Voice Acting

How To Learn a Dialect

So, how do you learn and use dialects and how do you make sure you’re on the right track? And where do you start?

In today’s VOX Daily, Deborah Sale Butler shares a number of applicable tips pertinent to speech and the voice-actor.
This article explains the uses and acquisition of dialects and character voices for voice-over work!

How to Learn a Dialect

By Deborah Sale Butler
My name is Deborah Sale Butler and I’m a speech, dialect and accent reduction coach in Los Angles. I’ve coached actors for film, television, stage and voice-over for over twenty years and I’m an actor myself, so I know what a voice-actor will need on the job.
A while ago, I was recording voices for Everquest, a popular role-playing game. I really like these sessions, since I never know until I get into the studio, just what kind of characters I’ll be asked to play. I enjoy the challenge of coming up with (sometimes) up to seven different characters in just under a couple of hours.

Often, the character descriptions call for a specific dialect (usually, for games, it’s some form of British).
Since I love dialects, and character voices, it’s like playtime for me. But for some actors, being asked to do a dialect is like being asked to take the eating challenge on Fear Factor – Blech! These actors are usually pretty honest about their abilities, and while they may be limited, they won’t get into too much trouble.

Unfortunately, everyone isn’t so honest (with themselves or potential directors). When asked if they do dialects, they say, “yes, of course!”
Now, as an actor, I’ve heard a million times: whatever they ask, just say, “yes!” But saying you can do dialects when you can’t is a really bad idea. First of all, in voice-over, your vocal performance is all you’ve got, and if it’s lacking, it will show. And you may not get another chance with that director.

For example, during my last Everquest session, I remarked to the producer that it was good to have a lot of dialects for this project. He agreed, but then he said, “I wish everyone who said they could do dialects could actually do them.”
I didn’t ask, but I’d be willing to bet that the actors who couldn’t match their resumes, weren’t invited back. And that’s a real shame on a project like Everquest, which is ongoing and can offer lots of repeat work.

So, how do you learn and use dialects and how do you make sure you’re on the right track? And where do you start?
If you’re not trying to learn a dialect for a specific role or audition, I’d recommend doing a little research on the types of dialects or accents used most frequently in the work you’d like to do. British dialects are useful for all types of animation. French, German and Russian accents used to be big, but Spanish, Australian and American Southern and Western seem to come up more often for me now.

By the way, for our purposes, the difference between a dialect and an accent (in English) is that someone with a dialect speaks English as their first language, and it is colored by the place in which they live. New Yorkers, Australians and British Islanders all speak English differently, but it is their native language.

An accent, results from someone who speaks one language, attempting to speak another (in this case, English). If you were speaking English, but were playing someone from Russia, China or Afghanistan, you would be speaking with an accent. Listen to the shows and games you like and take note of any dialects or accents used. You may want to start with those you hear most often. If you have trouble identifying the dialect or accent, take a sound sample to a dialect coach to sort it out.

Once you’ve chosen a dialect or two, you need to begin the transformation process. Think of learning a dialect the way you’d think of creating a character voice. You don’t want to sound like someone wearing a funny voice or dialect like a bad coat. You need to create a full-blown character for each dialect. Remember, you can adapt this character later, but it’s good to have a three-dimensional person from which to deviate!

So Let’s Go Over Some Basics:

1) Choose a Specific Place

This may seem obvious, but “American Southern” is a very broad field consisting of many, many different dialects (do you want to sound like Scarlett O’Hara or Jeff Foxworthy?), and you can find hundreds of dialects in the British Isles. So, start with something like “Atlanta, Georgia” or “South London, England.”

2) Do Some Research About the Place Where Your Character Lives

In order to create an authentic-sounding dialect or accent, you need to know what influences a person from that area. For example, what is the weather like? Is it a predominantly wealthy or working-class area? What would your “character’s” likely level or quality of education be? What are the religious, political and social influences in the area? You’ll start off creating a character who is your age (you can play around with that later), so find out what your peers are like in the area.

3) Listen to Real People (First Person) Samples From the Area

Once you know a little about the place, go to a site like “IDEA Dialects” (IDEA stands for International Dialects of English Archive) and find a real person speaking with that dialect or accent. There may be a number of recorded samples from the region, and you should listen to all of them to get an idea of how you might like to sound. Another good resource is VASTA.org (the Voice and Speech Trainers Association website).

Look under “resources.” Important note: The dialects on these sites are of “real” people, not actors, so certain aspects of their speech may not be usable for a Stage Dialect (see below). Also, if you are researching an accent, you may want to hear a sound sample of the person speaking in their original language. I find that it helps a lot in finding where the accent “sits” in your mouth.

