The ability to learn accents and different dialects takes a lot of training, patience, and voice talent. As many people say, the best way to learn a foreign accent or dialect is to speak it. That advice certainly comes in handy if you’re stuck in a region where that dialect is being spoken, but that seldom is the case for most voice actors.
Here are some tips that can help you acquire the accents that you may need for various voice acting roles:
Break it down
After binge-watching the Harry Potter series, it might dawn on you that you will never learn a British accent just by listening to other actors. According to actress Amy Walker, there are six main aspects to learning accents: phonetics, melody, rhythm and stress, grammar and word meaning, and vibe. Now that sounds complicated, but language coach Jim Johnson says that the focus should be on the vowel sounds, as the consonant sounds usually match up across various accents.
Use the International Phonetic Association vowel chart to focus on the different vowel sounds and compare them with some British accent clips that are available all over the web. Once you master the complicated vowels, learning the rest of the accent components will become easier. As Johnson said, “Going to your Scottish friend to help learn the accent may not be the best choice. It’s better to have a system that has broken it down to help you get there.”
Want to learn accents? Be your fiercest critic!
But, be extra careful. It’s really easy to get ahead of yourself and call it a day when you haven’t put it the legwork. After all, it’s not just about how we sound to ourselves, but also to others. If you think you’ve got an accent down pat, record yourself doing a few line readings. Save your best takes and rewatch them over and over. Try to pick apart inconsistencies, sounds that don’t match up to the originals. Comparing and contrasting is not about competition, but end results.
Guaranteed, after you try the above method you’ll find many inconsistencies — and that’s not the end of it by a longshot! I know that being your own worst critic can sound like a nightmare, but there’s a purpose to it. After all, your job as an actor is to create a suspension of disbelief. If yours can’t hold, then why should the audience’s?
After you’re satisfied with your grueling process of self-evaluation, it’s time to get many, many second opinions. Don’t just show your recordings to friends who want to do right by you; show it in online communities with experts on phonetics, to native speakers, to anyone who you think can give an unbiased, honest assessment.
Who said it was easy to learn accents?
Look, not just listen
There are lots of podcasts on dialect tutorials, but they might not come in as handy as YouTube tutorials, where you can see the voice talent articulate words in the dialect or accent that you’re learning. Seeing how their lips, cheeks, teeth, tongue, and jaws move while they enunciate each word makes mimicking them easier. If they’re good at what they do, they’ll be able to enunciate and replay difficult parts extra slow so you can pick up on nuances.
We may not know it yet, but we’re knee-deep into the field of phonetics. All About Linguistics sheds some light on the topic:
Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that focuses on the production and classification of the world’s speech sounds. The production of speech looks at the interaction of different vocal organs, for example the lips, tongue and teeth, to produce particular sounds
As you now know, using the muscles in our face, throat, and mouth creates different sounds. If you’re having trouble mimicking a sound, giving the old muscles a thorough workout is just the right way to jump over that hurdle. And this is an ongoing process, as every country, every region, and every part of the world has different accents. You’re going to be stretching mouth muscles you never knew you had!
For instance, you might notice that Brits tend to move their lips forward a lot while Aussies don’t open their mouths too much when they speak. It helps to copy their facial movements in front of a mirror. Remember:
- Mouth, cheek, tongue, and throat movements matter.
- There is no good vocal quality without the proper placements.
- Always practice in front of a mirror
- Always run your results by someone else. Never settle for just your appraisal.
Practice reading aloud
Get ahold of some language-learning generic texts like “Arthur the Rat,” “The Rainbow Passage,” “Comma Gets a Cure,” and “The Moose Passage” and read them aloud using a British accent. Try recording them using your own voice and compare them with similar recordings online, marking all the differences in the pronunciation of each word. It’s a bit tedious, but it really makes for good voice talent practice.
Try to play around with accents, create your own audiobook. Try on different accents and voices for each character, and record yourself doing a sort of impromptu table read. You’ll find that you can pull off some accents much more convincingly, and then ones you need to work on much harder. Them’s the breaks, unfortunately. You’ll get better with time and practice.
Want to learn accents? Remember to LISTEN!
If you want to watch movies and repeat alongside them, that’s also a great way to go. Be careful, though! Some movies are known for their notoriously fake/unconvincing accents. There are many channels and videos out there where language experts break down the accents in a movie. Try to find the ones that are the most faithful to really copy if you’re going to go for it.
Some performances are so good that even native speakers are taken aback by an actor or actress putting on an accent. If you want this to be you, then you’re going to have to practice, practice, practice! In our Acting with Accents: Tips on How to Pull It Off Effectively, we offer the following mind-blowing fact:
If you’ve ever watched House, you probably would never believe Hugh Laurie is British. Many people think he pulled off one of the best spot-on American accents. However, part of the reason why he nailed his accent was because he tailored it to his character – a conceited, unsociable, yet caring physician.
Learn accents by talking to a native speaker
Now maybe you don’t know any British people. With today’s technology, that isn’t a problem. Who says you have to know one in order to speak to one? This is where you really get the nuances of the dialect you’re trying to learn.
You can find a British language partner on an online community and spend time video calling on Skype. Shoot for at least twice a week and talk about your interests. It will help you speak fluidly without becoming self-conscious. Record your conversations and play them back several times to listen to the pronunciation, melody, and rhythm of your partner’s speech. You can help teach him/her how to speak in your accent while they guide you with your new British accent. It’s like hitting two birds with one stone.
If there’s one thing we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that there’s no such thing as distance anymore — not with wifi anyway. Whether it’s Skype, Zoom, or social media, there’s a plethora of apps to bring us closer than ever. Plenty of people are sadly still stuck at home, and many are eager to chat with a new, friendly face.
There’s plenty of accounts on social media that organize small events where you can meet screen-to-face. A cursory search online will yield hundreds of results!
Don’t forget to get into character
Finally, it’s important to remember that as a voice actor, learning the dialect is just part of the role. Acting it out convincingly is an equally essential part of the job.
So just like any character, do your research about the role that you are about to play, not just the dialect but also the character’s age, social class, upbringing, goals, and obstacles—all the things that influence the character’s speech. After all, you’re adopting a dialect for a character, not an entire region.
As for accessing emotions while learning an accent, Meryl Streep offers some great advice. “I read a lot of poetry out loud. Poetry’s very emotional and I did it with this accent,” she said in an interview. “It was the only thing I could do at home to sort of to prepare to let emotions through this person’s voice.”
Some other budget-friendly ways to learn accents
If you’re short on budget, you can try the following online resources that will be very helpful on your quest to learn accents:
· The Real Accent App. Learn American and English accents with this “Voice Coach in Your Pocket.” It’s not free, but it’s certainly cheaper than hiring a human voice coach.
· The Accent Kit App. This one familiarizes the voice talent with the different elements on learning an accent, such as vowels, consonants, and foundations of a language. It houses a comprehensive and high-quality personal accent library.
· Amy Walker’s YouTube Channel. Amy’s fun and fascinating to watch, making accent learning look like a breeze. Being an actress, she not only tries to speak in different accents but also attempts to imbibe the cultural nuances of each dialect.
It takes an awful lot of time and patience to learn accents by heart. It’s not always fun, especially when studying the technical parts of enunciating phonetic sounds and looking at facial movements, but it’s part of being a voice talent, and the creative and career rewards that you can get out of it are definitely worth all the effort. Good luck!