Tag Archives: how to learn an accent

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!

Advertisements

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.

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!)

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.*********

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.