How Kazu Mastered a New Accent…
I sit down in the gorgeous (and ridiculously humid) Central Park to have a chat with one of my students, Kazuhero Imafuku – no I did not just make that up… yes it is his real name – or as friends like to call him ‘Hero’ or ‘Kazu’. Kazu is from Tokyo, Japan and has been living in New York City and studying English for about two years. He came to America to study English and acting. It is for this reason that Kazuhero is working on mastering the American accent. In order to act in America you must be able to speak English clearly and preferably with an American accent.
According to Kazu, the most difficult thing about acquiring an American accent is learning a different way of forming sounds in the mouth. There is a different muscularity involved. “The muscles around my mouth are different because I’ve been speaking Japanese for 20years” he says, “as opposed to Americans who’ve been speaking English their entire lives.” “When I speak Japanese I don’t move my mouth.” He explains that the movement in his mouth is very contained and small in order to form words. He tells me that “With the American accent I realized I needed to move my mouth; open my mouth more than I thought. Sometimes I mumble and sometimes I feel (it is) too much but it’s not too much.”
A common problem when trying to acquire a new accent is feeling like you’re over-exaggerating the sounds. Yet actually this is necessary in order to experience the feeling of these new sounds in your mouth. On the contrary, to the outside world, it doesn’t look ‘overdone.’ I always tell my clients, a great way to practise a new accent is to watch TV shows in that accent and mimic the actors. Kazuhero found this the most helpful way to practise mimicking the American accent. “I need to open my mouth really wide” he says, as he shows his widely opened mouth. “It’s really helpful. I think that’s the most important thing (to mimic).” He says that Seinfeld is amongst his favourite shows to mimic and that “It’s really fun.” His best advice is to “watch over and over, speak slowly, loudly, clearly and just mimic them. When I’m practicing alone I don’t need to care about anything, coz nobody sees me.” (So you’re free to make as much of a fool of yourself as you like!) He explains that it’s much easier to mimic television shows, as the speech is much clearer and slower (and you have the rewind button at your fingertips), than American people in everyday life who speak very quickly.
He says, another invaluable lesson that I have taught him, through my accent program and skype lessons, is about elision; “now I care about how to connect words in the sentence so that it flows.” In relation to elision he says “I need to practise it really slowly because if I practise it really fast, I don’t understand it in my mind.” The best rule of thumb with any of these practising techniques, is to “just keep practising over and over,” in order for your mind and your muscle memory to get used to it.
When asked about the difference in culture between America and Japan, Kazu says people in America are “more open and (have) more energy,” and says that “Japanese people are really polite. They care about some things that they don’t need to care about, and that sometimes this is a bad thing because they are constantly thinking; should I speak here, should I talk here, should I do this now? Whereas, Americans just do whatever they want.” Like Kazu himself “Japanese are really polite,” and sometimes the barrage of social courtesy is a hindrance; “sometimes it’s good, sometimes is bad (when living) in America”. Despite the cultural and language barriers, Kazu says acting in America and studying the American accent has been extremely rewarding for him. He continues to watch Seinfeld and strive for American accent perfection!