Category Archives: Learning A Dialect

Details: Voiced vs. Voiceless

Here’s a tech tool to put in your dialect skills box.

Voiced vs.Voiceless (aka Unvoiced) sounds.

Plain Fact: Some sounds of human speech involve the vocal folds while others do not. Being able to recognize which sounds involve the vocal folds and which sounds don’t can (with a bit of practice) provide you with effective ways of enhancing the characters you play.

Try this:

Look into a mirror, relax your face, and slide the tip of your tongue out so that it rests between your upper and lower teeth. You should be able to see the tip peeking out at you in the mirror. Let your face and tongue remain in this position throughout the rest of this experiment. (Keep your attention on the mirror to monitor this.)

Now (remaining in position) exhale some air through your mouth. You will hear a sound somewhat like a leaky tire… Try this a few times (always watching in the mirror).

Now (remaining in position and still watching in the mirror) gently bring the palm of one of your hands to rest on the front of your neck (lightly wrap your fingers around the contour of your neck for a nice fit), and exhale a few more times. (Did you remain in position? If not, try again!)

Watching in the mirror with your hand still resting on the front of your neck, and your face, jaw and tongue remaining in position, exhale again, only this time activate your vocal folds (Any single note will do. You can think of this as touching sound, humming with your tongue, singing, speaking, voicing— whatever term will get your vocal folds to start vibrating for you…).

Voila!

The sound changes from a leaky tire to a droning air conditioning unit!

Try voicing this physical position (tongue tip resting between your upper and lower teeth) a few more times. Remember to remain in position, or you won’t end up creating the sound I’m describing here. Notice that with your hand you can feel vibrations in your neck as you voice this sound.

Now (remaining in position, still observing in the mirror) experiment back and forth between not activating the vocal folds and activating the vocal folds.

Leaky tire. Air conditioner. Leaky tire. Air conditioner. (Repeat to your satisfaction)

OK, so now you can say that today you have successfully transformed from a leaky tire to an air conditioner and back again…

….Or if you can read written English and happen to speak with a General American accent, you might say that you isolated and observed yourself changing from a voiceless ‘TH’ sound to a voiced ‘TH’ sound…

…Or if you can read the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) you might say you examined and practiced the difference between uttering the sound [ θ ] and the sound [ ð ].

…No matter what, you can clearly feel with your hand that the second sound involves your vocal folds vibrating, and you can clearly hear (and see in the mirror) that you were able to make two distinctly different sounds using only one physical position (your tongue tip resting between your upper and lower teeth), merely by alternating between activating your vocal folds and not activating your vocal folds. One position. Two sounds. (Call the two sounds ‘cognates’ if you want to be fancy.)

Wrapping up– Voiced vs. Unvoiced Sounds

***When your vocal folds are vibrating as you articulate a single sound, you can refer to that sound as a ‘voiced’ sound.***

***When your vocal folds are at rest as you articulate a single sound, that sound is either referred to as a ‘voiceless’ or an ‘unvoiced’ sound.***

If you ever have a question about whether a particular (single) sound is voiced or unvoiced, just run that (single) sound through the exercise above. If you can feel vibrations in your neck through the palm of your hand, you can say with confidence that the sound is voiced.

Post Script

So, why as an actor is it useful to really know (at a personal, physical level) the difference between a voiced sound and an unvoiced sound? And why all the mirror work?

One reason is that the more familiar you are with these terms and the more adept you are at being able to isolate sounds, the quicker you will be able to learn any new accent. My favorite reason though, is this –Within an accent group (let’s say ‘General American’) there are accepted variances that while still recognized as the dialect in question, actually transmit additional information about a person’s status and authority. You can learn to make very subtle changes in your speech (such as voicing and un-voicing certain sounds) that will dramatically improve your ability to embody the character you are playing. Your character won’t be perceived as ‘having an accent’ but your performance will be kicked up a notch. It’s pretty remarkable stuff.

As always, please send me your comments, questions and suggestions.

