Breaking the Language Barrier

Did you know there’s a difference between learning a new dialect/accent in your native language and learning one across language lines?

If you happen to speak Polish with a Warsaw accent and you learn to sound like you are from Gdansk for a project shot in Polish, you aren’t in much danger of losing  (or forgetting)  your Warsaw accent during the process.  But, if you are a bilingual or multi-lingual actor seeking work in projects shot in languages other than your native language, you will want to pay special attention to how you go about learning accents of that language or you just might find yourself losing out on jobs.

Here’s what I mean: For the sake of illustration, let’s assume that you are an actor who grew up speaking Polish (or Urdu, Tsakonian, or Icelandic) who is seeking work in the English-speaking industry of American film, and that when you speak English many times Americans ask you ‘where are you from?’ and tell you that you have a ‘lovely accent.’ Let’s also assume that you have been hearing from your agent, manager and even casting directors that you need to ‘get an American accent’ so that you can be eligible for more roles.

If you are like most actors you will take the advice of these professionals and start Googling around for terms such as ‘American Accent’ ‘Learn American Accent’ and ‘Accent Reduction’ until you find a teacher. You will then invest months of time and thousands of dollars learning to sound ‘neutral’ for the sake of your career.

Let’s also assume that you are a model student who devotes the appropriate amount of time and attention to learning a ‘neutral’ American accent, and thus have managed to sound like you are 100% ‘made in America.’

Your agent is happy. Your manager is happy. You are happy.

You are getting sent out to audition for American characters right and left.

…and then your agent sends you out to audition for a role using your ‘old’ accent… the one everyone called ‘lovely’…

…and the weirdest thing happens…

…You can’t quite remember how you used to sound…and you lose out on a job that you probably should have landed.

Whoops.

This scenario is extremely common.  It’s also extremely avoidable if you aware of a few things:

1) When your agent suggests that you ‘get an American accent’, they don’t typically mean that you should eradicate the one you have.  They are asking you to add something to your skill set. They are trying to get you to add value to your acting product.

2) Not all dialect coaches/accent coaches are created equal. (Did you know that anyone can call themselves a dialect coach or an accent coach? Ummmm…Yikes.) If you want to have a great experience with a dialect coach, you have to make the effort to shop around and find one that possesses the skills you need, has substantial experience working with actors, and is coming from the philosophic viewpoint that there is no one ‘right’ way to speak English.

3) You need to be clear with your dialect coach about what you are asking them to do for you. If you hire a coach to ‘get rid of’ your accent, most coaches will earnestly try to help you do exactly that. Be mindful of your language. Always ask your coach to help you ‘add’ a new accent. Tell them you want to be able to keep the accent you currently have, but also be able to switch into the new accent at the drop of a hat. A good coach will be able to construct your lessons with this goal in mind. If you’re not sure if you’ve found a good coach, you might ask them to explain the strategies they’ll employ to help you achieve your goals, and evaluate from there. (You might also want to review my post ‘A Good Private Dialect Coach‘)

4) It’s essential to keep a record of your original dialect for future reference. Even when you hire the best coach money can buy, learning a dialect while crossing language lines is a tricky business. Language is a fluid (some would say ‘living’) thing and the human mind is extraordinarily complicated and mysterious. When it comes to dialect work and crossing language lines, the mind tends to want to substitute new pronunciations for the old, and you must consciously resist that urge. If you are a native speaker of Somali seeking to increase your opportunity for employment in American film, you may find that as you learn a ‘neutral’ American accent, some of those ‘neutral’ pronunciations will sneak their way into your daily speech, and your lovely Somali accent will start to morph into something new.  I advise that before starting any dialect lessons (no matter how good your coach is), you use the guidelines I shared here and make a thorough recorded interview of yourself, as a safeguard. (You’ll be your own accent donor!)

Before I sign off, I have a favor to ask of you — If this post doesn’t directly pertain to your own career, would you please pass it on (email it, Tweet it, send it in a sparkly greeting card) to someone you know that could use it?  It’s my birthday this week and knowing that this information got out to someone who needs it, would start my new year off with a smile. :-)

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5 responses to “Breaking the Language Barrier

  1. I learn so much from your blog. Even though I will never need to learn a dialect, I am fascinated by the many ways in which language is used.

  2. Hi Pamela,

    I’m a bit behind on email and just read this post.

    Wanted to wish you happy Belated birthday!
    Hope it was wonderful.

    Blessings,
    Matilda Novak
    Actor’s Co-op Member on Leave

  3. I know just who to forward this post to! I’ve got a lovely Austrian friend, based in New York, who will really appreciate it.

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