4) Find a Good Resource for a Stage Dialect

(as opposed to the real people recorded above)
A Stage Dialect is my term for the “cleaned up, but still authentic” version of a dialect, which keeps the rhythm, placement and sound changes of the original, but has the best chance of being understood by your audience. Ginny Kopf’s book “The Dialect Handbook” is my bible when it comes to finding resources in book, video or recorded form. You may have to play around with various media to find what works best for you.

5) Practice With the Materials You’ve Found

First use imitation, then use the same accent or dialect with a script or reading a magazine. Be sure to record yourself and play it back at every step of the game.

6) Speak in Your New Dialect or Accent Exclusively for as Long as You Can

Pick a “dialect buddy” to call on the phone and speak as your new character. Be sure your buddy understands that they are not supposed to critique your voice, just talk to the character. In order to keep the character “pure,” I recommend you call in character, talk, hang -up and then call back as “yourself” later.

7) Work With a Coach

This can happen at any time from step one through step six. If you don’t have a natural ear for dialects, or you find that you’re just not sounding the way you’d like, or even if you think you DO have it, but want another ear, you can call a coach to be sure you are on the right track. A coach will listen critically to the sounds you are making and can help to make any changes you need.

It’s important that you work with a professional when changing your speech or creating a dialect, as most people (friends, family, other actors) really have no idea how speech works, and even if they hear you making sounds that seem “wrong” to them, they may not have the faintest idea of how to fix it – or worse – they think they DO know how to fix it and end up really messing you up (I’ve had many students who have been frustrated by their well-meaning friends’ and families’ attempts to “help” them).
Repeat the process until you have the dialects you feel you’ll need for the type of work you’d like to do.

8) Keep Your Ears Open for New Sounds and Interesting Dialects

You never know when someone you meet on the street might be perfect for a Dark Elf or a mysterious intergalactic smuggler.
And, if all of this seems a little daunting, you might just want to check out a regular speech course (for actors). Becoming aware of your own speech patterns can really help in changing them to any other kind of speech you may need. It’s a fun process of exploration, and if you feel more comfortable exploring with a group, speech and dialect classes might be for you.

So, whether you’re working on your own, with a private coach, or in a class, I wish you a happy journey of discovery into lands unknown (or at least unheard) before.

Deborah Sale Butler

Are you a student of accents and dialects?

Looking forward to hearing any comments you have for Deborah or about your own experiences!
Best wishes,

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  • Avatar for Herb Merriweather
    Herb Merriweather
    October 6, 2009, 9:18 am

    Thank you for adding to my to-do list with practical dialect tips. I can REALLY appreciate the website IDEA Dialects for quick, easy reference and referral! This is really great info.

  • Avatar for David Cook
    David Cook
    October 6, 2009, 11:17 am

    Speaking of which…
    While I thoroughly enjoyed Ken Burns’ PBS series on USA National Parks, I was distressed to hear an imitation Scotsman voice for John Muir. Muir was a very important character in early episodes and it was grating to hear the voice going from almost accent neutral to heavy burr. Surely a Sean Connery or some other legit Scot was available. As the son of a Scottish mother, it was as grating to me as a bad Boston accent. 🙁
    Have a great week.

  • Avatar for Susan O
    Susan O'Neal
    October 6, 2009, 11:17 am

    What wonderful information! Thank you so much, Deborah. As a voice actress in Oklahoma, I’m often asked to stretch beyond my comfort zone with dialects and I’ve done my own research using YouTube, etc. to find the sounds I want to learn. You’ve provided such great new resources. I’m also excited to find out that one can get dialect coaching over the phone.
    In real appreciation,
    Susan O’Neal

  • Avatar for Daniel Martin
    Daniel Martin
    October 6, 2009, 12:01 pm

    Hello Stephanie; thank you for this info piece, something I have been looking for!

  • Avatar for William Williams
    William Williams
    October 6, 2009, 4:45 pm

    This is great info. Another distinction that I teach in my classes is that directors are usually looking for an “authentic” accent or a “stereotype”. For true authenticity they almost always hire a native speaker (see the Sean Connery note above!) More often they’re looking for an accent that captures the stereotype (usually humorous and often negative). So if it’s Souther you think “Hillbilly”, if it’s Brooklyn you think “gangster” This type of accent is often exaggerated and surprisingly doesn’t need to be correct to be useful. Like a caricature drawing, it needs to exaggerate the aspects of speech that define that accent. like the scot doing “think with your dipstick, Jimmy” on TV right now.
    And of course whatever accent you do, it should be fully grounded in the character that you’re portraying.

  • Avatar for Khalile Thomas
    Khalile Thomas
    October 7, 2009, 12:01 pm

    Good evening thank you for the wisdom it is so helpful to have a site to guide us with knowledge, wisdom, and understanding please keep up the good work. Thank You once again and best wishes to you all I love the site.

