Category Archives: Learning A Dialect

American Dialects — An Addictive Map

What a treat I’ve just discovered in Internet-Land! It seems Christian missionary and professional linguist Rick Aschmann has a hobby outside his career of working in Native American languages — He’s been collecting samples of American accents and organizing them in a meticulously detailed online interactive map complete with links to audio and video samples of regional dialects. Here’s an overview of what his ongoing project looks like:

And here’s where you can go to interact with it!

Mr. Aschmann has included many technical descriptions which I think will interest those of you who are comfortable with the International Phonetic Alphabet and entry level linguistics, but even if you have no experience whatsoever, the map is an entertaining romp through the bounty of dialects America has to offer. Just look for cities marked with little green dots and follow them to the audio and video links Mr. Aschmann provides.

Have fun!

–Pamela Vanderway

P.S. You know those little dishes that some stores have where you can take a penny or leave a penny for someone who might need it? When you find a dialect sample that you love (on Rick Aschmann’s map, or anywhere else), I hope you’ll come back here to Dialect411.com and share your link and your thoughts or questions about it so I can share it with our readers here. You can leave your link in the comments section or if you’d rather you can email it to me at dialect411 (AT) gmail (DOT) com. Leave a link /Take a link. I promise that as our collection grows, I will find ways to make it easier and easier for you to find exactly the links you need for your next project. You know, if every one of my subscribers and Twitter followers offered up just one link, we’d already have one of the largest collections of dialect links on the internet. I’m pretty humbled by that thought. Thank you so very much for your support! Your participation here and on Twitter (@dialect411) has made these first nine months of Dialect411.com really lovely for me. Happy New Year, my friends! May this year be your best yet!

Guest Post: How to Record a Dialect Donor

One of the best ways to ensure that you have all the materials you’ll need to learn a particular dialect is to make the effort to find someone who speaks with exactly the accent you have in mind and record them following specific guidelines.  I’ve written two posts on this topic in the past: Finding a Dialect Donor and How to Interview a Dialect Donor.  Today’s post written by recording engineer Tim Keenan of CreativeMediaRecording.com covers the final piece of the puzzle — the technical aspects of recording your donor.

Recalling my own awkward early attempts at recording donors outside of a studio setting, I asked Mr. Keenan to share some advice that can help ensure that you don’t have to make all of the mistakes I did before you can achieve useful recordings. Here’s what he has to say on this topic:

You don’t have to be a recording engineer to capture good quality audio recordings in any reasonably quiet environment and store them them on your computer as MP3s for future reference. If you don’t already own a portable digital recorder there has never been a better time to buy. Even the basic Zoom H1 digital recorder with a street price of $99.00 will do a decent job. It has built-in microphones or you can use an external mic. An added bonus is that you can even use this same device to record voiceover auditions, drag and drop the files to your computer and email them out as MP3s.

If you have the budget, take a look at the other models with more bells and whistles but a similar digital performance. Lots of equipment resources are out there but I like the folks at http://bswusa.com/ for their selection, helpful advice and pricing.

The two things to consider when recording at a remote location are the recording environment (where to set up) and the actual recording process (placing the mic, etc.).

The Environment:

First of all you want as quiet a room as possible away from kids, phones, animals and distractions. Looks for rooms with carpet, drapes and overstuffed furniture to help minimize room reflections. Make sure the person you are interviewing will be sitting in a comfortable place where they won’t move around much. Stay as far away from windows as you can and shut the drapes. The microphone will also pick up noises behind the subject as well so a good way to eliminate background noises is to position your interviewee with their backs away from windows, fans and other noise sources.

The interview subject should remove any noisy jewelry and bracelets. Try to minimize any paper they’ll be handling so you don’t have to worry about paper noise and hand fidgeting. All of those noises will detract from the final recording.

The Process:

I recommend a microphone stand to help you position the recording device as close to the subject as possible without being a distraction. Ideally you want the mic to be no more than 12 inches away (give or take) from the interviewee’s mouth.

*Very Important* Wear an ear bud in one ear to monitor the recording process. Listen for the sounds in the room – sounds like fans and other noises that will interfere with hearing your interview subject clearly. Wearing headphones is sometimes the only way you’ll actually notice these ambient sounds.

Pamela has some great tips for questions to ask to put your subject at ease. A good technique is to start by talking about local restaurants or recent movies to put your subject at ease and conversing comfortably. Use the first few questions to really listen and make sure the recording sounds clean and to note any distracting background room noises. Then you can then move into the meat of the interview.

Be sure to do some practice interviews with friends and family to get familiar with the equipment and how to best position everything to gain optimal sound. That way you’ll look like a pro when you go to capture the real thing and won’t waste any time getting what you need.

