Tag Archives: how to learn an accent

American Dialects — An Addictive Map

What a treat I’ve just discovered in Internet-Land! It seems Christian missionary and professional linguist Rick Aschmann has a hobby outside his career of working in Native American languages — He’s been collecting samples of American accents and organizing them in a meticulously detailed online interactive map complete with links to audio and video samples of regional dialects. Here’s an overview of what his ongoing project looks like:

And here’s where you can go to interact with it!

Mr. Aschmann has included many technical descriptions which I think will interest those of you who are comfortable with the International Phonetic Alphabet and entry level linguistics, but even if you have no experience whatsoever, the map is an entertaining romp through the bounty of dialects America has to offer. Just look for cities marked with little green dots and follow them to the audio and video links Mr. Aschmann provides.

Have fun!

–Pamela Vanderway

P.S. You know those little dishes that some stores have where you can take a penny or leave a penny for someone who might need it? When you find a dialect sample that you love (on Rick Aschmann’s map, or anywhere else), I hope you’ll come back here to Dialect411.com and share your link and your thoughts or questions about it so I can share it with our readers here. You can leave your link in the comments section or if you’d rather you can email it to me at dialect411 (AT) gmail (DOT) com. Leave a link /Take a link. I promise that as our collection grows, I will find ways to make it easier and easier for you to find exactly the links you need for your next project. You know, if every one of my subscribers and Twitter followers offered up just one link, we’d already have one of the largest collections of dialect links on the internet. I’m pretty humbled by that thought. Thank you so very much for your support! Your participation here and on Twitter (@dialect411) has made these first nine months of Dialect411.com really lovely for me. Happy New Year, my friends! May this year be your best yet!

Guest Post: How to Record a Dialect Donor

One of the best ways to ensure that you have all the materials you’ll need to learn a particular dialect is to make the effort to find someone who speaks with exactly the accent you have in mind and record them following specific guidelines.  I’ve written two posts on this topic in the past: Finding a Dialect Donor and How to Interview a Dialect Donor.  Today’s post written by recording engineer Tim Keenan of CreativeMediaRecording.com covers the final piece of the puzzle — the technical aspects of recording your donor.

Recalling my own awkward early attempts at recording donors outside of a studio setting, I asked Mr. Keenan to share some advice that can help ensure that you don’t have to make all of the mistakes I did before you can achieve useful recordings. Here’s what he has to say on this topic:

You don’t have to be a recording engineer to capture good quality audio recordings in any reasonably quiet environment and store them them on your computer as MP3s for future reference. If you don’t already own a portable digital recorder there has never been a better time to buy. Even the basic Zoom H1 digital recorder with a street price of $99.00 will do a decent job. It has built-in microphones or you can use an external mic. An added bonus is that you can even use this same device to record voiceover auditions, drag and drop the files to your computer and email them out as MP3s.

If you have the budget, take a look at the other models with more bells and whistles but a similar digital performance. Lots of equipment resources are out there but I like the folks at http://bswusa.com/ for their selection, helpful advice and pricing.

The two things to consider when recording at a remote location are the recording environment (where to set up) and the actual recording process (placing the mic, etc.).

The Environment:

First of all you want as quiet a room as possible away from kids, phones, animals and distractions. Looks for rooms with carpet, drapes and overstuffed furniture to help minimize room reflections. Make sure the person you are interviewing will be sitting in a comfortable place where they won’t move around much. Stay as far away from windows as you can and shut the drapes. The microphone will also pick up noises behind the subject as well so a good way to eliminate background noises is to position your interviewee with their backs away from windows, fans and other noise sources.

The interview subject should remove any noisy jewelry and bracelets. Try to minimize any paper they’ll be handling so you don’t have to worry about paper noise and hand fidgeting. All of those noises will detract from the final recording.

The Process:

I recommend a microphone stand to help you position the recording device as close to the subject as possible without being a distraction. Ideally you want the mic to be no more than 12 inches away (give or take) from the interviewee’s mouth.

*Very Important* Wear an ear bud in one ear to monitor the recording process. Listen for the sounds in the room – sounds like fans and other noises that will interfere with hearing your interview subject clearly. Wearing headphones is sometimes the only way you’ll actually notice these ambient sounds.

Pamela has some great tips for questions to ask to put your subject at ease. A good technique is to start by talking about local restaurants or recent movies to put your subject at ease and conversing comfortably. Use the first few questions to really listen and make sure the recording sounds clean and to note any distracting background room noises. Then you can then move into the meat of the interview.

