Deciding Which Dialects to Learn
In a previous post, I outlined various Tips for Learning a Dialect or Accent, and my first suggestion is that actors be proactive in their accent education, or—more simply—to “learn the dialect before you need it.”
While actors seeking the services of a dialect coach have typically selected a handful of dialects they wish to learn, there is often doubt surrounding what choices would best serve their career. When first working with a new client, I always have a conversation about their dialect and accent goals.
In this article I aim to demystify the process of selecting the best dialects and accents for an actor’s resume.
PARENT DIALECTS OF ENGLISH
Any English-speaking actor should first focus on mastering what I consider the two “parent” dialects of English: General American (GenAm) and British Received Pronunciation (RP). These two dialects are some of the most frequently requested by casting directors.
One reason for their popularity is they are intended to be region-less – someone with a GenAm dialect could be from Colorado, or Florida, or Washington. RP speakers might reside in London, or Yorkshire, or Edinburgh. They are also associated with a heightened sense of status, indicating education, power, or wealth – traits that may be crucial for the character.
More importantly, if you can master the sounds of these two dialects, you are well on your way to unlocking a multitude of other dialects and accents of English. While GenAm is naturally related to all dialects in the United States, RP contains features present in dozens of global English dialects, due to England’s colonialist history.
UTILIZE YOUR FRIENDS & FAMILY
Have you ever watched an actor portray a character that was supposed to hail from your hometown, but they failed to capture the nuance of the dialect? Maybe you couldn’t exactly express why, but you knew something was off. Your ear is naturally attuned to the sounds you grew up with, regardless of whether you know how to express those features.
Even if you do not naturally speak with a thick version of the dialect associated with your region (or perhaps your region does not have a strong accent to begin with), you may be able to convincingly imitate relatives or friends who do have a thick dialect. At the very least, you likely have some great primary resources in your immediate circle whom you can study. If you have a cousin from Chicago with a heavy accent, why wouldn’t you utilize that person as a resource and figure out their dialect?
FOREIGN LANGUAGE ACCENTS
If someone met you at an international airport, what language would they assume you spoke before you ever opened your mouth? Where would they think you were from, or were headed? The answer to these questions might help you decide on an accent to list on your resume.
If you do speak a language other than English, you should learn a regional accent or two associated with that language. If you need to speak French for an audition, there is a good chance your character may also have to speak English with a French accent at some point in the script.
Despite being proficient at a language other than English, multi-lingual actors are not always skilled at the accents associated with the language. They have more exposure to the sounds of a language, which makes the bar to proficiency seem higher. However, it’s that exact familiarity that should encourage you to learn the accent, not shy away from it. Your ear is already more attuned to the unique sounds of the language, and those different sounds will often be present in the accented English. In short, you have a leg up – why not use it?
As an actor, you’ve likely asked yourself the all-important question: “What’s my type?” Can I play the “girl next door,” the “gruff cop,” the “goofy best friend?” Every person embodies countless combinations of character traits that translate well to screen.
When you think about the character types you can play, ask yourself if there are any dialects or accents associated with them. The soccer-mom may invoke a Midwestern accent. The tough-guy mafia type might benefit from a New York or Italian accent. The young ingenue might require a British dialect reminiscent of a fairytale.
Dealing with stereotypes like this can be problematic, but ‑good or bad‑ certain tropes are still relied on heavily in film and television. That’s why it is especially important that actors make ethical choices when choosing dialects and accents to study. Be respectful of other cultures when considering what you want to portray on screen, and the best way to do that is by putting in the work. Do not rely on an exaggerated caricature based on stereotypes to net you the role.
Consider your ethnicity and familial history in your choices. Is your father from Britain and your mother from Ghana? You might want to learn one of many British dialects and a Ghanaian dialect. Are you ethnically Chinese? A Chinese accent of English might give you more casting opportunity.
That said, it is common to feel frustrated when asked to perform a dialect or accent based on your appearance for a role that may feel disrespectful of your culture, an occurrence that happens far too often in this line of work. However, excelling at such dialects or accents gives you the chance to do your heritage justice with an honest and authentic performance.
This should go without saying, but white actors likely do not need to preemptively learn a Jamaican accent. That is not to say that there are not white people in Jamaica, and I’m certain our industry will continue writing roles that rely on intentionally skewering certain dialects and accents for comedic effect . . . but I guarantee your time would be better spent learning a more appropriate dialect for your resume.
FOLLOW THE TRENDS
A good actor should always be researching what projects are currently casting, and doing so will help you spot trends in dialects and accents that are frequently needed.
There are many “old staples” that will always be popular. Fantasy projects frequently rely on British RP for the antagonists. Westerns will utilize a Southern accent. There’s a good chance any procedural cop drama is going to be set in New York and need a New York accent. Doing your homework in the form of watching lots of TV and films, and frequently reading casting breakdowns, will give you a good awareness of what dialects are consistently needed.
Still, it’s important to remember that trends can be fleeting – so be careful where you invest your time. I’m sure in the late 2000s with the popularity of Blood Diamond and District 9, many actors felt it imperative to learn a South African dialect, but you don’t see too many projects asking for those dialects today. At the time of writing this article, Mare of Easttown garnered lots of buzz (both good and bad) surrounding the Philadelphia accent spoken by its characters, but that does not mean there will be a spike in demand for it.
CHECK WITH YOUR REPS
If you have representation in the form of an agent or manager, ask them what their “wish list” of dialects is for you. They analyze casting breakdowns all day long, and they will undoubtedly have an opinion about what will improve your marketability. They should also be familiar with who on their roster is skilled in certain dialects, and they may have some surprising gaps that they would love to have you fill in.
Plus, by asking for your rep’s input, you will show them you are interested in dialect and accent work, and they may start to consider you for those breakdowns where they would not have previously.
Ultimately, I recommend every actor endeavors to master at least the following four dialects or accents on their resume to improve their casting opportunities:
· a standard dialect of English (GenAm or RP, if not both)
· a regional dialect (based on where you were raised)
· a foreign language accent (French, German, etc.)
· a type-based dialect (based on character type, your appearance, or heritage)
Still unsure what dialects and accents you should learn? Have lingering questions?
Schedule a free 15-minute consultation and we can chat about it!