How to Do Accents: Advice From a Dialect Coach
Like learning any new skill, getting the hang of how to do different accents requires a lot of hard work and persistent practice. But for voice actors looking to expand their vocal capabilities, learning how to do accents can be hugely advantageous as it makes them more marketable to clients who are seeking out versatile voice over performances.
In this piece, we tap into the expertise of Dialect coach, Sammi Grant.
We spoke with Sammi to find out more about her experience in the world of dialect coaching, which accents are handy for any voice actor to have in their repertoire, and how to approach the study of different accents with mindfulness and sensitivity.
Specifically, Sammi helps us answer these questions:
How to Do Accents Authentically—Get Professional Training
In the realm of voice over, listening experiences are more personal.
Listeners use earbuds, car stereo speakers, home radios, or a smart speaker (among other things) when they encounter voice over, as opposed to a voice actor who may be positioned at a distance, like on a stage.
Because of this, audiences can hear every detail of the actor’s performance, and if they falter even a single word, it will stand out and blemish the illusion of the entire spot.
How many accents should a voice actor learn?
We asked Sammi whether it’s more advantageous for a voice actor to try to expand their breadth by learning as many new accents as possible, or whether to focus on perfecting a select few.
She tells us that it varies based on the voice actor and the industry in which they’re seeking work, but that she generally recommends quality over quantity when it comes to learning new accents.
“I would lean toward perfecting a few, rather than trying to gain a general sense of a bunch,” Sammi explains. “But, first and foremost, I’d say that it’s important for voice actors to simply develop the skill of knowing how to learn an accent—whether it’s in general for repertoire-building, or for a specific role—because just being able to learn accents is a talent on its own.”
How to do Accents in 3 Steps
With that being said, here are Sammi’s tips and tricks for mastering a new accent that sounds authentic in 3 easy steps.
Whatever reason you have for learning how to do new accents, the starting point remains the same: listening to people who authentically speak with the accent you are trying to learn.
“I always encourage people to find authentic speakers, not actors in television shows or movies, because they aren’t always the best representation of the accent,” says Sammi. “I go to YouTube and search the region of the accent I want to learn—for example—‘actors from Atlanta, Georgia,’ and I listen to interviews with the actors to hear their authentic, natural accents,” Sammi continues.
Listening is a key component toward beginning the process of learning any new accent.
2. Placement and Oral Posture
After you’ve listened to an accent and understand how it sounds, the next step is to learn how to make the sounds you’re hearing with your mouth.
Sammi refers to this as “placement and oral posture.” Placement is where the accent lives in the mouth, and oral posture refers to how the lips, jaw, and tongue move in the articulation in the language.
You have to listen to every single sound within the accent you are trying to learn, and articulate those sounds. “A lot of inexperienced voice actors hone in on three or four sounds, which means they can only do a few words in the proper accent,” says Sammi.
For example, when performing with a British accent, it is common for inexperienced speakers to drop the ‘R’ sounds. “They won’t get into the more specific idea of the placement and oral posture, which means they will only sound British for a couple of words, while the rest of the dialogue will demonstrate the actor slipping back into their natural accent,” Sammi says.
Throughout her sessions, Sammi teaches voice actors to talk through the stress patterns of the accents, in addition to noticing the rhythms. It’s all about feeling the changes inside your mouth, and how that differs from your natural accent.
3. Spontaneous Speech
The only true way to learn a new accent is by speaking with that accent. Although this seems like a simple tip, there is much more to speaking in an accent than simply reading a few lines. Sammi refers to her technique of mastering an accent as “spontaneous speech.”
“I work with clients on specific texts, but also on spontaneous speech. To truly master an accent you have to be able to speak without pre-planning what you are going to say. It has to be natural,” Sammi says.
Spontaneous speech could involve talking to yourself out loud in the accent for an entire day, or even chatting with friends and family as you test out the accent.
There is no better way to learn an accent authentically than to speak using that accent as often as you can.
“I talk in accents a lot with my friends,” Sammi tells us. “Talk to yourself or your friends, and allow yourself to make mistakes and build that muscle memory. Seek out a dialect coach: it’s always good to have someone else listening to your speech.”
