Tips for Learning a Dialect or Accent
Actors frequently ask me for tips and tricks that will make learning a new dialect or accent easier for them. It can be difficult to give broad advice as no two dialects are the same and every actor is unique, but there are some things I find myself saying to my clients frequently. Here are a few general “best practices” for preparing a new dialect or accent.
LEARN THE DIALECT BEFORE YOU NEED IT
One of the biggest mistakes actors make is waiting until they get an audition that needs a dialect or accent before deciding to study it. An actor is expected to be proficient at any special skills listed on their resume; yet with dialect and accent work, the audition is often treated as a training ground by both the actor and agent. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been contacted by actors whose agent sent them an audition requiring an accent asking, “Can you do this?” to which the actor says, “I’ll give it a shot!” – only to need last-minute coaching once they realize it’s more difficult than they imagined.
While it’s always worth attempting the dialect in these cases (your agent doesn’t have to send the audition tape if it’s not up to their standards), why not take the time to prepare the dialect before you ever need it? Plus, if you consistently send in poor quality dialect work your agent will likely stop sending you those auditions.
Actors should instead identify the dialects and accents that would best serve their careers and endeavor to become proficient in them before adding them to their resume. Reliable staples such as General American (GenAm), British Received Pronunciation (RP), and a Southern American dialect will always prove valuable – but you should expand your choices based on your actor type. Agents and managers love working with proactive actors, and they will be impressed when you periodically reach out to inform them that you’ve added a new dialect or accent to your resume.
My clients who take this approach—without fail—report that their reps start to send them on more frequent auditions requiring accents, as they trust the actor and know they are willing to put in the work.
MEMORIZE WITH THE DIALECT
Always take the time to learn the dialect in tandem with your lines, and only commit to memorizing once you’re comfortable with the dialect. It is much more difficult to learn the lines and then try to apply the dialect afterwards, and that’s due in part to how memories are formed in the brain.
I’m no scientist, but as a trained actor I have some understanding of how memory works. When forming a new memory, in this case when learning lines, connections called “synapses” are formed between neurons in the brain. The act of learning lines creates strong synaptic connections through repetition; the stronger these synapses, the easier it is to recall a line. This is true of anything in life: the more you do something, the easier it becomes.
If an actor makes the choice to memorize their lines before applying the dialect, they are doubling the amount of brainpower involved – relearning the lines with the dialect after the fact requires the formation of an entirely new set of synaptic connections in the brain. Forgetting those previous way one said a line is not only difficult, but it can get in the actor’s way when trying to recall the new pronunciation of the line.
STUDY THE INTERNATIONAL PHONETIC ALPHABET
When applying a dialect to their text, actors often struggle to properly notate the sounds they are trying to capture. Many will inevitably rely on a “non-phonemic” system of rewriting words in the target dialect, essentially using alternative spelling to sound out the word. For instance, “Arkansas” may be written as ar-kuhn-saw.
This solution falls short in allowing the actor to be specific in their choices simply because English itself is inconsistent. The letter a is pronounced different in the words cat, father, arena, angel, Mary, and orange – therefore how could we rely on this letter to clue us in on the sound we’re targeting?
This is where the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) shines. The IPA is a writing system devised to capture the sounds of all languages accurately and objectively. In the IPA, every symbol has only a single sound – for instance, [ɑ] is the back rounded vowel used in the word “saw” . . . in a GenAm dialect, at least. In an RP dialect, that vowel typically experiences lip rounding, becoming [ɒ].
It can be tricky to learn at first, but mastery of the IPA is the single most powerful tool available to actors for learning a new dialect. Click here to watch a short video where I demonstrate the power of the IPA.
USE THE RIGHT RESOURCES
The first step when learning a new dialect or accent is to find good resources to base your character’s voice on. Since no two people sound exactly alike, I recommend listening to audio or video resources of at least three different people – this will give your own voice a unique blend of sounds that are based in real-world choices.