If you’d rather not post a question publicly, feel free to write to me directly at dialect411(at)gmail(dot)com.

I’m here to help.

–Pamela

A Beginner’s Mind

When we are infants and toddlers we utter every spoken sound our little mouths can muster. We squeal, pop, trill, tap, and blow raspberries with reckless abandon.  It’s glorious the sounds we experiment with as we seek to communicate with those around us.

It’s not quick nor easy work, but soon we learn which sounds get us something we want, and which sounds do not.

Then time passes and we mentally discard the ‘useless’ sounds and devote all of our energy to mastering the rest.

The ‘useless’ sounds fall to the wayside, neglected.

Eventually most of us even stop being able to ‘hear’ these sounds. We simply forget how to recognize them as distinct entities.

But that’s OK, because we don’t really need them.

Unless of course, we have to act and sound like someone we’re not in order to earn a living…

Unless we happen to be an actor…

Then we’ll need to actively reverse the process…

We’ll need to go back to the beginning and start again…

…with reckless abandon.

***

Today I invite you to hear with new ears.  Exactly how does your neighbor say ‘hello?’ How is the way your barista says her ‘S’ sound different from yours? Listen for the subtlest of differences, try them out yourself, and save them for when you need them.

Because you probably will.

Written vs. Spoken Language (Tech Talk)

Ask most English speakers for a list of vowels and they will offer up “A-E-I-O-U and sometimes Y.” And they’re right. In a way. They do know what they’re talking about, it’s just that they’re not really giving you the complete picture… The letters A-E-I-O-U and sometimes Y are known as vowels, but more specifically they are six written symbols that attempt to represent many more spoken sounds of speech.

Take for instance the dialect known as Standard American English (the dialect you may have learned in your acting conservatory–the dialect popularized in the mid-twentieth century by Edith Skinner).  In the ‘Standard American’ dialect as taught by Edith Skinner there are fifteen pure vowel sounds a.k.a  monophthongs (MAH-nuff-thongz), and seven blended vowel sounds, the latter being referred to as diphthongs (DIFF-thongz) or triphthongs (TRIFF-thongz) depending on the number of pure vowels that make them up.

Six written letters.

Twenty-two spoken sounds.

And if you examine the consonants, the pattern is similar. There are 21 written consonants in the alphabet (I’m including ‘Y’ in the count.), yet in Skinner’s ‘Standard American’ dialect there are 26 spoken consonant sounds.

By now you may be starting to get the idea that Spoken English and Written English (while related) might just be two very different entities.

If you would like further evidence, try cold-reading aloud this poem written by Lord Cromer published in ‘The Spectator’ in 1902.

Our Strange Lingo
When the English tongue we speak.
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse,
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
Think of hose, dose,and lose
And think of goose and yet of choose
Think of comb, tomb and bomb,
Doll and roll or home and some.
Since pay is rhymed with say
Why not paid with said I pray?
Think of blood, food and good.
Mould is not pronounced like could.
Wherefore done, but gone and lone –
Is there any reason known?
To sum up all, it seems to me
Sound and letters don’t agree.

Ummmmm….see what I mean?

Written English is not very successful at accurately representing how a word is intended (by its writer) to be spoken.

Oddly enough, there are very few writing systems in the entire world that accurately reflect how the writer is intending one to pronounce the words s/he has written.

(Does that surprise you, or is it just me?)

One written system that does aim to accurately reflect spoken language (all languages, all dialects, all accents) is The International Phonetic Alphabet, a.k.a. the IPA.

Many actors learn to use this writing system in order to accurately be able to mark dialect changes in their scripts, and to years later be able to pick up their dialect notes and still know exactly what they mean.

A firm grasp on the IPA is an incredible tool to have as an actor. It can save you valuable time, allow you to become accurate with a dialect more quickly, and help you discuss your work with your dialect coach.

