“I want to change my accent. Like actors do.”
I hear this frequently during my consultations with prospective clients. These are non-native English speakers who would like to speak with an American English accent. They tell me that they know actors learn specific accents for different roles. So, losing your accent and speaking with another one must be doable.
Let’s talk about actors and accents. I used to be an actor, many moons ago. So I can speak from a bit of experience. Here are three key points:
1. Accents within your native language are the easiest to learn.
If you are an American actor and you need to speak English with, say, a British or Australian accent, it’s typically not as difficult as having to speak with an accent from a foreign language. Many (not all) of the native English accents spoken around the world have lots in common already – particularly the overall “music” (the phrasing and stress.) You have to make some changes, of course, especially to the vowel sounds. But generally speaking, swapping one English accent for another is the easiest scenario for native English speaking actors.
Even in this case, not all actors are successful. I recently attended a play where an excellent actor from the UK was trying to use a New York accent. Unfortunately, she kept slipping back into a British accent. So it happens, even to the best of us.
The relative ease of speaking with different accents in your own first language is not unique to English. One of my clients from Spain was able to imitate accents from around the Spanish-speaking world: Spain, Mexico, Latin and South America. It was a tour de force! But he couldn’t imitate my American accent – which is perfectly understandable.
2. How many native English-speaking actors do you hear doing foreign accents?
In contrast, there are relatively few very actors who are able to convincingly master a foreign accent for a role. American actor Meryl Street and Australian actor Cate Blanchett come to mind. But they are the exceptions, not the rule. And even those who are exceptionally gifted at accents may have help, lots of it, from #3 …
3. Actors have the benefit of prepared language and dialect coaches.
Unless you are an improvisational actor, you deliver memorized lines from a script. Prepared language provides three enormous advantages over impromptu speech.
But … you might say … I heard this actor in an interview, and they were using the accent they learned for a role in their impromptu speech. How did they do that?
Well, not all actors can retain an accent without the benefit of prepared lines. But for those that can, remember, they have probably immersed themselves in that accent for months and practiced their little hearts out. And that level of intensity can carry over from scripted to impromptu speech. Believe it or not, I can still do a pretty good Cockney accent from a play I was in decades ago.
So, back to the question: If actors can change their accents, I can too. Right?
Hopefully, the answer is now clear.
The last point is key. It can take years (no joke) of tedious daily practice to try to acquire an American accent in your impromptu speech, if it is even possible. That’s why I always ask prospective clients in my consultations: “Why do you want to lose your accent?” That helps me steer them toward an achievable goal – one that, yes, requires practice, but won’t take years.
After all, the old saying “time is precious” is oh-so-true, no matter what accent you say it in!