how to do accents

How to Do Accents – Advice From a Dialect Coach

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While mastering different accents takes a bit of hard work and practice – just like any new skill – the outcome means you will be more marketable to clients who are seeking out different sounding voices.

Plus, it makes a great addition to your profile!

Sammi Grant is a voice coach who was introduced to the study of voice and dialect work during her undergraduate degree – where her passion for accents was fostered.  

Here are her tips and tricks for learning a new accent that sounds authentic and can help you land more gigs.

How to Do Accents Step 1: Listening

There are generally two reasons why you want to pick up a new accent as a voice actor or performer:

  1. You have been hired or want to audition for a role that requires you to speak in an accent other than your native accent.
  2. You want to learn a new accent so that you can add those as skills to your resume/profile.

Whichever reason for learning an accent applies to you, the starting point is still the same: listening to people who have the accent you are trying to learn.

“I always encourage people to find authentic speakers – not actors in television shows or movies –  as sometimes, they are not a good representation of the accents,” says Sammi Grant. “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 the key component to beginning the process of learning any new accent.

How to Do Accents Step 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 are 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 is 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 doing a British accent, it is common 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 in a couple of words – the rest of the dialogue will be the actor slipping back into their natural accent,” she says.

Throughout her sessions, Sammi teaches voice actors to talk through the stress patterns of the accents and also notice the rhythms – it’s all about feeling the changes in your mouth that the accent makes and how it differs from your natural accent.

Learning a New Accent Step 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 just 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,” she says.

Spontaneous speech could mean talking to yourself out loud in this accent for a 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 with that accent – and often.

“I talk in accents a lot with my friends,” Sammi says. “Talk to yourself, talk to you friends, 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.”

What 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 harder 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.

Personally 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 towards sounding a bit more Eastern European – my Spanish accent sounded really Russian at first,” she says.

How Can I Prevent Myself From Sounding Inauthentic?

When auditioning for a job in an accent that is not your native accent – you should speak in that accent before you even step up to the microphone.

“Before you record the audition, talk in the accent for 20 minutes – and don’t get too hard on yourself if you go off accent, 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 is a bit of truth in the sounds of stereotyping an accent, however it’s important to avoid silliness and character voices when learning a new accent.

Sammi once created a video in which she slips into different accents in a short span of time (see the video below) – she recalls receiving comments such as “not everyone from Scotland sounds like that.”

Her response: “Of course not, I had three minutes to do the video so I choose the most standard version of each accent – for a specific role or show I will get as specific as possible in the accent and dialect of that region.”

Stereotyping the sounds of the accent you are learning is not an issue as long as it is coming from a place of research – from having listened to authentic speakers again and again.

Do Different Accents Make Me More Marketable as a Voice Actor?

There are certain accents that are more sought after than others. In Sammi’s experience General British (RP) accents tend to be most popular and sought after. She generally trains voice actors in a standardized version of the accent, unless the voice actor is auditioning for a specific role – then she will look more closely at the regional accents for that specific place to pin down the nuances of that particular accent.

It is extremely important to nail the accented read. In the voice over world, people dissect the tiniest sounds. If you are not doing a great job it’s noticeable to a client’s ear. Having any element of vocal flexibility or agility is going to make your voice stronger and able to do different types of voices – even if you can’t do accents perfectly, it is important to try to learn the limits of your vocal range.

Sammi Grant’s Personal Favorite Accents

“The easiest to teach is Londoner accent or Standard British. I really love teaching more complicated ones like French, Australian – which are hard because most people tend to lean towards 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 a bit of practice and dedication to ensure that you are able to speak in the new accent in an authentic and non-stereotypical way. Start out with accents that are most sought-out by clients such as British, New York or a Southern U.S. accent and then expand your skill set to include more niche accents as you become more comfortable with speaking in an accent that is different from your native accent.

About Sammi Grant

Sammi Grant is a dialect/vocal coach based in Chicago, IL. She has coached at numerous Chicago theatres including: Steppenwolf, Goodman Theatre, Drury Lane, Timeline Theatre, Porchlight Music Theatre, Windy City Playhouse and many more. Sammi also provides coaching to voiceover talent and has 6 years of experience in the industry as a voice over artist herself. In 2017, she made a video with BuzzFeed called “How to Do 12 Different Accents,” and the video went viral within 24 hours. This September, Sammi will be moving to London to start the MFA Voice Studies program at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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