I will tell you honestly that the IPA looks daunting at first. I will tell you also that some of the people who will offer to teach you about this system are firmly rooted in a normative mindset, and so may try to convince you  that certain ways of speaking are superior to others. (You’ll have to kindly remind them that you are an actor and that for your career flexibility is the best option.) Please don’t let either of these little challenges inhibit you from learning how to use the IPA. If you put in some research time, you will soon find there are many dialect coaches out there who are competent teachers of the IPA that also have a keen understanding of the demands of acting. Besides, what  is more refreshing for the mind and soul than a good challenge?

So—-would you like to see a little of the IPA?

If you’ve never had exposure to it before, or have unpleasant memories about it from some former training program, you might wish to start with the University of Iowa’s Phonetic Flash Animation Project This project does not show you all of the IPA symbols in chart form. Instead, you  select a language (American English, German, Spanish–language, not dialect) and can then choose vowel or consonant symbols that you would like to see demonstrated on video. My personal opinion is that this project needs a few tweaks and video re-do’s here and there, but for the most part this is a solid introduction to the IPA.

If you are already familiar with some of the IPA and would like to see the complete IPA chart including all of it’s modifiers (and promise not to let it intimidate you!) then go to my ‘Further Resources‘ page and scroll to the third section which is marked: ‘Regarding Phonetics and Phonetic Description.’ The first entry there contains a link to the International Phonetics Association’s PDF of the complete chart.

Immediately following is a link to dialect coach Paul Meier’s pronunciation of the symbols of the IPA chart. You simply click on an area of the main chart, and then select which individual sound you would like to hear. (This project is the joint effort of dialect coaches Paul Meier and Eric Armstrong. Paul voiced the piece, and Eric provided the flash animation.)

Hey, can you tell that I’m nervous I might scare you off if I show you the whole chart before you’re ready? I’m so nervous that I’m not even providing you a direct link to the chart here. I’m asking you to take an extra step just to see it! I really hope that seeing this chart won’t dissuade you from learning dialects. Knowledge of the IPA is wonderful and can put you ahead in the game, but a good dialect coach can help you achieve your dialect goals even if you have no IPA experience. (Just be prepared to invest more time and money to the project.)

Whether or not you decide to visit these IPA links, simply knowing that ‘written English’ and ‘spoken English’ are two different things might save you some confusion when learning dialects.

As always, send me your questions! I’m here to help!

How To Learn Any Dialect

Many people have questions about the steps involved in mastering a dialect for use in performance, so today I am going to explain at the most essential level, the steps involved in this somewhat complex but highly rewarding process. The steps occur roughly in the following order, but please note that during steps one through five there will be some overlap. Additionally, it is important to remember that to be successful, one’s focus must be on detail and precision, while at the same time remaining in a creative and playful mindset.

THE DIALECT ACQUISITION PROCESS

1) HEAR THE TARGET-– The first step in the process is to truly be able to hear all of the individual sounds of the dialect you are learning. This step is the foundation of all the others. If you can’t actually hear a sound, the likelihood of you reproducing it accurately is very low indeed. I must note here that by ‘hearing’ I mean recognizing not only the sounds that your own dialect shares with the target dialect, but also the sounds that are quite different from any sounds you utter in your own life. This step of the process is often the longest. It is also the step that many people attempt to rush through, only later to find themselves really struggling. Take your time here. Simple repeated exposure to a ‘new’ sound will eventually cause your brain to recognize that sound, and when it does, you are ready for the next step.

2) PHYSICALLY DUPLICATE THE INDIVIDUAL SOUNDS — As you listen to an audio sample of the target dialect, you may find that you hear certain sounds but you are not automatically able to physically reproduce them. This is normal. Here’s why: As you speak in your own language and dialect every day you are actually ‘working out’ the muscles of your face, lips, tongue, jaw and soft palate. As you do this, these articulators become strong and flexible in very specific ways. Your target dialect may require a different type of flexibility and strength than you currently have, and you are going to have to do some work to acquire the agility necessary for the task. Please note that it is absolutely normal to feel awkward and and a bit clumsy during this part of the process. It really does happen to everyone.

