Cashing in on CNN

Watch the news.

Watch the news because art does indeed imitate life. What are today’s biggest headlines tomorrow become the backdrop for the stories we will tell in film, television and theatre.

The BP oil spill for instance has already inspired scores of screenplays that are now being or shortly will be shopped around Hollywood. Do you happen to be the type of actor who could easily be cast as an oil worker from Louisana? Would your agent recommend you for an audition based on a breakdown describing a BP-type executive?

Now the real question: Are you ready to walk in to an audition tomorrow and authentically sound  the part?

If you are, you have an edge over your competition.

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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!

Top Ten Dialect Posts

The other day a new reader asked me which Dialect411 posts did I think they should take the time to go back and read. At first I thought ‘all of them!’ Then I realized that in four short months I’ve already posted 35 entries and reading all of them might indeed be quite an undertaking…

So today for your enjoyment, I present to you what I think are the Top Ten Dialect411.com posts. Whether you were with me from day one or just arrived last week, these ten will give you the essential information you need to benefit from the posts that lie ahead!

If you have time to read only three posts, I recommend:

1)  What Are They Expecting — Which explains exactly what it is that casting entities and productions are looking for when they are casting dialect roles.

2)A Good Private Dialect Coach — Which lets you know what to look for when hiring a professional dialect coach.

3) The Steps To Learning Any Dialect — Which describes the process of learning a dialect, so you won’t be unpleasantly surprised…

If you have time for three more, I offer you:

4) What is Good Speech (You might be surprised.)

5) You Have an Accent (Yes, you.)

6) Myth: I’ll Add The Dialect Later (You can try…)

And if you want more, check out:

7) Fit to a ‘T’ — Which explains an effective tactic for using dialects to increase your casting opportunities.

8)  Voice Care Practices (Actual Title: Start From Where You Are) — This is where I share information on caring for your voice when the voicing gets rough.

9)  Finding a Dialect Donor — Where to look if you’d like to try your hand at recording your own dialect materials.

10) How to Shop for Dialect CDs— Tips on what to look for in the theatre bookshop if you must rely on purchased goods.

That’s it! My choices for the 10 essential Dialect411.com posts!

But…I am one of those people who always likes to send my guests home with a little extra, so if you’re ready for dessert, please enjoy:

Why? A Tangent Worth Taking — The post I almost didn’t publish, but the one that has garnered the most response.

Which are your favorite posts? I write this blog for you and love hearing about what you enjoy and what you’d like to see more of! Leave a comment here or send me a private email at dialect411 @ gmail dot com!

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.

Perspective Shift

A few weeks ago  I shared that I’m a big fan of shifting perspective as a means of learning and growing as a human being. In honor of perspective shifting, today I bring you this video of Prisencolinensinainciusol [ˌpri.zɛn.kɔ.lɪ.nɛn.sɪ.nɛn.ˈʧʲu.zəl] by Italian singer/songwriter Adriano Celentano. Listening to this song is an entertaining way to instantly shift your point of view and experience how a non-English speaker might perceive American speakers of English.  (Side benefit– it’s also really fun to clean house to.)

…And just in case you’ve been going mad trying to work out the words, rest assured that most of them are complete fabrications on the songwriter’s part. It’s the nonsense nature of these words that actually facilitates this little adventure in shifting perspective. Without having a meaning to assign to each of the spoken words, your mind automatically focuses on the individual components of speech themselves such as phonemes, rhythms, and inflections. And guess what? Your mind will function very similarly when learning a dialect. In order to pick up a dialect, the mind must hear beyond the meaning of the words. It’s really quite amazing when you think about it. What’s even more amazing is that (barring a significant hearing loss) pretty much everyone on the planet can do this. It’s part of the ‘standard equipment package’ of being human.

Hope you enjoyed this little perspective shift!  Speaking of shifting, starting next week I will be shifting format so that you will receive one post per week from me rather than two. I came to this decision because recently I’ve noticed that my mailbox is overflowing with great blog posts and newsletters every day. I know it’s been difficult for me to carve out time to thoughtfully read every one of my favorites, so I’m surmising that it’s probably a challenge for you, too.  I really want you to have a chance to read every one of my posts, as they are cumulative in nature, so I’m going to give this scheduling change a whirl. This Thursday I will post again, but starting next week you can enjoy Dialect411 once a week every Tuesday.

