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Backstage Experts

How Can I Learn Different British Accents + Dialects?

How Can I Learn Different British Accents + Dialects?
Photo Source: Jordan Sondler

Q: I’ve been working on learning different British accents (I’m American) to help expand my range, but I’m having trouble distinguishing between the various accents and dialects. Help! —@Tom_Snout, Backstage Community Forum

I can see why you would have a tough time! There are over 30 different dialects in England, and many more if we count the rest of the U.K. To start, let me talk you through the eight steps that can help you begin to learn and distinguish dialects.

Listen to a real person: Find an authentic recording of the dialect you want to learn from a person from that place. Don’t use a video of a dialect coach or someone imitating the dialect.

Listen to the vowels: From that recording, make a list of the sounds you hear that are different from the way you speak. Do they drop the Rs in words like near, square, north, start, tower, and fire? Do they round their lips more in words like lot, not, stop, foot, good, and should?

Listen to the consonants: What do they do with their Ts? Do they say “better” or “bedder”? What kind of L do they use in words like well, ball, and feel? Make a list of all the sound changes you hear.

Listen to the “music”: Pitch and melody are an important part of any dialect. Do they have lots of upward or downward inflection? How do they ask questions? Listen to your recording and try to match the music of their dialect.

Get a feel for it: Literally, how does it feel in the mouth? What do their tongue, jaw, soft palate, and lips do physically? Having video of someone talking allows you to actually see.

Feel the rhythm: What’s the tempo and rhythm of their speech? Is it fast and clipped? Do they shorten their vowels? Lengthen them on important words?

Record yourself: Record yourself speaking the same words as your primary sample recording. Play it back and see how well you did.

Have fun: As an audience, we can hear when you’re acting the dialect rather than acting the scene. Act through the dialect and tell the story, rather than playing the dialect.

D’Arcy Smith is an associate professor of voice and speech at the University of Cincinnati, CCM. As a voice, text, and dialect coach, he has worked on over 80 professional productions. Before coming to CCM, he was a resident voice coach at the Guthrie Theater for four seasons and voice coach for numerous professional acting companies in the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand, including Actor’s Theater Louisville, Cincinnati Playhouse, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, The Guthrie Theater, American Player’s Theater, Penumbra Theater, The Jungle Theater, Theater Latte da, Circa, and Taki Rua. He has also worked on television series as a dialect coach in New Zealand. His teaching credits include workshops nationally as well as in the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and Malaysia.

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