Sammi Joined Podcast host Oscar Trimboli for episode 23 of his podcast entitled Deep Listening to discuss everything we’ve mentioned here, and more. (We recommend jumping to 9:45, but the whole episode is entertaining and informative)
How long does it take to master a new accent?
Sammi assures us that, like any other art form, it takes time and dedication in order to really become a pro. Learning how to do accents comes easier to some than it does others.
“If someone comes to me with the desire to learn an accent that is entirely new to them, I would recommend an absolute minimum of 2, but probably 3 or 4, coaching sessions to fully master that accent. The sessions would take place once a week, because it’s necessary to have time in-between to practice.”
When somebody already has a few accents under their belt, they’ll likely be able to pick up new ones more quickly. However, if somebody is learning a new accent for the first time, they might want to allow themselves more time because they’re still in the process of developing that skill to “learn,” not just the skill of the accent.
Which accents do voice actors most commonly seek dialect coaching for?
Based on her experience, Sammi is largely approached to instruct students as they tackle two main types of accents.
Learning a British accent:
“I would say my number one is a general British accent, like a middle-to-upper-class British that you hear in a lot of commercials. In some cases, casting directors are looking for someone who has a genuine British accent, but it really depends on their budget and the extent of their reach,” Sammi clarifies.
While British is an optimal accent for North American voice actors to have at the ready, Sammi explains that many people presume they can easily fake the accent without any training. With voice over, however, it doesn’t take audiences long to identify when an accent is fake, and it typically spoils the entirety of the work.
Learning a Southern accent:
“I would also say some kind of general Southern accent,” adds Sammi. “Not even a strong Southern, but more so that hint of a Southern sound, with a little bit of twang, or a Southern drawl. I’m thinking particularly of truck commercials. Casting directors want a little bit of that: ‘I’m driving in my truck.’ It’s not really a strong accent, but they want a flavor of it because of who they’re marketing to.”
Which accents are the hardest to learn?
The difficulty of picking up on new accents largely depends on your native accent. Sammi has a natural Midwestern American accent, and says that, in general, the French accent can be a bit more difficult for Americans to pick up.
“The French ‘R,’ which is a back of the mouth sound, tends to be harder, especially for Americans. Americans never make that sound,” Sammi says.
For Sammi, who also has an Eastern European background, the hardest accents for her to learn are any of the Spanish language accents.
“If you don’t have the right oral posture it can lean toward sounding a bit more Eastern European. My Spanish accent sounded really Russian at first,” she says.
Be Mindful While Doing Accents of Different Ethnicities
“I am called upon to teach accents from around the world, which often includes accents associated with different races and ethnicities,” Sammi describes. “That presents a challenge for me, because I need to navigate the sensitivity around coaching accents that belong to a race or nationality that isn’t my own.”
“I also need to be mindful when I’m demonstrating those accents, so when I’m coaching an accent that wouldn’t authentically be spoken by someone of my race or nationality, I always want to say that I’m demonstrating for the client or student’s learning, not because I’m trying to perform the accent. To put it simply, if you’re a white person, probably don’t perform a bunch of Latinx accents. If you are Latinx, go for it.”
Lately, actors have been stepping back from roles for exactly this reason. Many animated shows have a diverse character base, but the actors who voice those roles haven’t always been an authentic representation of their characters. That is why we see Hank Azaria, Mike Henry, Kristen Bell, and Alison Brie—just to name a few—stepping back from roles of colour because they are caucasian and not Indian, Black, or Vietnamese, like their characters.
The awareness of voicing roles outside your ethnicity is growing. From high-level casting decisions to voice actors personally ensuring they’re not contributing to appropriation by stepping away from BIPOC roles, instead ensuring a character is represented authentically by the appropriate BIPOC talent, these examples are expected to be harder and harder to find in the years to come. And we’re glad for it.
How can I prevent myself from sounding inauthentic?
When auditioning for a job in an accent that doesn’t come naturally, you should spend some time speaking in that accent before you even step up to the microphone.
