How To Act In A Second Language

Using a second language as an actor requires some tenacious thinking and follow-through. The words are different, the grammar and some sayings are just difficult in another language. Pronunciation is also something that takes a while. 

You’re going to be recognized even years after using a second language about where you’re from, that might be annoying for some people, but it’s going to be okay. Our accent is part of our identity.

When it comes to acting, things get a little more complicated, for a few reasons:

  1. Understanding the script by heart takes longer

There’s a saying around the industry: Don’t learn the lines, learn the character. Do not just look at what your character is saying, identify why and how. Every line in the script is there for a specific reason and can reveal things about your character (or your scene partner).

The way we play it will also result in a different response from our scene partner. Acting in a second language, it is even more important to understand the lines by heart.

If you read something that is not in your mother tongue, your focus can tend to be more on the right pronunciation of the words than on the content itself, so the delivery of the lines may not be truthful. That shouldn’t stop you from acting in a different language, it just means there might be more work included for you than for your scene partners. And that’s okay, you’ll get there. 

When I did my first scene study in English, I was more focused on sounding proper than on the meaning of my character. Not because I was bad at english. But some phrases can’t be literally translated or are just used in certain slang, so it takes a while to find the right flow with these.

  1. You need more time to respond in improvisation

It might not be required as much in a film environment, but in theatre if someone forgets a line you’ll need to be prepared to improvise. You may encounter it more in acting workshops or courses too. And that can be tough in the beginning, because you’re confronted with a completely new situation and have to respond to it, which requires your thought process to happen faster. And it takes time and energy to think in a language that isn’t your mother tongue. So your brain must first adapt to the new situation in that second language, and then you have to try to respond in a proper way and translate the right words into the new language. It’s a lot, and can take a while.

When I first did an improvisation class and played improv games, it became quite a challenge. I would automatically play a character who responds slower, not because I necessarily thought my character would respond that way, but because it took me longer to come up with a proper response. 

Eventually I made progress. 

Even when it takes longer than you might think, in the end you learn so much through improvisation. You are able to respond quicker to certain situations and come up with some solutions.

  1. Embrace your accent and know how to use it

Dealing with your accent is also important. There are professional voice trainers and ways to learn certain accents, and there are ways to get rid of a natural accent for a specific role, but it will be a long process to change your voice so it’s consistent. But looking at other actors, who are doing acting in a second language like Alicia Vikander, Marion Cotillard and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau shows that it is possible. Sometimes even native english speakers have to do some work on their accents. James McAvoy and Ewan McGreagor both had to do some training to soften their thick Scottish accents to get work in bigger international productions.

On your way there, it is important to embrace what you have learned so far and to not pull yourself down for it. Don’t forget: No one on earth has your voice, and your way of speaking.

Coming from Europe to take part in an acting course in Australia, I was confident about my language skills (and I still am), even though it meant learning to act in a second language. I’d been in Australia for six month before and had gone on multiple vacations in other countries, so I thought I was ready to go. But I underestimated how different acting in a foreign language would be. And in the beginning I struggled with all three points. I was not really delivering the lines trustworthy. I wasn’t quite on point in improvisation. And I couldn’t embrace my accent when watching clips of myself. 

After finishing the course, I still can’t say I’m keen in all of these areas, but I learned how to work on that, and even more important, how to embrace what I have so far. 

So if you still plan to challenge yourself and learn how to act in a foreign language, remember it will increase your language skills tremendously. Learn the character, be patient with yourself while improving in improvisation, and learn how to embrace your accent and how to use it in a beneficial way.

You won’t change much if you set unreachable goals for yourself. So don’t get frustrated when your end goal seems far away but embrace the small steps on your way to the top as actors.

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