Be sure to do some practice interviews with friends and family to get familiar with the equipment and how to best position everything to gain optimal sound. That way you’ll look like a pro when you go to capture the real thing and won’t waste any time getting what you need.

Tim Keenan is a long time recording engineer, voice talent and owner of CreativeMediaRecording.com an Orange County, CA based media studio specializing in voice recording and editing. On Twitter with tips & tricks for voiceover folks @tjkeenan and tips on recording & audio for video @Soundtrack_Pro

Concentration vs. Awareness

Sometimes the littlest thing can make the greatest impact.

Even a single word can make a difference.

For instance, consider the word ‘concentration.’  Many of us were encouraged as we grew up to ‘concentrate’ in order to learn new things, and at first glance, concentration seems like a stellar idea. After all, it refers to the directing of one’s attention to a single point of focus. More attention paid to something should bring about better results, right?

Not necessarily.

When we direct our attention to a single point of focus we run the risk of becoming reductive in our thinking. In other words, by paying extremely close attention to one area, we can end up encouraging our mind to only let in information which we already deem to be relevant to that area. Reductive thinking essentially cements what we already believe to be true, rather than creates an environment suited to discovery and learning.  Reductive thinking may be useful for ‘quality control’ situations such as working an assembly  line job or matching our socks, but it’s not particularly conducive to creative endeavors (learning included).

According to VisualThesaurus.com, the word ‘concentration’ bears resemblance to words such as ‘tightness’, ‘compactness’, and ‘absorption’.  Concentration reminds me of a laser beam.  Laser beams have (very) important uses, but have you for instance, ever tried to navigate the darkness using a laser-pointer? (Been there. Tried that. Epic fail.) It’s just not suited to the task. The beam is too ‘narrow’ to properly illuminate the way and lend perspective.

So, what happens if we let go of  our intention of ‘concentrating’ and embrace the concept of ‘awareness’ instead?

Things get interesting.

Awareness acts more like a floodlight that reaches well into dark corners. By intending awareness we signal our brain to let in a great deal of information simultaneously without regard for its perceived benefit. Sure, we get quite a bit of information that we may not find immediate value for, but along with that information, come gems of knowledge we would surely have missed otherwise. Awareness begets expansive thinking, and expansive thinking is the condition under which discovery and creativity thrive.

Next time you find yourself ‘stuck’ when learning something new, whether it be a dialect or any other skill, see what happens if you consciously invite yourself to make the subtle shift from ‘concentration’ to ‘awareness’. It might feel a bit awkward at first not to have access to your trusty ‘laser beam’, but you might surprise yourself with how enlightening the experience can be.

Myth du Jour: Actors Need General American Accents

Myth: To work regularly, you need to be able to speak in a General American Accent.

Reality: The reality of this situation is that for each and every actor the rules are different. (Doesn’t seem fair, I know. Sorry ’bout that.)

It comes down to this– the way you speak is one essential component of your unique, complex acting product and if you take the time to harmonize your speech skills to the rest of your acting product, you can maximize your casting opportunities. The General American accent itself contains no magic. It’s just a tool. If the General American accent ‘tool’ fits well with your acting career, great. Use it. If there are other tools (other accents) that fit better, stop fretting over the General American accent and make sure you master those accents so that you can find yourself booking jobs more frequently.

If you are dubious about my claim, I encourage you to take a few minutes and make a list of all the high-profile actors you can think of that don’t use a General American accent very often (or ever) in their careers. There are plenty of them.  There are also plenty for whom a General American accent is indispensable. Your challenge as an actor is to figure out into which category your own acting product logically falls and take action as needed.

Here are some places to start if the idea of thinking about your acting product/image/essence/brand (whatever you’d like to call it) is new to you.

1) You may find value in this blog post I wrote earlier this year.

2) You may benefit from attending personal brand workshops such as those taught by Sam Christensen in Los Angeles and NYC. (If you live outside these cities, you can see clips of Sam’s work on YouTube.)

3) You may wish to invest in a dialect fitting with a qualified dialect consultant who specializes in such matters.

I hope you’ll enjoy this part of your journey. If you have questions or comments, don’t hesitate to contact me here in the comments section or at dialect411 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Speech Class: Vowels and Consonants

I’m not going to try to hide it from you. Today’s post isn’t light reading. It’s equivalent to an hour’s worth of private coaching, or a session in an acting conservatory classroom. The upside is that this post is free which will save you anywhere from $75 -$200 in coaching fees, or even more when compared to the cost of prestigious private acting conservatories. (Cha-ching!)