“Before you record the audition, talk in the accent for 20 minutes. Don’t get too hard on yourself if you accidentally go off accent, and just continue to talk to yourself in the accent—it’s really the only way to learn,” Sammi advises.
It is also important to avoid sounding too stereotypical. Sammi recognizes that there may be a degree of truth in the sounds of stereotyping an accent, but it’s important to avoid silliness and character voices when learning a new accent.
Sammi once produced a viral video in which she slips into different accents in a short span of time. The dialect coach recalls receiving comments like: ‘Not everyone from Scotland sounds like that!’
Her response: “Of course not. I had three minutes to do the video, so I chose the most standard version of each accent. For a specific role or show, I will get as specific as possible into the accent and dialect of that region.”
Stereotyping the sounds of the accent you are learning is not an issue so long as it is coming from a place of research and having carefully listened to authentic speakers repeatedly.
Can different accents make me more marketable as a voice actor?
Certain accents are more sought after than others. In Sammi’s experience, as mentioned above, General British (RP) accents tend to be popular. She generally trains voice actors in a standardized version of the accent, unless the voice actor is auditioning for a specific role. In that case, she will look more closely at the regional accents for that specific place to pin down the nuances of a particular accent.
Working on your vocal flexibility and agility will make your voice stronger and capable of performing different styles of voice over. Even if you can’t do accents perfectly, it is important to try to learn the limits of your vocal range.
The Global Accent
We asked Sammi whether she’d been approached by students who want to adopt a ‘global accent’—defined as “a mode of pronunciation that blends the sound of all the major English-speaking dialects in order to form one ambiguous style of speech that is easily understood by people across the globe, while containing no vocal characteristics associated with any particular region.”
“In that case,” Sammi outlines, “I would still tend to lean a little more British, because that’s such a pervasive accent around the world. Not that it necessarily aligns with the population of the world, but especially in media and entertainment, General American and General British accents are the most commonly heard.”
“I would suggest leaning a bit into the British,” Sammi continues. “It’s important to know that the British accent is really broken down by class. A posh and upper class voice may sound a bit too much like it belongs in a Jane Austen adaptation, while a Cockney accent can occasionally veer into character voice territory. When you’re performing animation, those contrasting sounds are both great to know. However, I’d recommend leaning somewhere in the middle of them, so that instead of sounding too class-oriented, the accent comes off sounding more global.”
Sammi Grant’s Personal Favorite Accents
“The easiest to teach is the Londoner accent, or Standard British. I really love teaching more complicated ones like French or Australian, which are hard because most people tend to lean toward British sounds or Irish sounds when trying to master a new accent,” Sammi says.
Takeaway Tips for Mastering an Accent
Mastering a new accent takes practice and dedication to ensure that you are able to speak in the new accent in an authentic and non-stereotypical way. Some performers may even pursue accent reduction training to hone their voice for a particular role.Start out with accents that are the most sought after by clients, such as a British, New York, or Southern accent, and then expand your skill set to include more niche accents as you grow more comfortable with how to do accents that are different than your own.
About Sammi Grant:
Sammi Grant grew up in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago and dreamed of being an actor. She acted in a number of drama camp and school plays, and saw her dream coming true when she was accepted to the BFA Acting program at Illinois Wesleyan University. During her time at IWU, she discovered the fascinating world of voice and dialects. Suddenly a new dream began to take shape.
From 2012-2018, she worked as a dialect/vocal coach in Chicago. She coached over 60 theatrical productions, worked on multiple major television shows, and provided private accent coaching to countless actors. In 2017, she made a video with BuzzFeed called “How to Do 12 Different Accents,” in which she modeled and gave tips on 12 accents. The video went viral within 24 hours and now has millions of views on YouTube and Facebook.
In 2018, she moved to London to start the MFA Voice Studies program at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. As of 2020, she is in the second and final year of the program. For this year, she has to work in the industry while also writing her master’s dissertation. She is spending the school year at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where she is teaching Acting for Non-Majors, assisting with voice classes, and dialect coaching CCM productions.
This piece was origincally published by Tanya Chopp in July, 2018.
Updated by Oliver Skinner in April, 2021.
Updated by Niki Clark in November, 2021.