Tag Archives: dialect

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.

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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!

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!)

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.

Real Housewives of New Jersey

Yesterday there was so much hubbub on Twitter about little Gia’s accent on ‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey’ that I Hulu’d (Hulu.com) the show (Season 2, Episode 6) this morning to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

Now I’m hoping that you will do the same because regardless of your opinion of the show, there’s a scene that as an actor, agent, manager or dialect coach, you simply need to see. I’ll explain a bit here, but truly you will get more from watching 90 seconds of this show than my words alone can ever reveal.

Starting at 16 minutes into the show, housewife Teresa takes her young daughter to visit with the child’s manager and the manager explains “There’s a couple of areas that we need to improve right now, um… the main focus being the Jersey Accent. She’s got it. You’ve got it. I’ve got it. We all have it. She is not booking things. For instance, you know…the Christian Slater movie, she didn’t book that. I think she could do better, you know if this situation is remedied at this point.”

She then goes on to request that the child pronounce the word ‘dog’ and when she does, the manager criticizes her pronunciation and states that ‘in reality’ it’s pronounced differently than Gia is pronouncing it. You can see the discomfort on both Gia and Teresa’s faces as they contemplate their need to be ‘remedied.’ They are then sent to work with a dialect coach who continues in a similar vein.

This 90 second clip is wonderful, as it clearly illustrates a difficult situation that plays out every day in the entertainment industry.

***An agent or manager wants to help their client book more jobs, and they see that adding a dialect might help, only their personal bias regarding dialects coupled with a lack of effective wording inadvertently leaves the client feeling attacked.

***The client also wants to book more jobs, but upon hearing that they need to be ‘remedied,’ becomes closed and defensive. Even if they do seek the help of a competent dialect professional, they will not be in a very good frame of mind for adding a new dialect to their skill set.

***The dialect coach approaches the target dialect piecemeal, teaching a sound here, a word there, in whatever order the coach decides might be effective. The client can’t ‘hear’ what they are trying to teach and becomes frustrated.

Clearly, this system is broken.

Everyone wants the same thing–They want the actor to book more jobs–but the means being used to try to reach the goal are ineffective and even counterproductive.

Change is clearly needed.

Personally, I am a firm believer that change starts with the individual. I believe that each of us who can see a problem, must contribute to a solution if we expect to actually reach one. For today’s problem, my contribution is to continue to write this blog, and to network like crazy in order to make sure that every single day at least one more actor, agent, manager, casting director or director reads it and learns something that helps their career run more smoothly. My absolute dream is that every actor in SAG has a subscription to Dialect411.com and learns all they need to know about how dialect work fits into their career, as well as how to prepare to work with a dialect professional privately or on set, so that every production has an even better chance of becoming a true work of cinematic genius than it does today.

If you too would like to contribute to improving communication and outcome in the arena of voice and dialect work, but don’t know what you can do to help, here are some suggestions:

If you are an agent, manager or casting director: When you suspect that an actor might benefit from learning a General American (or any other) accent, resolve to use positive words to express this to them. Keep in mind that ‘losing’ or ‘permanently modifying’ an accent is generally not a lucrative move, and that General American speech is not superior to any other dialect on this planet. The manager on ‘Housewives’ would have done better to say something like “The reason I brought you in today is because I realized that we can make Gia eligible for more roles if she learns a General American accent in addition to her fabulous New Jersey accent. What do you think of that idea?” (I am quite confident that if the manager would have used words similar to these, the result would have been an excited young actress, rather than the sullen one we see in the show.)

If you are an actor: First, my advice is to make an effort to become educated about dialects, because they will almost surely come into play in your career at some point. Of course if you are making time to read this blog twice a week, you’re off to a good start. In addition, work at developing a long-term relationship with a qualified dialect coach(My May 4, 2010 post will help you know what to look for). Lastly, learn to ‘translate’ for the people (agents, managers, casting directors and directors) that may be well meaning, but might phrase things a bit negatively. Work hard not to take it personally. Try to look past the unfortunate choice of words and hear that these people are just trying to help you.

If you are a dialect coach: Remember that a normative approach to speech does not serve the acting community. You may personally prefer a particular dialect, but that doesn’t mean that that dialect will necessarily suit a particular actor’s career.  As I discussed in last Thursday’s blog post, there really is no single ‘right’ way to speak. Good speech is simply speech that gets you what you want. In addition, when working with a client who may have had an experience similar to the one this young actress had on ‘Housewives,’ be mindful that they might be arriving to you a little emotionally ‘beat up’ and they may have the idea that something is wrong with them. Help your client to be as creative and responsive to the dialect sessions as possible by always being clear that you are teaching them to add a skill rather than to remove a problem. It can also help to be very mindful of your coaching language. I go so far as to try to avoid using the word ‘right’ when giving a client feedback on their pronunciation attempts. I endeavor to say ‘good match’ instead, just so there is no question about one dialect being superior to another.

To all of you who are willing to pitch in to make this part of our industry run more smoothly– thank you, thank you, thank you!!! If you have more ideas that you think might help, please post them in the comments section!

Lastly, I never imagined I would be saying this, but ‘Thank you, Real Housewives of New Jersey! You really gave me something to think about!’

******** Oh! Remember that each week in June I’m giving away complimentary dialect fittings to three lucky subscribers! To be eligible, all you need to do is subscribe via e-mail (see subscription button at upper right of screen.) For more details, go here.*********

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.