3) COMBINE INDIVIDUAL SOUNDS– During this phase of the process, you combine the individual sounds of the target dialect (aka phonemes) to create words and phrases as well as non-sense words and phrases. There are many ways to go about this, and a qualified dialect coach can help you find the process that works best for you.

4) APPLY THE SOUNDS TO A PRE-DETERMINED TEXT– This is the step where you apply what you’ve learned about the target dialect to your script or any other pre-determined text. To do this, you must be able to recognize the pronunciation patterns involved in the dialect. This part of the process is often referred to as ‘using substitutions.’  Actors familiar with the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) can easily mark their scripts with the necessary sound changes. Those without this skill must find alternative means such as comprehensive word lists. (If you aren’t familiar with the IPA, or had a ‘bad experience’ with it in the past, please don’t let this stop you from working with dialects. A good dialect coach can help you find a way to succeed.)

5) EXTEMPORIZE– Once you can accurately and consistently reproduce the sounds of the target dialect in scripted speech, it is time to begin practicing speaking off the cuff.  As you embark on this step you will likely notice that your dialect work seems to take a step or two backwards. You’ll make mistakes and fall out of the dialect. Don’t panic. Keep in mind that it’s a complicated task to try to quickly translate your own thoughts into the target dialect. Even if you consider yourself to be ‘good with dialects’ this stage of the process can reveal shortcomings. Stick with it, be mindful and specific, listen to the advice your dialect coach offers you, and you’ll get there.

6) INTEGRATE– Once you are able to remain accurate and consistent with the target dialect while using scripted material and while speaking your own thoughts aloud, you are ready to integrate the dialect into your acting process. This of course involves being able to think and speak the thoughts of another person (the character), pursue the actions of another person (the character) while remaining easily and comfortably within the confines of the target accent. If you’ve taken the time and made the effort necessary to master the first five steps, this part of the process will be quite enjoyable.  You’ll find that you are quickly able to ‘just do your job’ and act. There may be high-stakes moments in the script where remaining in dialect is a challenge, but a good on-set dialect coach can help you through those little glitches.

Hey! You made it through! I’m guessing that today’s topic may have sparked some questions. I love questions! Ask yours here in the comments section, or by writing to me at dialect411 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Dialect Myth Du Jour: I’ll Add The Dialect Later

Myth: It’s better to get the lines and blocking down first, and then add the dialect once you’re comfortable with everything else…

Truth: In film and TV this isn’t even an option. Rehearsals are limited and every minute on set costs the studio money, so it’s essential that you are 100% performance-ready with any dialect (or other skills you might need) the moment you first arrive on set. Actually, if you aren’t performance-ready with your dialect well before you even audition, you probably will be passed up for the role entirely.

As for theatre productions, it’s important to keep in mind that the very sounds you utter onstage are a significant part of your character’s life moment to moment. If your dialect is ‘in-progress’ during rehearsals, you will never be free to really connect with other actors and rehearse.  Half of your mind will be always be elsewhere thinking ‘Whoops! That was a dialect mistake!’ or ‘Yes! Got that one right!’

Truthfully, if your dialect is not ready for integration at the first read-through, the entire rehearsal process is going to feel awkward and uncomfortable. Of course, it is this discomfort that makes it tempting to want to put off the dialect work in the first place, but actors who choose that route find themselves in the 11th hour suddenly forgetting blocking, dropping lines and never really being able to just let go and act.

In a production where the dialect work has not been incorporated on time,  the result is most often that an inconsistent and distracting attempt at the dialect diminishes what would otherwise be a solid show. Even if the production manages to escape earning a scathing review, you won’t find audiences rushing to see it.


Food For Thought

Two things to keep in mind:

1) Most audiences cannot distinguish between poor dialect work and a poor performance. They just sense that something is ‘wonky’ and irritating and they cease to be properly engaged in the story.

