How to Master Any Accent
That’s right you heard me (or maybe you didn’t through my thick Aussie accent). Needless to say, I’m here to help you to master any accent. From the resonant highlands of Scotland to the musicality of Jamaica all the way to drawn out regional Western Australia. This guide will put you on your way to mastering any accent that you might need.
I should preface this by saying I am by no means an expert in accents, but I do know a thing or two about developing them. With that being said, let’s get started.
NOTE: Before you begin any accent work, we always recommend doing a vocal warm-up first up, to really get those articulators working and that breath nice and grounded.
A Tale of Two Brains
Something that I think it’s important to note, is that everyone learns accents differently. Some have a much easier time seeing the sounds on a page through the use of phonetics and others pick up accents by ear. I personally fall into the latter category. There’s nothing better or worse about either but I think it’s important to find out which works better for you. You might even be a combination of the two! I know when I’m really struggling to identify a particular sound I’ll turn to phonetics. Whatever way you get there doesn’t matter, only that you do what’s best for you. So have a play, try it by ear, try reading some phonetics, it will all help in the long run.
When you first start your accent journey, you should take a page out of your acting book and do some mental reconnaissance, or, investigating. Begin to think about everything that this person goes through in their daily life and how they live. Does your character live in a hot or a cold climate? Is the air clean? What is the culture like? Is it easy and laid back or more conservative and regimented? All of these things can affect the general default placement of an accent or a dialect. If developing an accent is like building a house then this is you surveying the land where you’ll build it.
So if we’re building a house then this is your foundation. Every accent or dialect has its own unique placement of the jaw, tongue, lips and mouth. This is such an important part of developing any accent because if you get this right the rest will feel and flow naturally as it will all make sense. The placement of an accent has a lot to with what we discussed before in regards to how it is affected by its surroundings. This is how that placement comes to being.
So figure out just how the jaw, tongue, lips and mouth naturally sit in the accent of your choice and you will be well on your way.
As an example let’s take a note from our very own Patrick Cullens playbook and have a crack at RP. So as an exercise, let’s try it on for size.
Take your tongue and put it behind your top teeth, feel the hard palate. Good. Now move it back and feel the soft palate, nice – now lift the back of your tongue and feel the roof of your mouth at the very back there. Now take that back part of the tongue that you have lifted, and drop it down in your mouth as far down as it can go.
Imagine, that you have an egg in the back of your mouth, sitting on top of the very back of your tongue, you should feel a lot of space in the back of your mouth. Good – now – think about your upper lip, make it tight and set in stone. Know in your heart that all of the sounds that you make from here on out will use a lot of lip rounding. We want to keep the sound coming forward, with a stiff upper lip and absolutely no width in the mouth. This is not an accent that you smile with, it is an accent that you stoically, bear the universe with.
Finally, take a breath in, and really contact your chest resonance, try and work for a nice baritone sound encapsulating all of that chest power you have. Keep it supported and try and say the following sentence with Pat:
Try it a couple of times, and really make sure you’re holding on to that placement. If you ever get lost, just realign your placement! Practice, practice practice!
Pitch, Rhythm, and Pitch Rhythm
I know I know, that’s a little confusing but never fear! Hopefully, I can clear things up for you a little bit. Let me explain:
Pitch = The notes someone makes when they speak
Rhythm = The speed, and melody someone speaks those notes with
Pitch Rhythm = The combination of the two as it applies to the voice
So basically what this means is: Pitch Rhythm is the musicality of someone’s accent. A great example of this is Southern Irish. There’s a beautiful melody to the way they speak as it varies in pitch and speed. Not that much as we’ll hear below but more so than say a General American, which doesn’t really utilise the full range of notes that the voice has in a single sentence, and doesn’t tend to speed up or slow down too rapidly from sentence to sentence.
Saoirse Ronan shows us a pretty good example of the differences here.
Vowel and Consonant Sounds
Without getting too deep into the bowels of the phonetic alphabet we’ll take a little look at vowel and consonant sounds. Let’s start with vowels:
A,E,I,O, and U
These are our vowel sounds. In acting, vowel sounds are how we show emotion. Find out exactly how the accent you’re working on makes these sounds and try them out.
Now a consonant is any sound, that is not a vowel sound. That’s pretty straight forward right? In acting consonants are how we convey information so they are equally as important, but especially when it comes to accents. Find out how these sound too.