If you are fairly new to learning authentic, actable dialects, it can be very helpful to know a few terms before you head off to hire a dialect coach. Familiarity with common linguistics terms will make communicating with your coach easy, and it can help you to quickly get your bearings if you find yourself in the unhappy situation of having no access to a coach and thus being limited to working with commercial dialect acquisition CD’s.

To get the most out of today’s lesson on vowels and consonants, you may find it valuable to glance back at this post explaining the difference between written and spoken language, and this post that elucidates the difference between voiced and unvoiced sounds of speech, and this post which will give you a good understanding of the body parts responsible for speech sounds.

Today I want to share with you a few things about vowels and consonants—exactly what they are, how you can tell if a sound you’ve never heard before is a vowel or a consonant, and I’ll even a throw in a bit of acting theory related to these two groups of sounds.

First, a basic definition: In the arena of spoken language, linguists consider a speech sound to be a vowel  if it is comprised of an uninterrupted, unimpeded voiced stream of air.  On the other hand, a speech sound is considered to be a consonant  when that sound is a voiced or voiceless stream of air that is stopped, impeded, or interrupted in some way by the articulators.

If you are not keen on wordy definitions, here are some more ways to think about these two groupings:

Vowel= unimpeded or uninterrupted voiced stream of air.

Consonant = voiced (or unvoiced!) stream of air that is somehow interrupted, impeded or stopped.

We could even go out on a limb and say that vowels are more static in nature, and consonants are more dynamic…

Here’s why:

When you happen to speak a sound that has been classified as a vowel, you’ll find that you can do so without moving any of your articulators during the creation of the sound, and you’ll also notice that your articulators aren’t constricting your breath channel enough to cause audible friction.

I want you to try a little experiment, but you’ll need to learn a tiny bit of the IPA (The International Phonetic Alphabet) to do so, so here is the International Phonetic Association‘s Vowel chart which shows all of the vowels  that are used in the many languages on Earth.

If you are curious about exactly what sounds each of these symbols represent, you can go here and listen to dialect coach Paul Meier pronounce them for you using a nifty interactive version of this chart that he and coach Eric Armstrong co-created. There are also other interactive versions available on line. If you listen to several, you’ll begin to notice where the IPA chart leaves off and the human element comes in…

For now, merely notice the very first symbol in the upper left-hand corner. It looks like this —>[i].  If you happen to speak in a General or Standard American accent, this symbol represents the sound you’d use in words such as ‘flea, me, sweep, greedy, and easy.’ (If you don’t happen to speak in a General or Standard American accent, now might be a good time to check out Mr. Meier’s/Mr. Armstrong’s interactive vowel chart and listen to this sound.)

Now for the experiment: I want you take a few moments to speak the sound [i] in a sustained way…sort of like a monk chanting…any note you want to use is fine…just speak [i] in a sustained way for as long as your breath allows. Then do it again and as you do, allow your mind’s eye to focus on your articulators (your jaw, your tongue, your teeth, your soft and hard palate, your gum ridge etc.). Notice how they don’t have to change position at all while you are making this [i] sound? That’s one of the hallmarks of a vowel sound. You can take up the position of a vowel sound and then remain in that position as you send a voiced stream of air through the shape you’ve created with your articulators. No moving necessary speech-wise. (You will of course have movement within your body in order to exhale the air you need to vocalize, and so that you can engage your vocal folds, but we can safely categorize these as movement needed for vocal production rather than movement required for speech.)

See? Vowels have a sort of static quality to them.

Consonants on the other hand will involve some combination of articulators to be moving, or to be placed in such close proximity as to cause audible friction.

Here comes another chart from the International Phonetic Association…This one is dedicated to consonants (not all of them, though). I’m sharing it with you not to overwhelm you, but in an attempt to be as precise about our discussion as possible. (This blog has readers from around the globe, so it would be folly to assume that everyone’s idea of how to pronounce a particular written word will be similar…Please don’t get scared off by this chart!)

Again, let’s start by looking at the upper left hand corner. See that lower-case P sort of symbol —>[p]? If you happen to speak General or Standard American English this is the unvoiced sound you’d speak in words like ‘promise, pepper, apt, sleepy and deep.’ If you’d like to hear this sound pronounced, Paul Meier can help you out here.

Experiment time again: I’d like you to try pronouncing this sound and sustaining it like you did earlier with [i]… Go ahead… Give it a whirl… Try to chant like a monk using a [p] sound…Can’t do it, can you? Me neither. It’s just not possible. The speech sound [p] can’t be sustained because it is a sound that is ‘stopped’ ‘impeded’ or ‘interrupted.’ Say [p] a few more times. (You might find that you end up adding  a voiced ‘uh’ kind of sound right after it out of habit. Don’t worry too much about that right now.) Instead, send your mind’s eye to what’s happening with your lips… Say [p]… Can you say it without moving your lips? Nope.  [p] is a consonant alright. A voiceless, stopped consonant that ends in a little mini-explosion of air. Pretty dynamic!

