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One thing about doing an accent

Edge Studio

Once upon a time, a young American tourist in England marveled at how many accents are native to such a compact country. After a week of absorbing them, he loafed into a London pub to chat with some locals over a pint. He figured by now he sounded pretty much like an Englishman, of some sort. One of the regulars said, “I know where you’re from!” The tourist could barely endure the next seconds of anticipation – what accent had he managed to acquire? Where did the guy think he was from??

“Boston!” hailed the Englishman. “I know, because I was docked there once in the Navy.”

And there was no telling that particular Englishman any different. The American was actually from Milwaukee, but the Englishman was certain he heard Boston.

This illustrates several important points about accents:

  1. The tourist was not VO professional. But no matter how good you are at it as an amateur, sooner or later you’re likely to be found out by native speakers.
  2. Most ordinary people don’t have an ear for accents. Or rather, they’re not trained in (or experienced at) listening for them, and they don’t pay that much attention to the details of the accent they’re hearing.
  3. With an accent, accuracy standards are relative. Our tourist just wanted to be heard as any sort of Englishman. Our Englishman could only tell that he was hearing an American.

To those we hasten to add…

4. Professionals are experienced and will pay attention to details. This applies to performers, and to the people who hire them. If an agent says they need an Irish accent, an Irish-accent pro is likely to say, “What county?”

But if you don’t hail from central Upper Overtheria, you might still pursue a gig that requires its accent. Because, as we’ve said, the needs of clients and genres are relative.

If a script requires you to believably portray a real person from a real locality, you should sound like you’re truly from that locality. Examples of such situations include serious drama, person-on-the-street simulations, commercials, political spots, localized usage, and testimonials. Even if it doesn’t seem that an authentic accent is needed (for example, selling a German car or Irish soap to Americans), the amateur often drifts into a stereotype that doesn’t even exist in that country or region. It may not matter a whit to the commercial’s sales pitch or most of its listeners. But it can offend natives from that part of the world. That’s not good.

On the other hand, if you’re doing a cartoon, or an audiobook, or portraying someone who’s lived in the States for most of his or her life (or wherever your own accent is from), you’ve still got a shot at it. And sometimes or the exact nationality of the character is unimportant.

For example, in an audiobook that contains dialog, you may encounter the words of a foreign character. But, as with the other characters, usually an audiobook narrator just conveys the “nature” of each speaker; you don’t voice each character so differently that it doesn’t sound like you anymore. In fact, your “accent” might not even need to be an accent. It might be some other characteristic.

Which calls to mind another example from real life…

Two Americans were in a German cafeteria near a college campus. The place was almost empty, just the two tourists and some German students several tables away. Both tables were talking loudly. Suddenly the Americans happened to stop talking, and it was apparent that one of students was mocking them – still speaking in German, but in a very nasal voice. (Did we mention that our tourists were from New Jersey?)

That one vocal characteristic – the nasal quality — was enough to parody our Americans. Conversely, to portray a German, you might simply speak from the chest, as many German men tend to do (at least compared with many Americans).

Changing the sound of your own origin is sometimes a matter of changing just one thing about the way you speak. (By the way, if your own original language is not English, you’re many steps ahead of other readers … if you’ve gained the ability to drop your accent, don’t lose the ability to retrieve it now and then! Nor to identify one or two of its qualities that you can add to an otherwise neutrally accented character.)

For example, for an American speaker of English to sound more English, hit your T’s. (Here’s another handy, if dubious trick — we know someone who maintains that a passable Oxford accent can be achieved simply by moving your jaw up-and-down as you speak and placing your finger below your nose to keep a stiff upper lip. But use the finger only in practice. Away from your home studio, you might have to explain why you’re doing a H****r impression.)

It’s not so unreasonable an approach. More and more people don’t come from just one place. Consider Maziar Bahari, the Iranian-Canadian journalist who is the real-life subject of the film “Rosewater” and has been touring the interview circuit recently; He grew up in Iran, went to school in Canada, and now lives in England. He doesn’t sound like he’s from any one of those places.

Listen to such a person, and focus: What one vocal characteristic differs from your own natural speech? To approximate such a polyglot, that may be the one thing to add.

You have many options to work with. Placement of the tongue (e.g.: back, top or bottom of mouth, and how does it vary). Formation of any one of various common sounds (S, T, W, etc.). Lip formation (narrow or wide? Pushed forward or pursed?). Jaw movement. Consonants not heard in English (e.g., what non-linguists would call “guttural” sounds). Placement of the voice (chest or nasal?) Speed of talking. And so on.

Here’s a great resource to work with. It has people from all over the world reading a passage and speaking casually about their lives, in English. (The link is also in the Resources for Voice Actors at

One thing you’ll notice right away is that in a large country, there is no “one” accent. Its accents may vary greatly or little, and may not be the stereotype you expected. Another thing is that you might find it an overwhelming range of possibilities.

Try this:

Listen for the one thing that your target-region’s accents have in common. Limit your first efforts to using that. Listen back to your practices. And keep at it until you can slip in and out of that “accent” at will, without hesitation or unintentionally varying from it.

Eventually, it would be good to work with a coach who specializes in acquiring accents — especially if you want to pitch your wares to a discerning crowd. And if you have particular affinity with an accent that is saleable (or have a patient friend with one), focus on that.

Meanwhile, keep your ears open for those “one things” you hear around you everyday, on the street, on TV and in movies. Even if you don’t become an accent expert, you’ll hear lots of characteristics to add to your general VO kit bag.

And if it doesn’t become a fascinating quest, if you can’t seem to get the hang of it, or if you can’t get over any embarrassment you might needlessly feel, maybe accents aren’t your thing. No embarrassment in that, either.

Otherwise, keep at it. Keep a stiff upper lip.

Or whatever.