One of the things I find most fascinating is watching actors in their ability to imitate accents. At the same time, it is also extremely easy to be pulled out of the story when an accent is not authentic.
But first, let’s get a bit of inspiration from one of the prominent accent legends ever:
Here are a few guidelines to help you in your endeavour to master different accents. Be patient, it takes a lot of practice and will not happen overnight, but try to be tenacious and don’t give up.
The first and most obvious step to learning an accent is listening. We have so many resources at our fingertips through Youtube alone, so use it to your heart’s desire and listen, listen, listen.
My suggestion to you however is this: Rather than searching for e.g. ‘how to do a British Accent’, look up videos in which actual British people are speaking. Research prominent British people, which part of the UK do they come from and listen to them talk. This will be more beneficial than most ‘How-to’s’ on Youtube. They are mostly quite general and tend to be very stereotypical and exaggerated.
Listening alone will not bring you to your destination. When watching the videos, pay attention to facial movements too. Are their lips moving a lot or a little? How much or how little does the jaw move? How about the tongue?
Make notes of this and imitate it. Play around with the sounds and don’t be afraid of failure or sounding funny. How do the sounds change when you move your lips a bit differently, or when you open your mouth slightly or a lot?
Have a look at Meryl Streep’s performance in Sophie’s Choice. She keeps her mouth and lip movement as small as possible, and when you look at people speaking Polish, they have the same feature.
3. Melodic patterns
Different languages can often be recognised by just listening to the melodic pattern of the respective language. It’s just as much a part of the culture and personality of the language as the words themselves.
For example, talking with a Swiss German accent without the sing-song characteristic would not be right.
4. Find out as much as you can about the language
Doing research about the development of the language, its grammar and structure will help you understand why a certain accent has the characteristics it has, and you can recognize a pattern.
Or, when looking at dialects of the english speaking world, try to find out more about their choice of words. While Americans use the word ‘diapers’ British people would use ‘nappies’ instead.
5. Language and culture go hand in hand
Imitating an accent must include incorporating cultural mannerisms. Now, please don’t interpret this as having to have a baguette in your hand when you speak with a French accent.
Be careful not to assume and exaggerate.
Find out more about the respective people group. For example, how are the people groups within France different from one another? Where do certain mannerisms come from? Are they a generally outspoken and friendly culture, or are they reserved and sarcastic?
6. Practise and create opportunities for yourself
Practice out loud, practise in front of different people and get their feedback, record yourself and if possible, chat with people who actually have the respective accent. I’ve lived in Australia for the past year, and I try to speak in an Australian accent with the people behind the till. I can quickly gather from their reactions if I was successful in my attempt or not.
Just like learning a language, you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone and risk looking foolish.
All this being said, enjoy the exciting process of discovering different cultures, sounds, personalities and mannerisms. There is so much inspiration we can glean from one another. And actors, this process can be an extremely helpful and creative source of inspiration for creating our characters as well.