Essential Diction Exercise Tips for Actors

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Repeat after me: The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick. Try again. Now faster: The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.

Tongue twisters aren’t just hard on the eyes. They’re an important tool in an actor’s diction arsenal. That’s because speaking has a lot to do with learning how to move our tongue in our mouth. To practice, say the above sentence slowly and deliberately five times in a row. If you’re able to say it without making a mistake, increase the speed. If you make a mistake, slow back down again. The key with tongue twisters as diction exercises is to only speed up once you’re in control of the words and to go faster and faster until you master them at all speeds. 

But are there words in your everyday life that you always trip on? As a bilingual voice actor who speaks two languages professionally (French and English), I know first-hand about the challenges of articulating. For instance, I have trouble saying the word digital in English, which often comes up in voice narrations, so I’ve created my own tongue twister: “Digital digitization or digitalization is a way of digitally digitalizing digital digits.” It’s a mouthful, but it works!

What about those times when you have to play a doctor or detective on TV who is investigating a murder involving fancy drug names? When my mouth won’t cooperate and there’s no time to play around, I put a pencil between my teeth horizontally (like a dog holding a bone) and say the troublesome word or group of words slowly, but precisely. The pencil creates an obstruction that forces my tongue to be clear about where it should be when I’m articulating that word. When I take the pencil out of my mouth, my tongue will know where to go, and I’ll usually pronounce the word perfectly. 

Pronouncing words correctly in any language is very similar to learning how to dance: it takes practice. Over the years, I’ve worked with French and English coaches who have taught me how to pronounce consonants and vowels in my two native languages correctly so I can avoid sounding French in English, and vice versa. Did you know that even though most consonants and vowels sound similar, they aren’t produced the same way in the two languages? Take the consonants T and D: in English, your tongue touches your palate. In French, your tongue touches the bottom of your top front teeth. The difference is subtle, but producing sounds correctly is precisely what will generate an authentic sound.

Speaking of languages, accents, and dialects, one of the reasons we often have a hard time sounding authentic (unless we learn them very young) is because of muscle memory. Since we learn to produce the same sounds over and over from birth, we have trouble later on moving our mouths in new ways. If your mouth has never contorted itself to make the French “u” sound, you won’t know how to do it. This is why most people, say from France, sound French when they speak English: they’re using the exact same mouth movements that enable them to create French sounds to speak English. The key is to learn to move in new ways versus trying to use old movements to make new sounds. 

But if you’re in a quest to learn a language, an accent, or a dialect, mouth mechanics alone can only take you so far. You’ll have to listen to the said language, accent, or dialect. In the era of podcasts, YouTube, and international Netflix, you’re spoiled with resources. There was no such thing when I had to learn an Italian accent for “Assassin’s Creed II”!  When you listen to the language, accent, or dialect you want to learn, ignore the content if you understand it. Instead, pay attention to the emphasis of individual words. For example, in English, the emphasis is often on the first syllable. In French, the emphasis is often on the last syllable. Note that we all transpose the emphases of our own language onto the language, accent, or dialect we want to learn. This is part of our accent. 

Now, say you’re interested in learning to speak English with a German accent. Instead of trying to imitate an English-speaking German by listening to an audiobook, I invite you to listen to a German author narrating a book in German. Even if it sounds like gibberish, notice the sounds they make over and over. You’ll hear lots of “sch,” “r”, and “z” consonants, and many “ah-ee” and “oo” vowel sounds. Since those are the very sounds a German speaker will produce in English, practice reproducing those sounds as accurately as you can. 

If you want to try something fun, visit Google Translate. Plug in an English sentence (say, “The cat and the dog disappeared in the alley”), translate it to German, and listen. The German sentence will have many sounds you’ve heard in the audiobook. Now, repeat the German sentence until you can say it perfectly. Then, say the original English sentence, but use the cadence of that German sentence, and insert some of those German sounds you’ve practiced into it. You’ll sound German, for all the right reasons. 

Now, how about trying these tongue twisters with that German accent?

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Lili Wexu
Lili Wexu is an accomplished actor, voiceover talent, and announcer with over 20 years of experience. She’s appeared in “Grey’s Anatomy” and in “Alien vs Predator,” and has lent her voice to the “Assassin’s Creed II” video game. As an announcer, she’s had the honor and the privilege of announcing at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. She’s recorded TV promos for NBC, Fox, and the Cartoon Network.
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