Ever walked out of the cinema and find yourself speaking in the same accent as the main character? Accents can be fun and catchy (even contagious!); and if you’re a voice actor, you’ll know that the ability to do different accents can improve your value and opportunities. However, while doing a posh British accent might feel natural after binge-watching three seasons of The Crown, learning accents and dialects and speaking them like a native is actually one of the hardest things a voice actor can do.
It’s something that takes thousands of hours of practice, training and patience. It helps to have professional help as well, if that’s within your budget. If not, there is a wealth of information available on the internet and all kinds of apps you can use to connect with people who speak the accent of your choice, some of which we will cover in this article.
A solid reason for learning new accents
While there will always be a great demand for North American English with a neutral accent, brands are increasingly looking for English spoken with accents.
The demand for English voice overs with an Australian accent rose by 22% since last year while the demand for English with a British accent rose by 12%.
This is because brands are realizing that a voice that sounds real and authentic works better to create an emotional connection with viewers.
People are more likely to pay attention to accents that are familiar to their own. They are more likely to trust someone who sounds like them. That’s why, with regional advertising, there is a drive to hyper-localize content.
For example, a heavy Australian accent might be a bit of a cipher to most people in the international community. However, for the target market, it makes sense to have a voice over that sounds like a friendly neighbor cheerfully and casually giving advice.
A voice actor can increase their reach significantly by learning new accents. But where do you start? Here are a few quick tips:
Learn the nitty-gritty
According to actress Amy Walker, there are five main aspects to learning accents: phonetics, melody, rhythm and stress, grammar and word meaning, and vibe.
Phonetics is the science of the sounds of human speech. It will be handy to learn the phonetic alphabet, as this can help you identify new sounds that your ear isn’t used to because they are not in your native language. Then you can start to train your mouth and throat to make those sounds.
So first off, you’ll want to listen carefully to the pronunciation of vowels and consonants in your target language. While the vowels are trickier (because consonant sounds usually match up across various languages), this is not always the case!
For example, in Portuguese, the “r” at the beginning of a word is pronounced like an “h” sound, so the word “roxa” is pronounced “ho-sha”. The “d” is pronounced like “g”, which makes the word “grande” not “grand-ee” but “gran-gee”.
As for melody and rhythm, all accents have their own musicality. Listen, learn and try to replicate them. It will help to listen to a strong version of your chosen accent. While a “mild” version may be more understandable, it will ultimately not help you learn the most authentic accent in the long run.
When you’re trying to learn an accent, it’s also often helpful to learn as much as possible about the language. Grammar rules differ significantly, and achieving an understanding of the rules in your target language can help you learn the accent faster. Same goes for the meaning of words. For example, a “pharmacy” is a “chemist” in Australia. A “liquor store” is a “Bottle-O”.
In fact, you could go as far as to learn the basics of the language itself, which will give you valuable insight into why an accent sounds the way it does. Bilingualism has lots of benefits, and you might even be able to throw in a few snippets of foreign language on-set should you be asked by your director! Value-added, indeed.
Immerse yourself in your chosen accent
If you want to learn a particular accent, you have to be as familiar with it as you possibly can. Soak it up – this can help you learn the rhythms and melodies of the language as well as the unfamiliar sounds
This could mean watching videos, listening to podcasts and music, exploring the internet in your chosen language, joining social media channels from other countries, reading the news; there are lots of things you can do easily from the comfort of your own home.
You can listen to the correct pronunciation of words easily with Google Translate; that way, you’re also getting into the habit of learning in your new language. Even if you put a video on in the background while you’re doing something else, you’d be surprised at how your understanding naturally improves.
A website like IDEA is helpful here. A database of accents, every sample features people reading the same piece of text in different accents.
Practice, practice, practice
Like all things in life, learning accents requires some skill, patience, and most importantly, practice. It’s not always going to be fun especially when you’re getting into the technicalities and re-watching a video for the thousandth time to look for minute changes in facial muscles. so you’ve got to be committed for the long haul. so don’t get demotivated if it doesn’t come immediately. For maximum efficiency, your training sessions should be frequent — no longer than two days between sessions (and every day is ideal). Collect newspaper articles, movie scripts, and lyrics, and record yourself while reading them aloud. Then listen and analyze: What are your strengths and weaknesses? What native language habits are you carrying over to your new language?
Get into character
Amy Walker says that “Speech is an expression of who I am, who I think I am, who I want you to think I am, how I feel, all of that”. A particular person’s accent is influenced by a myriad of factors including their age, social class, upbringing, goals, and obstacles, even when they are in history.
For example, the monarch of England sounds different to the Prime Minister of England, even though they are both British. An American TV announcer from the 1930s sounds different from the TV announcer of 2020.
Remember, as a voice actor, you’re learning an accent to play a role. Getting into the character is just as important as learning the accent. So research this role thoroughly, think about what’s going through their head, their current circumstances, motivations, and emotions.
Don’t be shy
Once you’re ready to put theory into practice, look for a native speaker to practice with. Don’t be embarrassed – you have to try and fail before succeeding. Record your conversations and play them back several times. Listen to the pronunciation, melody, and rhythm of your partner’s speech and compare them to yours. You can try an app like HelloTalk, which is free or find partners in the online community to Skype with.
Feedback is your friend. Don’t be afraid to ask native speakers for their input. If you’ve made friends on your language apps, you can ask for their honest opinion in your progress. You can even upload your recordings to online communities like Judge my accent.
A professional touch
Last of all, if you have a budget set aside, you can always choose to contact a professional voice or dialect coach. There are even apps like the Real Accent app, which isn’t free but could help you stretch your dollars.
In conclusion, to learn an accent you’ll have to break it down to the basics, immerse yourself in your chosen accent, get into character, practice a lot and be open to feedback. If you can, try getting professional help to speed up your progress. It’s not going to be a walk in the park, but as long as you are willing to learn, it can be a rewarding journey, both for your own satisfaction and for your career! We hope we were of help and wish you all the best.