Bits and Bobs
Now, like all things in life, nothing is set in stone. There will be bits and bobs to an accent which are inconsistent, and this is where the real mastery work starts. Try and look (or should I say listen) out for these little idiosyncrasies in accents and dialects that make it what it is.
For example in a General Australian accent, you’re generally not going to hear a rhotic ‘r’ or a hard ‘r’.
Whatever, clever, misdemeanour, door, floor, where
None of those has an ‘r’ at the end of the word in the way that a General American accent has. But what you might get wrong if you were studying an Australian accent is rhotic ‘r’s used to connect words. Mostly words that both end with vowels. For example:
“I have an idea and I think it’s gonna work”
Did you hear it? If you have an Australian accent try saying this sentence without a rhotic ‘r’ between ‘idea’ and ‘and’.
“I have an idea(r)and I think it’s gonna work”
It sounds weird, right? That’s because in most Aussie accents this is how people connect words that end in vowels.
There are all sorts of these little gems just waiting to be found in any accent or dialect. Go find them!
Let me ask you this: when you speak, in whatever accent you may have, is it hard? Or does it just flow naturally? This is ideally where we wanna get to with any accent we’re working on. It should feel and sound natural, and this means not labouring every sound we make. Have a listen to native speakers of that accent and you’ll see what I mean.
Practice, Practice, Practice
When all is said and done and you’ve come this far it’s time to practice practice practice. In any way, you can! Learn a monologue (Ideally by a writer from that particular place).
Practice on your mates. Practice answering the phone (Unless it’s professional, I can’t endorse that). Anyway, you can just practice, and remember to check in to make sure you’re practising it correctly.
Hmm, Yes, Interesting… But How?
How do I gather all of this information? All of these sounds and phonetics and ah! Don’t worry, here are just a few ways for you to gather the resources you need to start your journey to accent mastery.
I know I know, a bit of a cop-out answer but I mean it! Google should have a lot of the information you need to start learning about everything we spoke about in Mud Maps, and maybe if you’re lucky a lot of the other stuff too.
If you don’t have any luck with google, give analog google a try… The Library!
This can be a tough one but can be ideal for learning any accent. If you or someone you know are friends with or knows someone who is a native speaker of that accent, see if you can get in touch! Listen to the way they speak. Ask as many questions as you think is fair to ask them. Maybe even ask if it’s okay with them if you record them for later use. JUST DEFINITELY MAKE SURE YOU ASK, OKAY?
My favourite part of this one is you might even make a new friend! And you’ll definitely learn something about the world around you.
P.S It’s always nice to offer your new friend a coffee or some lunch in exchange for their help.
Video and Audio Files
Okay so sometimes you can’t always find exactly who you’re looking for. That’s okay! Remember that thing I brought up before? Starts with a g and kind of rhymes with noodle. That’s right. Google.
Take a look at youtube, or movies or TV, for inspiration, there’s plenty to be found.
A fantastic resource for actors is The Accent and Dialect Archives of the Western Australian Academy of the Performing Arts. They’re free and open to anyone with a passion for accents. There is a treasure trove of accent gold in here. Give it a squiz.
Another fantastic online resource is the IDEA website run by Paul Meier. This another collection of recordings and resources of different accents and dialects from around the world!
A note on this: It’s always best to pick someone who’s actually a native speaker of that accent and always to pick just one person, or it can get a bit muddled. Basically what I’m saying is if you’re doing Boston and you’re watching The Departed: Go with Mark Whalberg over Leo.
If you do find that you’re more akin to learning from the page, there are a number of incredible books out there that, for one, will have a lot of information on particular accents and dialects and two will go into a deep deep dive of what I was only able to cover a fraction of.
An amazing book to get you started is Paul Meiers: Accents and Dialects for Stage and Screen. I’m not endorsed or sponsored by Paul Meier and neither is Stagemilk, this book has some of the best resources for learning accents and dialects out there, and we’re big fans.
Now I know this won’t be accessible to everyone, be it financially, geographically or otherwise but I would be out of my mind not to mention the importance and value of a good accent coach. What an accent coach provides you that you can’t necessarily provide yourself, is another set of highly trained professional accent tuning ears. An accent coach can listen to all of your little minuscule bits and bobs in your accent that you might be missing or overworking or whatever, and help you fix them! Never underestimate the power of a good accent coach!
Now, I know that’s a lot to tackle, but I hope that this guide will serve as a resource you revisit time and time again any time you need a quick refresher. Dive deep, keep practising and have fun doing it. Happy accenting.
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