Tag Archives: actor

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.

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.

Serious, Serious, Serious! (And Now For Something Completely Different)

I’ve been serious, serious, serious thus far in blog-land.

When it comes to voice, speech and dialect work, serious can be good, but to get the very best results, you’ve got to be sure to fuel your sense of play, too…so…

Time for some fun!

Here are a few of my favorite voice and speech related clips for your enjoyment— a bit of tricky dialogue, some ultra-specific mimicry, some Shakespeare and an unusual demonstration of the potential of the human voice…

First up, a simple sketch from The Tonight Show back when Johnny Carson was king…

Next VO actor Josh Robert Thompson demonstrates the fine art of voice matching. (Voice matching is essentially dialect work taken to the next level…)

Here Actor Brian Cox teaches a bit of Shakespeare to the world’s smallest Hamlet.

And finally…Tuvan Throat Singing (Overtone Singing) meets John Newton’s Amazing Grace. There are no tricks or devices here. This man is making this sound with his voice and nothing else.

Have you got favorite voice, speech and dialect clips?

Post them in the comment section!

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…

Dialect Myth du Jour- A Light Dialect Is Easier to Learn

MYTH: It’s easier to learn just the ‘flavor’ or ‘hint’ of a dialect than it is to learn the ‘real’ dialect.

I hear this from inexperienced directors all the time: “I am not too worried about the dialects for this production. I’m really just looking for the actors to capture the ‘flavor’ of the dialect…So if you could give the cast one or two pointers, maybe suggest some films they could watch…that’s all we really need.”

When I hear this, as a dialect consultant my heart hurts because I know from experience that every actor involved in that production is going to be negatively affected by this director’s misconception. It’s nearly guaranteed that the acting work will suffer as the actors struggle to ‘find’ this ‘flavor’ the director has imagined and ultimately the actors (not the naïve director) will take the blame in the reviews for having ‘distracting’ or ‘poor’ dialects.

The plain truth is, a dialect is a dialect. (An accent is an accent.) It doesn’t matter how ‘heavy’ or ‘light’ you or anyone else perceive it to be. If you wish to be convincing, no matter how ‘light’ or ‘heavy’ the accent, you will still have to make conscious, consistent changes to your speech pattern, be 100% intelligible, and feel absolutely natural while doing it.

To accomplish this, the same amount of work is required no matter what.

…If someone tries to tell you otherwise, keep in mind that they’re probably not the ones whose performance will be captured forever on film…

Fit To A ‘T’

In ‘Three Is A Magic Number’ I suggest that as an actor, mastering three dialects that ‘fit you to a T’ is a savvy career move.

So… what makes a dialect ‘fit to a T’?

It boils down to this: A dialect that fits to a T sounds good on you—that is to say it’s a dialect that compliments your unique physical looks and energy.

When you are ready to find dialects that fit you to a T, here’s where to start:

1) Look In The MirrorLiterally. Look in the mirror. What do you look like? Which parts of your ethnic heritage show on your face? Did you get Grandpa’s Italian good looks? Or do you look more like your Irish grandmother?

2) Ask Around-Ask a wide variety of people (friends, acquaintances, strangers) “Based on my looks alone, where do you think my family originally came from?” Ask at least 25 people (more if the answers you get aren’t conclusive) and keep careful note of the answers you receive.

Armed with the above information, you can narrow down your dialect choices significantly, but you’ll need another layer of information if you want to select the dialects that will be the most lucrative for you.

Here are the next steps:

3) Look Around– Every time you find yourself at an audition sitting in a room filled with ‘you-alikes’ who are all waiting to read for the same role you are, ask yourself “What do all these actors sitting in this room with me have in common? What’s the basic /broad-stroke picture being painted here? Is everyone giving off a prep school vibe? Does everyone seem maternal? Aggressive? Innocent? Why were we the particular actors chosen to be here?”

When you figure out what everyone in the room has in common, you gain a clue as to how casting directors ‘see’ you. And by understanding how casting entities see you, you will have one more piece of the puzzle that will allow you to choose which dialects will be the most lucrative for you. For instance, if you look like you might be British, and are constantly being sent out to play blue-collar characters, it would not behoove you to spend all your energy trying to sound like the Queen Elizabeth. It would be a bit of a long-shot to bet that a casting director would call you in to ‘be’ one way (working class) and ‘sound’ another (like a British Royal). It would make far more sense for you to work on some type of working-class British dialect because that’s the kind of role you’ll be the most likely to land.

4) Study Your Resume– Perusing your actor resume can provide you with another level of information. Take a look at all the roles you have been hired to play and see if you can spot casting trends there.  Among the roles you’ve played, are there racial/ethnic trends? Socio-economic trends? Personality trends? All of these facets should play into your ultimate dialect choices.(Make sure not to consider roles you were cast in during any type of actor training course, as these roles are often given to ‘stretch’ an actor. They won’t help you find the information you need for this project.)

And then… Once you’ve finished all the steps above, one of two things will happen–either you’ll have a ‘Eureka!’ moment, and clearly see which dialects would sound particularly good on you, or you’ll discover that you could use a bit of professional guidance.  Once you’ve got your personal research in order, if you need assistance you can consult a reputable dialect coach to help you decide which dialects might be lucrative for you, or you might find that working with an image consultant is what you need.

The Voice and Speech Trainers Association can help you find a dialect coach in your area. You can find them at http://www.vasta.org

In Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC, the personal branding guru is Sam Christensen. He can teach you how to see yourself through the eyes of a casting director, and then learn how to market the heck out of your acting product. You can learn about Sam’s work at SamChristensen.com. In addition there are also many video excerpts of his work available on YouTube.

I’d love to hear from you about your experience with this little dialect adventure. You can contact me at dialect411(at) gmail(dot)com, or leave a comment below!

Good luck and good fortune to you!