  • Avatar for Mara Junot
    Mara Junot
    October 9, 2009, 5:07 pm

    I’m just awaiting the day that I hear an actor/actress actually get the elusive Louisiana Cajun or New Orleans accent right! 🙂

  • Avatar for Leah Marks
    Leah Marks
    October 18, 2009, 12:29 pm

    It’s interesting to see this differentiation between accent and dialect; in the UK, a dialect is usually *what* you say (ie slang, different vocabulary altogether), whereas an accent is *how* you say it. This is as opposed to a “dialect” being that of a native English speaker, and an “accent” being English spoken by a non native speaker.
    Also, I completely agree about choosing a very specific location for your regional accent – there are some frightful examples of English accents out there, for instance, that incorporate Manchester, Liverpool and Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney along the way. Also, I’ve been learning a Welsh accent, and have heard massive variations from different sides of the southern Welsh valleys. It’s easy to fool non-natives that you’ve got their city’s accent down, but the real challenge is to convince the city itself. Although William Williams makes a good point (above)… sometimes, directors don’t care about authenticity, they just want recognisability.
    Some great resources I’ve found are Gwyneth Strong and Penny Dyer “Access Accents” CDs, also “How To Do Accents” by Edda Sharpe and Jan Haydn Rowles, which gives you a clear route to follow from your own accent to the new one. IDEA is a brilliant site.
    Love from Leah

  • Avatar for Jay Lloyd
    Jay Lloyd
    October 19, 2009, 6:58 pm

    My opinion is that this is very tricky stuff. I know accomplished actors can be “coached” out of a natural accent into a role-accent.
    But there’s a certain amount of innate talent required to do this; it requires that you have a keen “ear” for sounds and the ability to imitate what you hear. Hence there have not been many famous, successful impersonators.
    I think people who move frequently during childhood to areas of severe “sound”…and who have that keen “ear”… can do it. But, I would suggest most aspiring voiceover artists stick with what they know naturally, lest they come off as “phony” and “trying too hard.” From the time I was a child, I could imitate members of my family and famous people on TV. And, I grew up on the Canadian border in Minnesota, so I was immersed in that northern-midwest-scandinavian-nasal sound. But, if you didn’t grow up immersed in it, I think it’s hard to imitate authentically.
    Among the voices I do are various British dialects. But, I can’t touch Australians because it’s hard to get exposed to often enough.
    Brits, on the other hand, are all over tv and movies. If you’re not blessed, I think accents and dialects are tough to do.
    Just one guy’s thoughts.
    Jay Lloyd
    Benicia, CA

  • Avatar for Elizabeth Harmon?
    Elizabeth Harmon?
    April 21, 2011, 3:31 pm

    I am starting college in the fall and plan on majoring in pre-communication disorders and possibly minoring in theater. I am interested in a career involving your expertise (voice coaching in the entertainment industry). Do you have any recommendations for me as far as training/education in pursuing this career? Is this a difficult career to become established in or is a lot of it based on knowing people in the entertainment industry? Your recommendations would be greatly appreciated! Thank you!

  • Avatar for Dennis S.
    Dennis S.
    October 23, 2013, 10:41 pm

    Thanks for the info Deborah! This is very new to me. I portray St. Nicholas at churches and schools. I take them back to the origin of St. Nicholas and keep on working on an accent to become more of that person.
    So again Thanks!

  • Avatar for Marc Weintraub
    Marc Weintraub
    April 12, 2020, 5:52 pm

    Aloha from Hawaii,
    My name is Marc
    A locally born n raised guy with a number of “voices” I can do.
    I’d like some advice as to how to market my skills..
    I love to do an accent with my friends and they say I rally have a talent for it.
    Australian, British, German, Russian are some I feel I do pretty well.
    Working on my South African, Israeli.

    Funny how I started with this.
    As a kid my dad and I used to watch the show 12 O’clock High about the US ARMY AIR copy n Europe.
    Dad broke out in a British accent on night and that was it for me, been doing it since then, I’m 65 now.
    Wanna hear some? I’ll give ya my phone number and we can go from there.
    Thankzz so much for this article, keep up the good work.
    MAHALO NUI loa ( very much thank you )
    ALOHA NUI LOA ( very much Aloha )

    Most sincerely,
    Marc in Honolulu, Hawaii

    • Avatar for oliver
      April 15, 2020, 3:14 pm

      Aloha Marc!

      Thanks for sharing your story. It sure sounds like you have a knack for performing a variety of accents.

      If you’d like to begin auditioning for voice over work, I’d encourage you to sign up for a Voices talent account. From there, you’ll be able to fill out your profile, list the accents you’re capable of delivering a script read in, upload your voice demo, and get access to our vast job board of voice over casting calls.

      I’d also suggest leafing through our Beginner’s Guide to Voice Acting if you’re in need of any tips on kickstarting your career in the exciting voice over industry.

      Most sincerely,

  • Avatar for Deedee H
    Deedee H
    October 27, 2020, 8:34 pm

    This is so fascinating!! I would love to learn more about dialects, but I can’t hire a coach.