY

British RP, or “received pronunciation”, is a “learned” accent – meaning it is typically taught, rather than acquired naturally. RP is an upper/middle class accent that was popularized over the course of the 19th century. It was taught in boarding schools and places of higher education, spoken by royalty (earning it the nickname “The Queen’s English”), and was required for many years by the BBC, the UK’s national source of news.


Though the accent has largely fallen out of fashion in modern times (some estimates say only 2% of people in the UK still speak it), it is still used as a worldwide standard for teaching English (along with a General American Accent). Plus, it frequently appears in films and television as a way of indicating a character’s higher status–think the Empire in Star Wars or the elves in Lord of the Rings.


In this guide, you will find some simple “rules” for speaking English with a British RP Accent. I put “rules” in quotes because there will always be exceptions. Also, please note that in order to better demonstrate the accent’s unique sounds, we will be comparing the British RP vowels and consonant shifts to their American counterparts.


Let’s begin by exploring some of the unique vowels of the British RP accent.



VOWELS SHIFTS 

1) [æ] as in BATH might move to [ɑ] as in LOT

"Half the class needs a bath."

But not: "The fat cat sat on my lap."

Tip: This change is often spelling based; if more than one consonant followed the letter “a” within a syllable, the vowel is more likely to make the shift.


2) [ɑ] as in LOT is lip-rounded, closer to [ɒ]

"I thought of calling Shaun this fall."

Tip: Round your lips on this sound, almost like you’re making a kissy-face


3) [oʊ̆] as in GOAT has a more relaxed start, closer to [əʊ̆]

"Don’t go roaming all over the globe."

Tip: If you have trouble finding this sound, sing it in slow motion and progressively speak it faster.


4) If the sound [u] as in DUKE, follows a <T, D, S, Z, or N> in spelling, it may change to a "liquid-U" sound, [ɪ̆u]

"I took the tube to the dukes new studio."

But not: He put the blue shoe on Cooper the goose.


5) Optional: <Y> ending sounds, such as in HAPPY, may reduce to [ɪ]

"The silly elderly kitty was nearly twenty."

Tip: This sound change is good for older or more pompous characters, particularly in period pieces.


6) Optional: If the [æ] vowel did not change to [ɑ] as in rule 1, it may change to [ɛ]

"The fat cat sat on my lap."

Tip: As with rule 5, this change is good for older or more pompous characters, or in period pieces.



CONSONANT SHIFTS

1) All <R> sounds that come after a vowel within a syllable are dropped.

"The perturbed surfer rode over the river."

Tip: Cross out all eliminated <R>s in your script.


2) If an eliminated <R> sound is followed by a vowel sound within the phrase, we can put the <R> back in; this is called a “Linking-R”

"Father is mad at brother and I for setting off the car alarm."


3) Sometimes, an <R> may insert itself between two words if one word ends in a vowel and the next one also begins in a vowel; this is called an “Intrusive-R”

"The idea of meeting the Shah of Persia is exciting."


4) Every single <T> sound should be present and crisp.

"A tutor who tooted a flute tutored two tutors to toot."

Tip: Be extra careful to hit final <T> sounds, which Americans tend to drop.



MUSICALITY

Now that we’ve covered the important one-to-one sound changes of the accent, let’s explore the musicality. Compared to General American, British RP may feel generally higher pitched. There’s an old saying, “Every American man thinks he’s a baritone, every British man knows he’s a tenor.” I find this to be true regardless of gender. Don’t be afraid to explore your higher register.


British RP can also feel much more fluid and connected compared to American speech. The words can seemingly run into each other. Words that begin with a vowel may feel connected to the previous word in a sentence. Take the example sentence:


“All Americans eat every ounce of avocado.”


Most American speakers may separate the words there to a degree. However, the RP speaker may sound more like this:


“AllAmericanseatevery ounceofavocado.”


These are of course generalizations, and you will absolutely hear RP speakers that don’t fit these standards. There’s no reason at all that you couldn’t have an RP character that speaks with a “choppy, low pitched voice”. In other words, don’t let the standard musicality limit your acting choices.



UNIQUE WORD PRONUNCIATIONS

As with every accent, British RP has many unique word pronunciations, which don’t necessarily fit into any sort of logical set of “rules”. While it would be impossible to capture all of the unique pronunciations here, here are some of my personal favorites:


-zebra: /ZEH.bruh/ instead of /ZEE.bruh/

-aluminum: /aa.loo.MIH.nee.um/ instead of /uh.LOO.mih.num/ (notice the extra syllable)

-lieutenant: /lef.TEN.uhnt/ instead of /loo.TEN.uhnt/

-been: might sound like “bean”, especially when stressed

-schedule: /SHEH.juhl/ instead of /SKE.djuhl/

-Z: the letter “zee” is pronounced as /zed/


Again, these are just a few unique pronunciations. I always encourage my actors to keep a running list of new ones that you may hear when listening to resources. And of course this doesn’t even account for unique vocabulary that accompanies different dialects of English, such as “lorry” for truck or “lift” for elevator–there are plenty of lists readily available online that outline such unique vocabulary words.



CONCLUSION

British RP is an invaluable accent for actors, and has a distinct set of rules that one must adhere to. Practice the sound shifts on the example sentences provided in this tutorial, then try it out on your own text. I’ve also provided some links to example speakers below; be sure to give some a listen to hear the accent demonstrated properly.



EXAMPLE SPEAKERS:

Note, Scott Alan Moffitt, The Actor's Dialect Coach claims no ownership of the material in the following links--they are provided for educational purposes only. Certain links may contain language or content not suitable for children.


Attenborough, David (secondary) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tvA3Ezqjl8

Christmas, Eric (secondary) - https://youtu.be/iZnQPLJi2t4

Sanders, George (secondary) - https://youtu.be/0J2NOKiFlUE


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Updated: Dec 18, 2023

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.

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