Take a look back at the IPA consonant chart. Near the center of the chart you will find something that looks like a lower case ‘S’—> [s]. If you happen to speak General or Standard American English, this symbol represents the voiceless sound you’d use in words such as ‘sea, storm, essay, east, and less.’ (Check with Mr. Meier here if you’d like to hear this sound.)

One more experiment: Try to speak a sustained [s] sound. How long can you sustain it? As long as you have breath exhaling from your lungs, right? Try another sustained [s] sound and as you do, send your mind’s eye to your articulators… Notice how they don’t have to move once they are in position for the [s]? [s] happens to be an example of a voiceless,  impeded (but not stopped!) consonant. As you say [s] two of your articulators (your tongue and your gum ridge) are in such close proximity  that audible friction occurs. We can consider that friction to be dynamic.

Okay, enough tech talk! If you’re still here, I commend you! (If we were in a room together right now, I’d be passing out celebratory cookies, so consider yourself virtually cookied!)

At the beginning of this post I promised you a little vowel and consonant theory, so here it is…

Many people assert that at the core of the matter, the informational content of a person’s spoken message is contained in the consonant sounds, while the emotional content of the message rides out on the vowel sounds.

(Yeah, go ahead. Read it again. Let it sink in.)

Information loves a consonant, Emotion seeks a vowel…

I’ll leave you now, but with some questions to ponder and then talk about over tea. (And if you’d rather wax poetic in my comments section, have at it!)

Knowing what you know now about vowels and consonants, why do you think that that many people have come to the conclusion above?

Do you agree with this conclusion, and if so, how might you take advantage of this idea in your craft?

Joy to you,


Learning a Dialect: Five Ways to Squeeze in the Time

Becoming convincing in a dialect and being able to maintain that convincing nature while acting in a film or play doesn’t happen overnight. Even when you are familiar with the most effective dialect acquisition techniques available on this pretty blue planet, learning a dialect is still going to take a bite out of your schedule.

How much of a bite? It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly, but it’s a smart move to budget a few hours per day for anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks. For now let’s assume two hours per day for six weeks…that comes to 84 hours.

So, it’s going to take around 84 hours to master an unfamiliar dialect…


It’s in realizing this that most actors decide to put off their dialect aspirations.

After all, who’s got 84 extra hours?

Believe it or not, you do.

Really, you do.

You just need to be clever about it.

Here are five clever ways to sneak a little dialect work into your skill set without wreaking havoc on your life:

1) Listen while you commute. Many actors report that driving while listening to dialect source materials on the stereo not only allows them to squeeze in an hour or more of practice per day, but also has a calming effect during traffic jams. If cars aren’t your thing, try wearing headphones on the train or subway. You may not feel as comfortable responding  aloud to your recordings, but you can at least listen for details. If you are fortunate enough to have created recordings for yourself that have long interview sessions with a dialect donor, public transportation commutes can be a convenient time to listen to those.

2) Listen while you work out. If your daily workout includes walking, swap out your Lady Gaga recordings for your dialect materials. (Do be careful walking around wearing headphones. Remain aware of your surroundings!) With the advent of cell-phones with ear pods, even if you happen to be responding aloud to your dialect recordings, most people who pass by you will assume you are on the phone.

3) Listen on your way to lullaby land. Head to sleep 15 minutes early and squeeze a little practice in then. There have been no formal studies done as of yet to directly verify this, but since dreams appear to be our way of processing the events and information of our lives, it seems to follow that practicing a dialect as you drift off could have its benefits.

4) Listen while you do housework. Simple tasks such as folding laundry, sweeping the floor or deadheading roses provide great opportunities to practice your dialect. (And it won’t add a single minute to your busy schedule!)

5) Listen in lines and lobbies. When you have a wait ahead of you, even if it’s only going to be five minutes, try listening to your dialect materials.  Learning a dialect requires consistent exposure over time, so every little bit counts.

Annnnnd a bonus idea…

6) Listen while you relax. This one’s not necessarily a time saver, but I mention it because some actors report that they learn more quickly when they work on their dialect in a relaxing environment. Consider donning your ear buds and heading out to swing in a hammock or lie on the beach, or try working on your dialect while you enjoy a hot bath. (Safely please.)

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!