How to learn accents

There are a number of resources out there for accent work, so you don’t need to worry at all if you’re having problems with learning an accent, or if you think you don’t have any accent skills – whatever that means. All you need to do is find you one/ones you want, copy it, learn it, practice until you are bored stiffless with it, and hey presto.

First you need to find which accent you want to do, and luckily there are many resources available. My first port of call is always IDEA – the International Dialects of English Archive. It’s run by the University of Kansas in the United States, and it’s an incredible resources for accents all over the world. I have used it many times to work on American accents, British accents, even Iraqi! First there is a list by continent, then country, then state/county/region, and from there there is a list of around six or seven different people talking, ones from each sex, different ages, different towns, and various lengths of time they have been in that location. Then each one tells one of two stories – ‘Comma Get’s a Cure’ or a passage about describing a rainbow, then almost always a little bit about their own background, or they tell a story from their past. You can play these as many times as you want, it’s free, and they can be played on a mobile for accent work on the move. A really valuable resource.

Have a look at the accents and dialects page on the British Library Sounds website too - Search on the right hand side for the accent you want, and they will be listed with a bit of background information about the recording and speaker as well. Invariably they are a lot longer – some I’ve used are up to seven or eight minutes compared with the few minutes for IDEA, but they are mainly the UK only – it being the BRITISH Library and all that I guess.

Also a general search online for any other websites is a good idea, if it’s something like Sussex Dialect or Cornish there will usually be some sort of preservation society, which may have recordings, references, links, etc. And check YouTube – some people go online to record their accent, or they just might be speaking about something totally irrelevant but that’s the exact voice you want.

Further, if you are in London or can get to London and you are a member, you might find it useful to go to the British Library itself. Not all of their recordings are uploaded, so if you can find the thing you might be looking for on the online catalogue and your options are limited, consider a trip.

And also consider a trip to the place the accent you need to do is from. A few weeks ago in preparation for a play, we organised a trip to West Sussex to get a feel for the place, and although we didn’t find anyone with a strong accent to copy or get inspiration from, we all had our dictaphones at the ready just in case, and would have happily jumped on anyone who obliged us.

Finally – film or TV. Doing a Mancunian accent? Watch Coronation Street. Yorkshire? Check out some episodes of Emmerdale. East End London? Come on…

Ok, so from there, practice practice practice all you can. Get up in the morning and if you are reading the news online or checking emails, have someone speaking the accent on in the background, so you are picking it up all the time. Also go at it with no distractions – you need to find all the subtitles and nuances, and this comes with listening to it and trying to copy it again and again. And again and again. Do it as much as you need to so you are comfortable with it. If you hear a unique way of saying any words or phrases that are in the script, remember them and pick up on that – you will definitely be on the right track. Listen to it and practice when on the move – running or on the bus as said before, and you should go out there and practice as well on strangers when you feel confident – at the shops or in the pub – trust me; put yourself up for this and you’ll know for sure if you think you’ve got it off right.

Finally, in rehearsal, come to a consensus on the accent if more than one of you is doing it. They all need to be sounding like they are from the same place, and different resources can throw up great variations on accents. And most importantly, the audience need to be able to understand what is being said - all the time. You might have the best representation of an 1800’s Glaswegian ever heard on the English stage, but if no one can understand it, I’m afraid you’re not doing your job, so some sort of toning it down has to done, although your director/voice coach - if you have one - should have final say on this.

Happy accent hunting.