How To Interview a Dialect Donor (It’s Easy!)

To me, one of the most rewarding side-benefits to being a dialect coach is having a reason to interview and record dialect donors. It’s a rewarding experience I hope that all of you can have at some point, especially if you are an actor. If you’d like to try it yourself, but don’t feel like you have enough info to know exactly what to record, I hope today’s post will give you something to go on…

Recording a Dialect Donor: The Basics

Ideally, when a dialect coach records a donor for one of their clients, they record materials of four different types: extemporaneous speaking, biographical information, diagnostic text(s), and vocabulary or place names specific to a given project. Let’s break these down and discuss each type:

1) Extemporaneous Speaking and Biographical Information

For me, extemporaneous speaking and the gathering of biographical information have a bit of overlap, as I often use gentle questions such as  ‘Where were you born?’ or ‘Where is your family originally from?’ to get my interviewee relaxed and talking. I then collect any biographical information that does not surface during the interview at the end of the session (while still recording). I suggest allowing a minimum of 15 minutes for extemporaneous speaking, as you want the donor to get over  any nervousness they might initially feel when the ‘record’ button has been activated. Personally, I tend to record 30-45 minutes per subject. Here are some questions that I tend to ask my donors. I start with these, and then often other questions are added as I go along. The key here is to find a subject that your donor is enthusiastic about, as this will yield the most interesting and lively stories.

Where were you born?

Where did  you grow up?

What was it like growing up there?

Have you been back there as an adult? Has it changed? How?

What is your earliest memory?

Did you ever get into trouble when you were little?

Did you have any favorite relatives?

Were there languages other than English spoken in your household? In your neighborhood? Were you encouraged to learn them?

Were there any school teachers that made a lasting impression on you?

You were born in _____ , grew up in _____, where else have you lived?

What do you/did you do for a living?

What got you interested in that career?

If you could do anything now, what would it be? Why?

How do you like to spend your time?

What are you really proud of?

2) Reading of a Diagnostic Text

For the purpose of dialect collection, a diagnostic text is a written passage that contains all of the sounds and typical sound combinations of a particular spoken language. Having donors read texts such as these aloud ensures that you will have a complete ‘audio picture’ of the dialect you are researching.

The two most famous diagnostic passages for English are The Rainbow Passage and Comma gets a Cure. TheRainbow Passage is a public domain document, and Comma Gets a Cure is free to use as long as you give credit for its use as requested by the authors of the passage. If your subject is willing to read both passages aloud, then I suggest recording both passages. Personally, I make it a practice to give my donors time to read the passages silently to themselves before we record them so that they feel comfortable. Not every dialect collector does it this way. Some feel that the passages are best read cold. In the end, I hope you’ll do what feels right for you.

3) Pronunciation of Vocabulary Particular to a Specific Film or Theatre Project

If you are recording a subject as preparation for a project, be sure to bring an easy-to-read list of any words in the script that you have questions about, so that your subject can record their pronunciation of these words for you. The types of words to look for might include colloquial phrases, place names, proper names and slang or jargon. Don’t worry too much about a word list being too long. (Lists look longer than they sound!) You’re better off recording a little too much than you are trying to track down your donor for additional recording sessions.

4) Biographical Information

Earlier in this piece I mentioned that I tend to lump biographical information in with the extemporaneous speaking section of the interview. This is true. At the same time though, I keep a written list with me of the following to make sure that I properly collect all the information I will need to use each interview for current and future projects. The more information you have about your donor, the more accurately you can determine whether their dialect will suit a particular project in the future.

Here is what I always try to find out about each donor:

What year were they born? (Be sure to record what year it is you are making the recording, too!)

Where were they born (City, State/Province/etc. and Country)?

Where have they have lived including the ages they were when they lived there, and how long they resided in those places.

Which ethnicity/ethnicities do they identify as their own?

Where were their parents (or the people that raised them) born and raised?

What were their parent(s) occupation(s)?

Were other languages than English spoken at home? Which ones? How often?

Do they consider English to be their first language? If not, what was their first language, at what age did they start learning English, and who taught them to speak it?  Where was/were that person/those people from?

What is/was/will be their occupation (depending on age of donor)?

What is the highest level of formal education that they have earned?

And that, my friends, is really all there is to interviewing a dialect donor so that you get all the information you need to perfect your next dialect!

One Last Note:

I promise to write more on the technical aspects of recording dialect samples soon, but here are a few tips in case you want to record something right away: Be sure to record in a quiet space. Turn off fans, running machinery, background music etc. as these will detract from the value of your recording. Make sure your recording device is operating properly (test it!). In addition, as the interviewer, it’s advisable to keep your own vocal contribution to a minimum so that your subject can provide you with good samples to edit later. True, you do have to ask questions, but when at all possible use physical rather than vocal cues to encourage your interviewee to continue their story. Having your donor sign a release form is also a very good practice. That way both of you are on the same page as to how you plan to use their donation. Speaking of donation– If you want your recording to benefit others, you might consider becoming an associate editor at The International Dialects of English Archive which is a wonderful (free) resource for dialect samples.

Happy recording! –And as always send me your questions here, or on Twitter @Dialect411!

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