Learning a believable dialect as a “do it yourself” project can be daunting. Knowing what to listen for, how to break it down, and how to practice, and then turning your work into something that will convince a native speaker is not easy to do—at least without a little guidance.
Dialects are variations on a language based on specific elements. For example, a broad concept such as American-English has countless, more specific dialects such as Southern American-English, Midwestern American English, New England American-English, or Northern New York American-English. Dialects can also spring from more specific characteristics of the speaker’s surroundings, such as ethnicity, race, religion, or social class.
If you keep digging into details, you’ll often find what’s called an “idiolect,” which is a singular person’s specific speech patterns and quirks. Think of the way Christopher Walken essentially uses the diction of a Queens native—but also nobody would mistake your Christopher Walken impression for another Queens native such as rapper 50 Cent or actor Fran Drescher.
Accents are the ways people pronounce words and are just one part of a dialect. A person’s dialect is also composed of their vocabulary, grammar, and usage of local slang.
Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain” Courtesy of Focus Feature
A strong actor commits completely to their role, including the way their character moves, behaves, and speaks. Spot-on dialects—such as Meryl Streep as a Polish refugee in “Sophie’s Choice,” and Heath Ledger as a Wyoming cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain”—create a sense of authority, accuracy, and specificity. Understanding dialect means fully immersing yourself not just in what the script says, but also in your character’s background and subtext.
Alternatively, poorly performed dialects can take the audience out of the setting and reality of a film, TV show, or theatrical production.
Many actors work with dialect coaches to refine their understanding of vocal anatomy, phonetics, prosody, and linguistic approaches to different dialects.
Jon Bernthal on “We Own This City” Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Jim Johnson teaches voice and dialects at the University of Houston and has coached actors including Aidan Quinn and Hal Holbrook. He also runs AccentHelp, one of the leading resources for dialect training at home.
Listen to native speakers
Johnson recommends that the first thing a student does is listen to native speakers. “Just get used to hearing it, without trying to listen for anything specific,” he says. There are a number of resources for listening to authentic dialects, including Johnson’s AccentHelp courses and the International Dialects of English Archive, a website Johnson highly recommends. “It’s free, and a number of people, including myself, contribute recordings,” he adds.
After a few initial listenings, he says, students can then get into the details: “Start listening for sound changes, trying to get the intonation down. Get the rhythm of it, where the pitch moves.”
To incorporate the “musicality” of a dialect, Johnson will often have students use physical actions to follow the movement of pitch and rhythm, such as moving their arms up and down with the pitch or tapping out the rhythms. He finds this helps speed up the learning process. “Hopefully, they’re not just feeling it, but they’re seeing it as well,” he says. “They learn it through auditory, kinesthetic, and visual means.”
Exaggerate the dialect
Mimicry is the next step, and students should not be afraid of exaggerating at first, according to Johnson. “People often try to start with a subtle version, but they really need to start with a heavy version, so they can sense what the sound changes are and what the feeling is,” he says. “I often hear directors say, ‘We only want a light version of the accent,’ and that approach can be a big mistake.”
Johnson prefers to find the broad stereotypes of a dialect in order to “anchor the accent.” “The stereotypes really become strong indicators of what the accent is,” he says. “I find that if they don’t get the stronger version, then they often wash out to indefinite sounds and they don’t really know what they’re doing.”
Study vowel sounds
One of the more difficult parts of learning a dialect is the vowel sounds. “With consonants, we have more letters of the alphabet that match up,” Johnson explains. “With vowels, we only have A, E, I, O, U, so we’re not used to the wide variety of sounds and being able to name them.” To break down and define these sounds, Johnson uses a vowel chart created by the International Phonetic Association. This chart can help show the student where vowel sounds occur in the mouth. “The sounds may move forward or shift upward,” he says. “The difference on the vowels is primarily about where the tongue is.”
Figuring out the important sounds is where home training materials can come in handy. “They can clarify some of the sound changes; that’s also the main benefit of a coach,” says Johnson. “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.”
Johnson points out that placement is a concept that not every vocal expert agrees with, but he finds it quite helpful: “With a French accent, it is helpful in the beginning to round the lips forward in order to find the placement of the French, which lies very far towards the front. Later on, you need to let go of the fish lips and look and sound like a human being.”
Refining the accent requires constant repetition and critical listening. “The best tool is a recorder,” Johnson says. He suggests that students record themselves listening to samples of native speakers and then repeating back what they say. “Play the recordings of yourself and find where you’re not quite matching.” But finding the right speaker recordings is crucial. “Be careful with using movies,” he warns, “because you can get not-so-accurate versions.”
Once you’ve begun learning a dialect, Johnson says, “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.” While using the new dialect, he says, the student should keep looking for any elements that are missing. “Keep coming back to the recordings and listening to yourself,” so you can find mistakes “before they get too deeply ingrained.”
Use your acting skills
In the end, Johnson thinks the most important element in a believable dialect is great acting, with the ability to sell it. “The moment I feel that I don’t believe you, that’s what gives it away,” he says. “I find it incredibly difficult to teach people to do a good accent if they’re not a good actor.”