Accent Imitation Games

If you’re reading this, you probably have some interest in and knowledge of “accent reduction”. You may know about phonetics and how languages have their own unique libraries of sounds.  Maybe you’ve heard of “prosody”: the umbrella term for the accent features of  intonation, stress, and rhythm.

You may have started working on your accent with a coach, or with the help of a book or YouTube video. If so, you probably have encountered the TH (assuming you are working toward an American accent) and a number of our other 44 phonemes. Maybe you are working on making your voice rise and fall more, or even fixing the way you pronounce the name of the street you live on! But have you ever tried simply “putting the accent on”?

accent reduction imitation It’s kind of like dressing up for a costume party. Imitating an accent is a shortcut that will get you much closer to your goal of “accent reduction”. Actually, you can’t really reduce or eliminate an accent…you can only replace it with a new accent. For example, if you were born in Russia and acquired English as a second language, you probably have mastered Russian-accented English.  So, think of it as putting your old accent on the side, and now learning American-accented English.

When I propose imitation as part of a student’s accent training, I often get replies like: “I am terrible at that”. “Only actors can do that”. “It sounds weird to me when I try.”

STEP ONE: Withhold judgment! Even people who are great at imitating don’t always sound convincing when they first take on a new accent. It takes a few days or even weeks of practice before the accent starts to settle in.

Also, keep in mind that YOUR ear is used to YOUR voice speaking a certain way, since you first started learning English. If you are manipulating that voice, it will strike you as odd (people sometimes describe it as “fake”). But to someone on the outside, those moments of accent clarity sound fine. I encounter this with my students all the time.

I’m sure Amy Walker had to work on these 21 accents for quite a while before posting this on YouTube. All that work made her pretty famous.

Performing an accent is simple:  Your mouth coordinates speech based on your ear’s memory of the target accent. The more specific and accurate your memory of the accent is, the better. That feedback loop in the brain between the ear and the mouth will help you fine-tune more and more as you go.

And…if you’re working on an American accent and living in the U.S., you’re at a huge advantage. There are Americans all over the place here! And they’re talking all day long! If you live or work with a few of them, even better!

STEP TWO: Choose a comfortable place where you have privacy and can act out a bit. Find a video of someone speaking with an American accent whom you like looking at and listening to (you’ll be obsessed with him/her for a little while, so you might as well make the process enjoyable). Try to find someone whose gender and vocal range matches yours – or not. Learning happens in unexpected ways.

Choose a phrase or a line, pause the recording, repeat the phrase, rewind, try it again, and again, until you feel you’re getting closer (you may notice that your ear is starting to pick up on things…).

Imitate not only the speech, but observe the whole person. Sometimes the facial movements help drive the accent home (watch Amy Walker’s expression and oral posture change during her 21 accents). Sometimes there are clues in the head or shoulder movements.

FYI – “Standard” American English (sometimes called “broadcaster” or “unaccented” English) is probably the most neutral type of American accent. This is what most people want to learn in their accent reduction course. However, many students feel it’s easier to imitate an accent that has a little more “personality”.

For example, in the show “House of Cards”, Kevin Spacey’s character Frank Underwood speaks with a South Carolina accent. I like using a video clip of Underwood to get into imitation work. He’s putting on a gentle Southern accent, with a very relaxed cadence. Imitating it can help you slide into the relaxed quality of the American oral posture. In fact, a light Southern accent is extremely close to Standard American; if you get one you might be able to slip over to the other.

But if you want Standard,  TV anchors Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams are examples of good models.

Now, if you are unable to break little or any ground on this imitation work after a few tries, you probably need to get clued in on some technical knowledge. This will be the case for most of you – and that’s OK. The knowledge base will help you solidify the accent.

accent reduction IPASTEP THREE: Now you need to study the accent’s phonetic and prosodic features. Get familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Compare the sounds of English with those of your native language – you will see where you are most vulnerable to making sound substitutions.

There are a lot of websites and videos online that can help you hammer out the basics. Set aside at least 45 minutes per day to practice your articulation exercises – ideally, 15 minutes three times daily. Choose one sound at a time, and pay attention to how you produce it in conversation, self-correcting when you can.

Working with a coach at some point is a good idea, to make sure you’re hitting the sounds accurately and with an authentic American oral posture. Intonation, word and sentence stress, and the accent’s attitude need to be checked as well.

So, keep in mind:

  1. No judgment. Make it fun.

  2. Pick a speaker and start imitating.

  3. Study the breakdown of the accent, circle back to the imitation, and keep on fine-tuning.

If you train your ears and eyes, and practice with fascinated diligence, you will see your ability to stay in your accent improve. Watch out, Meryl Streep!