Joy to you!

Pamela

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.


Speech Class– An Exercise in Listening

I promise this will only take a minute:

Grab your iPhone, computer or any semi-decent recording device, head to a quiet corner, and record yourself saying the following words. Speak them as you normally would…just be sure to take your time and leave some space in between each of the words. (Read aloud the titles of each list too.)

List One

Something — Some King — Something — Some King

Nothing — A Thing — Nothing — A Thing

Humming — It’s a Ming — Humming — It’s a Ming

Mooning — Mood Ring — Mooning — Mood Ring

Drawing– A Wing — Drawing– A Wing

List Two

Fleece — Fleas — Fleece — Fleas

decrease — decrees– decrease — decrees

faces — phases — faces — phases

peace — peas — peace — peas

List Three

Slaw — slot — Slavic

Walk — Wok — Wasabi

Sawed — Sod — Facade

Tall — Tom — Taco

Excellent! If you’ve recorded these, I invite you to read on. If you haven’t recorded these yet, then I invite you to stop reading now and do so. I know it’s hard to resist reading onward, but trust me, it’ll be worth it to wait until you’ve recorded the word lists.

(No peeking if you haven’t finished recording the lists…)

Once you’ve recorded these lists, the next step is to play the recordings you just made and listen for the specific sounds I suggest here:

For List One — Close your eyes and listen. Do all of the words that happen to be spelled with an   -ing sound the same during the -ing part? Or for you is there a slight difference between the way you pronounced the ‘ing in ‘something‘ vs. the way you pronounced it in  ‘some king‘?  If so, what is that difference? How are you physically creating that sound difference? What is your tongue doing? Which part of your tongue is doing it? The front? Middle? Back? If you happened to pronounce all of these words using the same final sound, can you remember hearing someone else pronounce these word sets using two different pronunciations for the -ing parts? Can you smoothly copy that way of speaking? Make it your own? If you used two different sounds, what would it be like to apply one of those sounds to both words in each set? And then apply the other sound?

For List Two — Pay particular attention to the way you pronounced the final sounds of these words.  Do all of the words on the list end with the same sound? Or is something else happening? Can you find a pattern? Does the first word in each pair end with an ‘s’ sort of sound, and the second word in each pair end with a ‘z’ sort of sound? If so, is the ‘z’ fully voiced and really buzzing or is it kind of a soft ‘z’ sound? What happens if you play around with the amount of voicing you give to the final s/z sound in ‘fleas’ ‘decrees’ ‘fazes’ and ‘peas’? How many subtle variations can you find in there?

For List Three — Closing your eyes may really help with this one– For this list, I want you to focus on listening carefully to the vowel sounds in each of the words. When you said ‘slaw’ did it have the exact same vowel sound as when you said ‘slot’? How about  when you said ‘Slavic?’  Do all of these words contain the same vowel sound? Or for you are there 3 different vowel sounds in these sets? Are there two? Can you figure out how you are actually creating each of those sounds? During each of these vowel sounds, what is your tongue doing? Your jaw? Your lips? If you used more than one vowel sound for these words, see what happens if you try saying all of the words using only the vowel sound you used in ‘Slavic’ and ‘Facade.’

At this point I’m getting the feeling that you might want me to quit yakking and just get to the point and tell you which way is the ‘right’ way of speaking each of these word sets, so you can get to work ‘fixing’ any problems.

I can’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the desire. After all, most of us would like the security of being ‘right’–it feels good.  Keep in mind though, that as an actor, it is more useful to you to adopt the mindset that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of speaking. Leave all general judgements aside. As an actor,  how ‘best’ to speak a word will be entirely dependent on the project you are in and on the character you are playing. (Remember a while back I mentioned that good speech is simply speech that gets you what you want?)

Exercises such as the one above are not intended to endorse a particular way of speaking, but rather to sharpen your observational skills so that when you are called upon to speak in a manner other than your own, the path from where you are to where you want to be will be easy to see and enjoyable to traverse.

Questions? Send ’em in. I’m here to help!