Category Archives: Learning A Dialect

Finding a Dialect Donor

Back on April 15th I suggested that one way to improve your casting opportunities would be to determine which of the world’s dialects would be a nice fit for your particular acting career. Whether you used the how-to steps I provided in that post, or whether you consulted with a dialect coach who specializes in dialect fittings, you might now find yourself ready for the next step: shopping for or recording your own dialect resource materials.

You can always hire a qualified dialect coach to record and edit materials for you, but if you would like the satisfaction of doing it yourself, here are a few ideas about where to find pre-recorded materials and/or people that you can interview and record on your own. (I promise to share with you the secrets of how to approach and interview a dialect donor in an upcoming post!)

1) The Internet— Dialect collection and preservation sites such as IDEA and the British Library offer a wide variety of recordings of people from around the world, all speaking English. (Caveat: Using such a site to find a pre-recorded sample that suits your needs can save you time, but in doing so you may have to sacrifice the flexibility and control that you would have had if you took the time to find and interview a subject yourself.) As I mentioned in my last post, if you’re mindful YouTube can yield some relevant resources and some contacts to boot. Googling around for particular language names or dialect names can also sometimes yield a useful dialect or language contact or two.

2) Clubs and Organizations— There are clubs devoted to celebrating nearly every ethnic background on the planet. In addition, certain clubs may attract people who hail from certain locations. A club dedicated to Japanese flower arranging for instance,  may have at least a few members from Japan. A trick riding club may yield some Montanan, or Texan members. Not everyone in a ‘We Love Switzerland’ club will be Swiss, but you can bet someone in the club knows someone from Switzerland and can put you in touch with them.

3) Places of Worship— The Roman Catholic church can be a great place to find dialect donors, as priests are often brought in from faraway places -(Ireland, Africa, and Mexico to name a few).  Synagogues will sometimes yield donors with Russian, German, Yiddish or New York dialects. Buddhist temples can help you locate speakers with many different dialects such as Thai, Chinese, or Japanese. Certain mosques might be able to lead you to donors with Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, Jordanian, Sudanese, or many other Middle Eastern and Northern African accents. When approaching places of worship, be sure to do some mindful research about beliefs and customs, so that you don’t unintentionally offend anyone.

4) Colleges— Check your local college faculty listings for potential donors from around the world. In addition to faculty members, you may be able to connect with the foreign student advisor and let them know you are looking for help with a certain dialect. They may permit you to post a ‘wanted’ sign, or even put you in touch directly with just the donor you are looking for.

5) Museums— If you have a local museum that specializes in the art and culture of a particular region, you may be able to find contacts through one of their curators, or you may even meet someone at a special event. A night of plays written by Native American playwrights might mean that there’s a chance someone from the Crow Nation will be in attendance. At the very least, your program will be filled with potential Native American contacts who might help you with your search.

6) Festivals— Festivals such as Irish, Indian, Greek, or Polynesian draw enormous crowds of people and performers, some of  whom may have just the sound you’re looking for. You just have to be outgoing and connect with them!

7) Towns within Towns-— Little Armenia, Chinatown, Little Africa, Korea Town etc. Most larger cities have areas a block or two wide where there are businesses devoted to the goods from certain geographical locations. Often the shopkeepers in these stores are good potential interviewees or can put in touch with someone.

8 ) Foreign Consulates— Foreign consulates can be very helpful if you’ve searched everywhere and are coming up empty-handed. Simply call a consulate, let them know you are preparing to play a role and find out if there’s someone there who might like to volunteer to help you for an hour or so.

9) Everywhere— This method takes a little longer, and I admit it is pretty random, but you may wish to consider keeping dialect and language notes on all of your new personal contacts. If you keep your contact information in a searchable database (such as Mac’s Address Book), jotting a few notes like ‘her mother is from Mongolia’ or ‘he was born and raised on the Nisqually Indian Reservation can help you later find the person you need for a project with only a few keystrokes.  Very handy.

I hope these ideas will give you a place to begin your next dialect adventure.

Do you have other ideas to share? Leave a comment below! (I love comments!)

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I Love-Hate YouTube

As a dialect coach, I have a love-hate relationship with YouTube.

I love YouTube because (one) it has made it so quick and easy to find audio clips of celebrities as I prepare for voice matching projects, (two) I can easily access samples of my clients’ work, and (three) I can sometimes even find an interview featuring someone with exactly the dialect I’m looking for and via their YouTube account even have a means of contacting them and securing a ‘dialect donor’ interview with them. YouTube has saved me hours of work compared to what I was having to do ten years ago.

So, thank you, YouTube!

But…

I really do hate YouTube because there are so many truly terrible ‘learn a dialect’ offerings posted there.

So.

Many.

(Ugh.)

I’ve had new clients come to me sporting a rather strange sounding accent only to find that they have diligently been studying the video lessons of an unqualified ‘teacher’ on YouTube. (And now they must ‘unlearn’ much of what they invested so much time in.) (Again, Ugh.)

I know that if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you are probably too savvy to fall for a shoddy YouTube dialect lesson, but I’m writing this post in the hope that you’ll help me actively spread the word to the people that just might fall for the lure of a quick and free YouTube lesson but not be experienced enough to realize when that free lesson is jam-packed with fresh-minted malarky. If you love your friends and colleagues, give them the heads up!

If you know me, you know that at my core I am not a cynic. While I have yet to find any reliable dialect lesson offerings on YouTube, I am ever remaining optimistic and will let you know when I do run across something reliable. If you have already found something you think is worthwhile, please post a link here in the comments section. I’ll be sure to check it out and if I like what I see, I will share the link on my Further Resources page.

If, like me, you can’t find any reliable dialect offerings on YouTube, and you want to volunteer to help me create some free YouTube dialect lessons for pro actors, I’m open to that, too. Just say the word!

Myth Du Jour: Your Dialect Coach is Judging You…

MYTH: Dialect coaches are constantly judging others on the way they speak.

TRUTH: Probably not. Here’s why: The amount of energy and focus involved in listening to every single sound that an actor utters and analyzing those sounds in light of some particular dialect goal is enormous. Trust me, it’s intense work! If a coach were to try to judge every sound every person in their vicinity spoke every day, they’d burn out quickly. (I just read this blog aloud–including this sentence- and it clocked in at 44 seconds, during which time over 400 individual sounds were uttered. That’s around ten sounds per second…Intense, yes?)

So relax! If you see your coach somewhere and they aren’t ‘on the clock’ they are probably listening to what you are saying rather than how you are saying it.

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.