Tim Keenan is a long time recording engineer, voice talent and owner of CreativeMediaRecording.com an Orange County, CA based media studio specializing in voice recording and editing. On Twitter with tips & tricks for voiceover folks @tjkeenan and tips on recording & audio for video @Soundtrack_Pro

Learning a Dialect: Five Ways to Squeeze in the Time

Becoming convincing in a dialect and being able to maintain that convincing nature while acting in a film or play doesn’t happen overnight. Even when you are familiar with the most effective dialect acquisition techniques available on this pretty blue planet, learning a dialect is still going to take a bite out of your schedule.

How much of a bite? It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly, but it’s a smart move to budget a few hours per day for anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks. For now let’s assume two hours per day for six weeks…that comes to 84 hours.

So, it’s going to take around 84 hours to master an unfamiliar dialect…

Wowza.

It’s in realizing this that most actors decide to put off their dialect aspirations.

After all, who’s got 84 extra hours?

Believe it or not, you do.

Really, you do.

You just need to be clever about it.

Here are five clever ways to sneak a little dialect work into your skill set without wreaking havoc on your life:

1) Listen while you commute. Many actors report that driving while listening to dialect source materials on the stereo not only allows them to squeeze in an hour or more of practice per day, but also has a calming effect during traffic jams. If cars aren’t your thing, try wearing headphones on the train or subway. You may not feel as comfortable responding  aloud to your recordings, but you can at least listen for details. If you are fortunate enough to have created recordings for yourself that have long interview sessions with a dialect donor, public transportation commutes can be a convenient time to listen to those.

2) Listen while you work out. If your daily workout includes walking, swap out your Lady Gaga recordings for your dialect materials. (Do be careful walking around wearing headphones. Remain aware of your surroundings!) With the advent of cell-phones with ear pods, even if you happen to be responding aloud to your dialect recordings, most people who pass by you will assume you are on the phone.

3) Listen on your way to lullaby land. Head to sleep 15 minutes early and squeeze a little practice in then. There have been no formal studies done as of yet to directly verify this, but since dreams appear to be our way of processing the events and information of our lives, it seems to follow that practicing a dialect as you drift off could have its benefits.

4) Listen while you do housework. Simple tasks such as folding laundry, sweeping the floor or deadheading roses provide great opportunities to practice your dialect. (And it won’t add a single minute to your busy schedule!)

5) Listen in lines and lobbies. When you have a wait ahead of you, even if it’s only going to be five minutes, try listening to your dialect materials.  Learning a dialect requires consistent exposure over time, so every little bit counts.

Annnnnd a bonus idea…

6) Listen while you relax. This one’s not necessarily a time saver, but I mention it because some actors report that they learn more quickly when they work on their dialect in a relaxing environment. Consider donning your ear buds and heading out to swing in a hammock or lie on the beach, or try working on your dialect while you enjoy a hot bath. (Safely please.)





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. :-)

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!

How To Shop For Dialect Lesson CD’s

About once a week for the past fifteen years someone has asked me “So… which CD’s or books should I buy to learn a dialect?”

I just did the math on that.

Turns out, I’ve attempted to answer this question nearly 800 times.

OK.

I get it.

Everyone wants to buy a CD.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s nothing wrong with buying a CD (or a book) about flying an airplane either.

But what are the chances that when you’ve finished with that book or CD, you can jump into the cockpit of a jet and fly like a Blue Angel?

See, that’s the catch.

When acting in a dialect other than your own, you run a high risk of crashing and burning. And just like the Blue Angels, you are working in close proximity to others, so your mistakes can end up dragging someone else down with you. Sure, no one actually goes to the hospital over a badly trilled ‘R’ or a Southern Georgia accent that keeps drifting over to London and back, but snarky reviews, low ticket sales, and tainted reputations are deadly common.

Books and CD’s (and videos) can be very useful in learning a dialect but you need to keep in mind that that these are just components of your dialect solution, rather than the solution itself.

No matter how great the CD is, it’s wisest to make sure you get feedback and coaching from someone knowledgeable at the same time, especially if you don’t have a strong history of dialect success. (Meryl, you have my blessing to skip this step in a pinch.)

That said, at some point you may need to shop for a commercial CD, so let me share with you what to look for.

When shopping for a commercial dialect CD, look for all of the following features:

1) Recordings of  the target dialect spoken by natural speakers of that dialect (not just the instructor’s own attempt at the dialect — it’s not enough). The best recordings will be clear of ambient noise and include the dialect donor reading a diagnostic passage as well as speaking extemporaneously.

2) Transcriptions of those recordings into English and into the IPA.

