How To Learn An English Accent – 5 Tips Actors Can Teach Us

I was recently talking to an actress about how to learn an English accent (or other accent) that wasn’t her native English accent.  She said she used ‘layering’. She said she listened over and over to someone speaking with the accent she wanted to use. At different times when she listened, she took turns to focus on and practise different elements of the accent she wanted.  She ‘layered’ her practise of how to learn an English accent using the following 5 layers:

How To Learn An English Accent- Tip 1

Special Vowels notice if there are vowels said differently from your original language, and learn how to say them and use them in words. Vowels that aren’t said correctly, will always let people know that you aren’t a native speaker, or will always make your speech unclear in English.

How To Learn An English Accent- Tip 2

Stress, Intonation and Melody- notice and mimic the stress, intonation and melody of the English accent you want to learn. In English when a word is stressed (or a syllable in a word), the vowel is said slightly longer (dragged or pulled out more like you pull an elastic/rubber band) , with slightly higher pitch and slightly louder.

Notice which words in a sentence have pitch that goes up- before a pause or comma etc. Notice if the pitch goes down to show positiveness and sureness (your intention). e.g the word ‘yes’ can be said with pitch going up-signifying that you aren’t sure. You can say it with pitch going down signifying that you are sure. etc. Listen for this.

In English intonation and melody also signify your intention to the listener. If your original language stresses words in sentences by going down in pitch like some European languages, then if you use that pitch and melody in sentences all the time in English, English listeners will think you are bored or not interested.

Here you can choose a ‘key word sentence‘ to refer to in your mind, or even say aloud to yourself to cue yourself into the right melody.

How To Learn An English Accent- Tip 3

Vocal tone and attitude- Notice the tone or vocal pitch that accompanies the English accent. Is it more nasal, or lower or higher in pitch generally than your language. For example, German speakers use a lower vocal pitch generally than English. Other languages may have a vocal tone that sounds more hoarse or raspy than English.

In terms of attitude and language tone – is the language more direct and loud sounding than English? Is it a softer sounding language than English for example, like Vietnamese? Is it more happy or upbeat sounding etc? Mimic that as well when you practise.

How To Learn An English Accent- Tip 4

How hard or light are the consonants said?- Listen whether you are making your consonants light enough. In English for the most part, consonants aren’t held on for a long time, and the placement of the tongue/ lips is light and not pushed hard. For example for /p/ and /b/ you do have to close your lips and pop them open as in most languages, but you don’t hold your lips really tightly together. When you pop your lips open in English, you have to also release a puff of air especially for the voiceless /p/ consonant.

How To Learn An English Accent- Tip 5

Rhythm and intonation- English is a stress timed language so the rhythm is made up of weak and strong stresses ( or ‘drum beats’).  It isn’t a constant more or less equal rhythm as in a stress timed language. So in the word ‘professor ‘ the rhythm is daDAda. The middle syllable is stressed and the other two are weak and less stressed.

Also notice the rhythm and intonation in a phrase or sentence. You can use ‘lala’ to imitate and get the idea. For example, The sentence:  ‘They came late and couldn’t find parking.’  would be’ la LA LA la la LA LA’   Listen for were the pitch goes up, down, neutral, up-down, down up etc.

As well as this, notice how quickly or slowly English is spoken compared to your native language. If English is spoken more slowly then speak more slowly.

You might use some of these layering techniques all at the same time, for example work on vowels and stress and de-stress in words.  Either way, you do need to listen for, notice and use, all these different aspects to get a really good English accent.

Best wishes, Esther

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