When compiling these resources, it’s critical that you focus on “primary” examples, where people are speaking extemporaneously in their natural dialect. These native speakers, as opposed to actors, will offer the most accurate representation of the target dialect. “Secondary” resources, or actors performing in their native dialect, can also be useful – but the added layer of performance may alter the natural rhythms and sounds of their voice. “Tertiary” resources, or actors performing in a dialect or accent that is not native to them, should be avoided. No matter how good the actor may be, we have such a wealth of resources available online that actors shouldn’t need to resort to non-native speakers as a basis.
We are fortunate to live in a time when primary sources are readily available to us – imagine how difficult it was for actors to accomplish this pre-internet! You can find videos on YouTube, listen to local radio stations or podcasts, browse the International Dialects of English Archive, the Speech Accent Archive, or reference my own ever-growing compendium of Dialect and Accent resources.
FIND THE MUSIC
Aside from reproducing the one-to-one sound changes of a given dialect, it’s important to capture the dialect’s music, or “prosody”. This involves things like the rhythm, stress, pitch, tone, and resonance. These choices can be difficult, as any given dialect is going to have a near infinite combination of these prosodic elements. If you generalize the dialect by using only one pattern of speech, your performance will become repetitive and sound like a bad impression – I refer to this as the “Swedish Chef” effect, after the repetitive vocal qualities of the beloved Muppets character.
Actors can combat this by “humming” the words of their example speakers back at them while listening, almost as if you were humming along to a song on the radio. Ask yourself the following questions: Do they stress words more with pitch, volume, or duration? Does their inflection rise or fall at the end of sentences? Are the words in their sentences more staccato (detached and repetitive) or legato (connected)? Where in their vocal tract is their resonance centered?
These are just a few things to pay attention to, and each of your example resources will have subtle differences between them. Unless you’re portraying a real person, your character’s voice should be unique, so don’t be afraid to attempt a combination of the features you hear when first learning a dialect.
FIND A TRIGGER SENTENCE & THINKING SOUND
When you’re practicing a dialect, you may occasionally hear yourself say a line and think, “Wow, that sounded really good!” While your ear training may or may not be developed enough to accurately critique yourself, don’t ignore those positive thoughts. These standout lines are potential “trigger sentences”, or lines that you speak exceptionally well to the point you almost feel you could no longer say them without the dialect.
These sentences can be incredibly useful to “trigger”, or turn on, the dialect before you perform. Think of it as a way of resetting your voice and finding a baseline in the dialect. Trigger sentences can also be reused for years to come. As an actor, I do my best to find an appropriate trigger sentence for each dialect I have on my resume . . . some I’ve been using for over a decade!
In a similar vein, you may consider finding a new “thinking sound” for the dialect. In a GenAm dialect, most people think with an “uh” or “um”, a flat, neutral vowel sound which is in the very center of the mouth. Finding a different placement for your character’s thinking sound can shift your vocal resonance toward that of the target dialect. For instance, an RP dialect may have a thinking sound closer to “eh”, while a Boston speaker could lean toward “ah”. You will hear a variety of different thinking sounds when listening to your example resources – use whatever sound is most beneficial to you and the character.
WORK WITH A DIALECT COACH
Twenty years ago, it was difficult for everyday working actors to hire a dialect coach. It was cost-prohibitive, there weren’t as many coaches, and it wasn’t possible to work virtually. Actors would be lucky to work with a dialect coach if one was hired on a project they booked.
Nowadays actors have much greater access to coaches, to the point that agents and managers often expect their clients to seek coaching on larger auditions and nearly every production will have a dialect coach on set if any of the characters have an accent. Plus, even if an actor has a fairly good natural ear for a dialect, it is difficult to be objective about the sound of one’s own voice.
There are a variety of approaches to teaching dialects out there, so chances are there’s a coach that’s right for you. My goal as a dialect coach is to give actors the tools to be independent when learning a new dialect or accent, to help actors make strong, specific, and repeatable choices, and the ability to maintain the dialect when receiving direction.