3) Recorded instructions about what are often referred to as ‘sound changes’ ‘substitutions’ or ‘signature sounds.’ (Be aware that these ‘sound changes’ are nearly always presented in terms of their divergence from the General American dialect. If you happen to speak a dialect other than General American in your every day life, you might easily find yourself confused or misled.)

4) Written versions of those instructions which include the use of the IPA or at the bare minimum a spelling approximation of the sound changes. (Spelling approximations are subjective, and thus less reliable.)

5) Recorded practice word and phrase lists.

6) Discussion of the dialect’s rhythm, intonation, inflections, common words and sayings etc.

7) Information on where to learn more about the dialect, words and phrases, the IPA etc. (usually in the form of web links).

And now the (slightly bitter) truth. I have yet to find a single product that meets all of these basic qualifications. Paul Meier’s work [paulmeier.com] comes close, as does the work of  Gillian Lane Plescia of dialectresource.com and the folks at Accenthelp.com, so you might want to start in there somewhere. If you are looking for a common dialect (Received Pronunciation British for example), you may wish to buy materials from more than one source to make sure you have the tools you need to get started.

Enjoy shopping, but as a dialect coach, an actor advocate, and an audience member I hope that you’ll help keep the skies friendly, and won’t fly solo until you’ve worked with a qualified dialect professional. You’ll be happy you did.

Accent on Louisiana

This morning a friend of mine sent me a link to this video in which Louisiana singer-songwriter Drew Landry shares his perspective on the BP oil spill with The National Oil Spill Commission.

The video has gone viral, and with good reason.  As you watch it, you can’t help but think about all of the hundreds of thousands of people (and animals) who have suffered  in Louisiana in recent years due to extreme weather conditions and chemical spills (the current BP spill, and the hundreds of other smaller ‘accidents’ that have routinely taken place in the waterways for decades).

I’ve felt a little helpless as I’ve watched these ugly events unfold. I’m not a physician, scientist, construction worker, or counselor. I don’t know how to mend the wounded or rebuild a city. Today though, thanks to hearing Mr. Landry sing,  I suddenly understand what I can do for Louisiana.

With this blog, I can invite the world to really listen to the people of Louisiana.

I invite you to listen.

Louisiana is one of only a handful of areas of this county blessed with such an extraordinary wealth of ethnicities, cultures, traditions, languages and dialects. In this forum, I can’t possibly begin to share with you all the riches of Louisiana. So instead of trying, I will stick to my path as a dialect consultant and share with you clips that demonstrate a few of the many dialects and languages of Louisiana. Please see the end of this post for further links to other aspects of Louisiana life. I encourage you to add your own favorite Louisiana links in the comments section.

And if any of these clips resonate with you, I encourage you to share them on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter or your own blog.

We save what we love.

We love what we know.

Get to know Louisiana.

First some words about craft from New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis

Here’s a link to a report about how the Atakapa residents of town Grand Bayou are coping with the current oil spill.

Next is Lionel Le Blanc of New Iberia, LA in the Academy Award Nominated, BAFTA Award winning film Louisiana Story.

Here is a clip from the language documentary American Tongues featuring a French Cajun Couple.

A little Cajun music, food and French Cajun language:

Here is Louisiana resident Lenis Guillot describing a crime scene:

Here is a clip from the documentary Canarians of the Mississippi: The Canary Islanders In Louisiana

And finally a clip from the film Yeah You Rite! (1985) where New Orlean residents discuss their own accents and the accents of their neighbors. (Please note the opinions expressed in this video are solely those of the participants.)

MORE LINKS:

For more about Louisiana, you might start with this article from Louisianafolklife.org.

For a look at Louisiana’s relationship with the oil industry, please watch Josh Tickell’s documentary FUEL. (Right now, it’s available on instant view at Netflix for no extra charge above your regular subscription.)

Here are two videos that explain the impact of Hurricane Gustav (2008) on several Louisiana Native American tribes. Here is Part One. And here is Part Two. (Did you know that not all Native American tribes are recognized by the US gov’t? I didn’t until I began to write this post.)

For links to information about Native American tribes http://www.native-languages.org/louisiana.htm

YouTube has many interesting links if you search for ‘Native American Louisiana’ ‘African American Louisiana’ ‘Cajun American Louisiana’ etc/

For an article about Cajun English, try this Wikipedia entry.

Here’s a Wikipedia entry on the Louisiana Creole people.

The International Dialects of English Archive shows only three dialect donor recordings for Louisiana.  If you are in Louisiana and would like to contribute to this archive by recording Louisiana residents, please go here to learn about how to become an associate editor.

Okay, I’ll leave you to find your own gems…

If any of these links don’t work, please let me know at dialect411@gmail (dot) com.