2) No other skill on an actor’s resume (not singing, dancing, bareback riding, or martial arts) is so intimately entwined with an actor’s process as is dialect work. Any dialect you use for a performance will always be inextricably linked to every action you play, every intention you pursue. If you want the freedom to do your best acting work, you must have the target dialect ready to integrate* at a project’s first read through.

* You’ll know you are ready to integrate a dialect when you’ve mastered it to the point of being able to extemporize while remaining accurate and consistent.

Dialect Myth Du Jour: The Most Difficult Accent To Learn

Myth: Some accents are harder to learn than others.

Truth: The perception that an accent  is ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ to learn is entirely relative.  What is hard for you may be a piece of cake for the guy sitting next to you.

Accents that seem easy to learn typically have many sounds in common with your own personal dialect.  Or, within your personal life experience, you may have had significant contact with some other dialect that has sounds and features in common with the one you are endeavoring to learn.  For instance, if you grew up in Nebraska and so did both of your parents, but from the time you were two years old until you were nine, you had a live-in guest from Paris, France who spoke English with a French accent, you may find it easy to learn most of the phonemes that happen to be part of that French accent simply because you were exposed to them for so long and at such a young age.  You might then in turn find it ‘easy’ to learn some type of Belgian accent, which happens to contain certain phonemes that are also common to Parisian dialects.

It’s not that the dialect itself is easier. It’s that you had a head start.

A Good Private Dialect Coach

A Good Private Dialect Coach…

…understands and respects your craft.

…is honest with you about how long the process of mastering a dialect really takes.

…can help you determine which dialects will be the most marketable for you.

…will adjust their teaching style to suit your abilities and strengths.

…will help you stay motivated when the going gets tough.

…will tailor written and recorded materials specifically for you.

… will spend at least as much time preparing materials and lessons for you as they will in actually meeting with you.

…can demonstrate, describe, and transcribe or chart the sounds they are teaching you.

…provides a level of training that no group class or commercially available dialect CD can ever achieve.

… has a true love of language and while they can’t possibly know everything there is to know about every dialect, language or word on this planet, they will happily help you find the answers you need to perform your job with excellence.

Dialect Myth du Jour – Dialect Coaches Speak Many Languages

MYTH: A dialect coach speaks many languages fluently.

Probably not.

It certainly isn’t a requirement for superb work.

In simplest terms, a dialect coach’s job is to ‘help one person sound like another.’ This entails being able to analyze a particular ‘sample’ of spoken language and then guide another person (most typically an actor) in hearing, duplicating, and ultimately integrating the components of that ‘sample’ seamlessly into their work. The job demands a keen understanding of how a particular set of words (the script) needs to be spoken (for authenticity and accuracy) rather than an ability to converse fluently in a foreign language.

There are of course times when a coach will need to have a firm grasp on basic elements of a particular language in order to deliver a good product, but rarely will this require fluency.

Accent Reduction

If you live in Los Angeles (or nearly any major metropolitan area) you’ve seen the handmade signs stapled to telephone poles that say ‘Lose Your Accent!’ or ‘Accent Reduction!’ followed by a phone number where you can purchase lessons.

But guess what?

There is no such thing as ‘Accent Reduction.’

Learning to speak in an accent other than the one you arrived at naturally is an acquired skill. It is something that is added to your list of abilities, not something that erases an ability you already possess.

Think of it this way—when you were a little kid, and you learned how to skip or to jump, did you give up walking? Did the skipping or jumping ‘erase’ your ability to walk? Of course not. You walked when it made sense to walk, and skipped or jumped for enjoyment or to get over an obstacle. To this day you still know how to walk, skip, and jump and you use each of them as they seem most appropriate.

Even if it were magically possible that learning a new accent could ‘erase’ the one you naturally have, as an actor why on Earth would you want to do that? It would only make you eligible for fewer roles.

For the record, the appropriate term for learning a new accent is ‘Accent Acquisition.’

That said, please forgive your agent, manager, or acting coach if they toss around the term ‘Accent Reduction.’ They’ve probably just read a whole lot of telephone poles…