Imagine Mike Myers’ Shrek without a Scottish inflection, or Idris Elba’s Stringer Bell in “The Wire” walking around Baltimore with the actor’s natural English lilt. When done well, accents expand an actor’s opportunities, as well as add realism and depth to their character work.
Don’t get tongue-tied. Below, we’ll go over everything you need to learn any dialect with ease.
Study and surround yourself with the accent. Immerse yourself in films, TV shows, social media videos, radio, podcasts, and anything you can get your hands (and ears!) on to truly get a feel for each accent. The International Dialects of English archive can be a great resource to delve into accents, their sounds, and fundamentals.
“Put one earbud in or one side of headphones on and have your sample speaker playing, but really low,” suggests voice and dialect coach Rebecca Gausnell. “You kind of create a café effect. You know when you’re in a café and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Why do I sound Scottish? Oh, I was sitting next to a Scottish person.’ We do tend to mold our accents, some people more than others, into someone else’s. So if you have that running through your ear very quietly, of someone speaking in the accent, that will help pull you back into it.”
Consider your mouth. Different accents require different tongue and articulator placement. For example, the French accent generally requires rounded lips and forward tongue placement, while the British accent uses a dropped, relaxed jaw and lowered tongue. Consider what your lips, teeth, mouth, tongue, and larynx are doing with each word you pronounce until it becomes muscle memory.
Practice and repeat. The more time you take practicing accents, the better you’ll be. Practice daily to make an unfamiliar accent feel instinctive—and don’t be afraid to work with a vocal or dialect coach. Otherwise, your best friend for this process is a tape recorder. “Play the recordings of yourself and find where you’re not quite matching,” says Jim Johnson, voice and dialect teacher at the University of Houston. “Don’t wait until you get it before you start using it. The process is one of listening and absorbing over an extended period of time, and then just trying it out constantly.… Keep coming back to the recordings and listening to yourself.”
Prep. The more time you spend with an accent, the more innate it will feel when it’s time to show it off. “If you’re thinking about the accent, you’re dead. It’s got to be habitual and instinctive by the point at which you commit to a performance,” says accent coach Paul Meier.
Meier suggests preparing with a monologue you know well. “Take a familiar text that’s in your audition repertoire, one that you’ve never done in that accent, perhaps, and you find what it takes to not think anymore about the accent,” he says. “By that point, if you can switch from speech to speech, from monologue to monologue, and stay in the accent, then you know that on a prepared text that you’ve been rehearsing and you’ve been coached in, you’re more likely to be able to stay in it and not think about it once you are in performance.”
Six steps to learning a new accent
According to dialect coach Pamela Vanderway, the six steps to learning a new accents are:
1. Start with you. The first thing you will need to do is to determine exactly which dialect(s) you’ll want to learn. Perhaps your agent keeps sending you in for roles for Chinese businessmen, or Serbian immigrants, or Saudi Arabian royalty. If there is a pattern you see emerging, start your quest there. If you aren’t sure which accent will be the most marketable, find someone who is experienced in “dialect fitting,” which approaches accent acquisition as an extension of your overall brand. They can help you determine exactly what will best suit your wheelhouse, which can save time, money, and frustration.
2. Do your research. Once you know the exact accent you’d like to start with, hit the internet to begin gathering video and audio samples of native speakers who use this accent. YouTube and TikTok are great places to start this research, but you’ll find many other resources along the way. Gather around a dozen samples you think are in the ballpark and have them standing by.
3. Get an introduction. The next step is one that you can skip if funding your accent training is not something you are concerned with—but if you are on a tight budget, you may want to invest in a quality pre-recorded accent lesson class. Another way to gain an introduction to accents is to take a group course or intensive workshop with a qualified professional either online or in person.
4. Become a polyglot. If the accent you wish to learn is influenced by a language outside of English, it can be valuable to take some entry-level language training as well. As you are learning the vocabulary and grammar, pay attention to pronunciation. When people speak in a second language, they often borrow sounds from their first language. Learning the basics can exercise your articulatory anatomy, give you insight as to why the accent sounds the way it does, and give you the skills you’ll need if a director asks if you can throw in a few snippets of ad-libbing on set. If you take the language all the way to fluency, that’s excellent, but even if you just get as far as being able to greet someone, ask the time, and order in a restaurant, you’ll be ahead of the game.
5. Contact a qualified coach. After practicing your accent, now’s the time to take your accent acquisition to the professional level and hire a private dialect coach. To make the most of your lessons, discuss your reasons for choosing the accent; let them know what steps you’ve taken so far. Send them a recording of your own accent, and a second tape of your best shot at the accent you want to learn.
Find a quiet place and use your smartphone to record yourself reading aloud. Be sure to use the same passage with your own accent and the target accent. Send your coach those recordings along with accent samples you found online so that they can get a good feel for exactly where you are in the process and precisely where you wish to head.
6. Budget your time (and your money). Learning an accent is not instantaneous. If you’re starting with a private dialect coach straight away, be sure to budget time and money for 12 to 14 hour-long sessions over the course of six to eight weeks, with plenty of daily practice on your own in between. If you are starting off with pre-recorded lessons first, it’s a little harder to predict the timing and budget, as it will depend on how many skills you were able to teach yourself, but typically actors can expect to spend 30% to 40% less time in private sessions with a dialect coach if they put in the work with pre-recorded sessions.
The easiest accents for English speakers to learn tend to be those that use the same language and linguistic rules, such as:
- American dialects like Boston, New Jersey, New York, Southern, and Transatlantic
Alternatively, the hardest accents to learn are those which stem from a foreign language, like: