How Many Accents?

From Jeremy:
In the last two posts, we (the editors) introduced ourselves and let you eavesdrop on one of our conversations. But enough about us! We’d like to hear from you. The big question I’m wrestling with today is:
In a college accents course, how many accents should be covered, and which ones?
Here’s a little more background…
At the end of last term, I asked the students enrolled in my accents class what about the course was useful and what needed work. Everyone agreed that oral posture was a revelation and super-useful. Many were frustrated by the phonetics– as was I! (In my first semester at a new school, my upper-division students still have limited phonetic training. For now, we just had to do the best we could in terms of specificity.)
I also inherited a course description, and knowing very little about my student population going into the course and having limited time to do a bunch of brand-new accent breakdowns, I used the “generic” accents that had been included in previous semesters: RP, Cockney, American Southern (whatever monolithic thing that could possibly be), Ireland (again…), Brooklyn (pickin up on a pattern here?…), and German. We did end with individual accent research projects based on type or heritage, so that was a win in terms of customization.

So here’s my curiosity: is covering a lot of ground— painting with broad strokes as it were, gaining familiarity with the repetition of a process and practicing bravery through diving in over and over– worth the losses we incurred in terms of rigor and specificity? Considering the students are not prepared to tackle detailed phonetic work at this point, I was mainly concerned with giving them lots of opportunity to try accents out without fear of failure. I’m happy with that decision, but going forward, I’ll have to find ways to add rigor without losing delight. Fewer accents, probably, with a selection of accents that is generated in-class by the students themselves based on their needs and interests. They loved the idea of picking the accents themselves. At the same time, they want more “play” time– the kind of improv and skills-challenging stuff Phil calls “Reindeer Games”– how to fit it all in?
So…Teachers: how do you wrestle with this issue?
Actors: what do you consider indispensable from your accent training?
Coaches: what do you wish your clients had picked up in school, if they went through an actor training program?
We’d love to dive even deeper into this topic with you, so give us your feedback and help us shape the conversation to come! We can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

7 thoughts on “How Many Accents?

  1. One of the biggest problems actors have with accents/dialects is NOT learning them to begin with. It’s great fun to put them on a resume – I have seen up to a dozen listed and when I asked for a little accent throw-down, they were unable to produce them. One reason may be that many directors dont’ see the importance. They don’t realize the author heard a certain accent and rhythm writing the text and that has to be a basis or starting point for creating a character voice. I even had a prominent acting teacher in Phoenix tell me that she thought that all actors should just do heightened American speech rather than even trying a British dialect because it’s usually wrong. I said, ‘Why don’t you invest in teaching them a proper RP they can put into their actor’s toolkit and use for life?” She didn’t know what to say. Another acting instructor I know just says, “Brits talk in the front of their mouths – it’s all upfront.” That’s helpful (not really). I think as a whole, actors are lacking in IPA – it’s not an intensive part of training in most place and I find when I am training them in a dialect that they either don’t know it or don’t remember it. There is usually little time to do both. I teach accent/dialect classes and focus on the ones used most often: RP, Estuary, Cockney, American Southern – rhotic and non-rhotic, Brooklyn and I do a French-German-Italian combo class brought on by the sheer number of productions of Boeing Boeing I’ve coached. In many cases the actors listen to each other and their accents begin all sounding the same. This course focuses on the differences and very specifically the ‘r’ sounds in each. I find other accents to be more niched – Irish dialects for example and Russian, Caribbean, Australian. Most young actors are eager to learn, but they get little instruction in this in college in many places.

  2. Great questions! As an actor, learning General American has been indispensable. It is the one accent that I flip on regularly for auditions etc. And by learning how to find that accent in my own mouth and also to describe it phonetically I could then repeat the process for other accents. As actor-chameleons being able to be from nowhere can often open doors that my native accent would not.

  3. Thank you guys for this thread. I have been struggling with some of the same questions. I’m in a bit of a tricky spot where my students will be leaving for their 3rd year to spend it in London where they will learn most of the accents of the UK, including speech teacher mainstays like RP, Cockney, Estuary. It put me in a bit of a bind. I inherited syllabus that I was free to follow or change, and did a bit of both, taking the time to break down aspects of Non-Rhotic and Rhotic American Southern as a way of showing the level of detail that can be required of accent acquisition. I’m letting them try and take those skills into an individual accent project to end the semester where they might pick an accent of use to them and a partner and then they try and teach the class the basics. We’ll see if it works. But knowing where to spend the majority of the focus, whether on Oral posture or phonetic skill has been tricky. Particularly since they have a little iffy on both. We’ll see how it goes, but it’s good to know I’m not the only one struggling with this idea.
    Nathan Crocker

  4. I do heavy duty work on the individual sounds (and their corresponding symbols) and oral posture. Then, whatever and however much specific dialect work one does after that comes all the easier. If you run out of time and only get to one or two, ‘s OK, you already built the foundation.
    When it comes to choosing, RP and/or Estuary are always my first choices. After that, I pay attention to how they would be cast. My AA actors would get the various Caribbean dialects as an example. I did once have to coach an AA actor in AAVE since he didn’t grow up around it and had very little exposure to it.
    Charles R. Miller

  5. The biggest mistake that actors make is not learning accents of their casting type. There is no point in learning Irish (besides the fun of it) if you will never be cast in an Irish show. This does make it tricky on the drama school teacher, however. How to balance teaching & coaching a range of accents in a limited amount of time? Overall, I wish my clients had picked up learning strategies in school. They often have no idea how to practice once out of the coaching session.

    1. I agree, Rebecca, and my coaching experience bears this out as well. Practice habits are a huge part of what I try to teach in class, but I’ll admit that it can be a hard sell. What are some specific practice strategies that you end up teaching “after the fact”– things that teachers should make more explicit?

    2. In reply to Rebecca.
      I’m in total agreement with Rebecca, and I find myself agreeing more with this position every day. Often, what most of my students and clients lack is an understanding of how skill acquisition works and what a teacher/coach can reasonably provide. I’m ultimately a believer in fewer accents/more skills, but I still grapple with finding ways to communicate the essential importance of practicing those skills at home in a way that encourages specificity and consistency. I don’t want to keep harping on my musical performance experience, but I know my perception of relative difficulty and long-term growth has definitely been impacted by learning to play a few instruments. I wonder how to encourage a similar learning paradigm in students who haven’t had long-term skills growth training. And then I wonder even more about how to encourage that paradigm in those whose only experience of such training ended in disappointment, failure, or eventual disinterest.
      I will say that Dudley’s progressions in “Speaking with Skill” — “From Silence to Sound” jumps to mind, as does the progression from anatomy to articulator isolations — are excellent demonstrative tools in which students can perceive the connection between consistent short-term effort and long-term changes. I’m curious about finding ways to scale that learning framework — in a time-efficient way — to the acquisition of phonetics, and then to the acquisition of lexical sets usage, and then to the acquisition of specific accent design.
      So, in many ways, I get more curious (and frustrated and passionate) as a teacher about how to encourage learning strategies in the few minutes of my students’ educational experience that I can possibly claim. Especially since most of what we teach gets lumped into ancillary skillsets, we don’t get the brand of vital necessity that might impel our students to memorize names, dates, places, formulae, and texts. I’d love to hear how other teachers encourage learning inside and outside of the classroom, and how they scale those strategies across curricula.

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