Learn an Accent in 3 Minutes! (A Rant)

Eliza Doolittle

19th C. Drawing of Eliza Doolittle (Library of Congress)

A while back I posted something about “accent savants” on Youtube. These are people with a knack for dialects who post videos of themselves imitating Cockneys, Americans, Irishmen or some other nationality. I find these videos harmless fun, even as I have qualms with their accuracy.

The actor in me, however, fears a more harmful phenomenon, the “How to do an accent” videos now littering the web.

Anyone who cares about dialect work, and knows first-hand how easy it is to go astray, should take issue with things like this person, who attempts to teach you Cockney (sorry, the embed function is disabled here).

Before we all jump down this guy’s throat, I’ll say that this tutorial isn’t entirely off-base. But that’s not really the point. These kinds of videos perpetuate the bizarre myth that you can learn an accent instantly, as if you can throw on a few simple “sound changes” and people will think you’re a Hackney shopkeeper. “Learn an accent in three minutes” makes as much sense as “learn how to repair your car’s suspension system in three minutes.” Both excellent ways to end up in a ditch.

Acting, I learned in school, is about specificity. And videos like this are geared toward non-specificity: the most general and obvious features of an accent explained in the most general and obvious way. Good accent work is not about getting the big stuff right. It’s about nailing the little distinctions: the difference in pronunciation of GOAL and GOAT in London, the difference between CAT and CAN in California, between RIGHT and RIDE in Philadelphia. It’s about consonants, not just vowels. Intonation, not just phonetics.

Okay. Rant delivered; choir preached to.

Look.  I don’t want to be too harsh on the people who make videos like these. I understand their passion, and I understand the need to share (otherwise I wouldn’t write this blog!) But I would ask people who want to talk about accent and dialects on YouTube to talk about these topics rather than pretending to teach something instantly which can take years to learn. Let’s not mislead people.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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11 Responses to Learn an Accent in 3 Minutes! (A Rant)

  1. Amy Stoller says:

    ‘Ear, ‘ear!

  2. Ralph says:

    So intonation isn’t a part of phonetics? I guess I had that wrong all these years.

  3. Mark Paris says:

    If you assume that the intended market is American, then maybe the idea is that if you get a few of the most noticeable accent differences right, you might be able to convince an American audience that an American sounds British, Australian or whatever. That also assumes that the intended audience isn’t familiar enough with the actual accent to notice mistakes. It’s a kind of good-enough-for-government-work approach. I think it would be much harder to go the other way – convince a British person that an American sounds British. That’s the reason that so many “Southern” accents, especially in the older movies, sound so wrong to me, a native Southerner. I liked Jody Foster’s accent as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. She was supposed to sound like she was from West Virginia. I am not familiar with a West Virginia accent, but she sounded convincingly, if indeterminately, “Southern” to me.

    • trawicks says:

      I think you have a good point here, Mark. But I also think the way accents are perceived in America is going to change quite a bit. I doubt most Americans can identify someone with a Birmingham (UK) accent, but I also don’t think we live in the same “accent bubble” we lived in even twenty years ago. Media, both international and domestic, is exponentially more available. So what I think you’ll find is people who are able to identify an accent as being “wrong,” without being able to identify why. For this reason, specificity is going to become more important in this type of work.

      @Ralph,

      It is part of phonetics, but in terms of voice/dialect work, I admit to discussing the two concepts separately. My reason for doing so is that “phonetics” is usually taught to actors in terms of the IPA, which I find an inadequate notational system for describing intonation with real specificity. For that kind of thing, I prefer the ToBI system.

  4. Marc L says:

    In today’s movies we have some very successful cross-overs – Gwyneth Paltrow and Hugh Laurie come to mind. But we also have some real howlers. If an actor has a real ear for language, he can do it, but eventually, if that actor speaks long enough off-screen to a native speaker of a dialect, mistakes will happen. It depends on the sophistication of the auditor. Still, I think it’s better than in the old days when a Leslie Howard in “Gone with the Wind” sounded like an upperclass Brit pretending to be a Civil War-era upperclass southerner, or a Dick van Dyke sounded like a comic spoofing a Cockney accent.

  5. Erica says:

    I don’t think anyone believes that the genre of “How to do X in 3 easy steps” will yield the same results as in-depth training. Sometimes a person needs to know a little bit about something and doesn’t have the resources for professional training (I’m imagining some sort of school play or similar when it comes to learning a dialect). And maybe someone will watch one of those videos and it will spark a passion for more serious training, whether it be in dialect coaching or cello playing or installing ceramic tiles.

  6. trawicks says:

    @Marc L,

    Side note: I’m still puzzling over the accents in Gone with the Wind after all these years. I guess you could argue that at that time the Southern aristocracy would have sounded more British, but still, it really jarred me when I first that movie.

    @Erica,

    I think you have a valid point there. To be honest, I’d be less perturbed if these videos weren’t so ubiquitous these days. Some of my frustration derives from doing searches for “irish accent” or similar queries, and getting a slew of “how to do an accent” videos at the top of the list. Of course, I should take that up with Google!

  7. NV says:

    The difference between GOAT and GOAL is widespread in America too, although linguists don’t seem to mention that for some reason. I think it’s quite normal for backer allophones of vowels to occur before dark l. And of course having different allophones in cat and can isn’t restricted to California. You probably knew that though. You were just giving an example of a place where this difference exists and California is indeed such a place. Ditto with right and ride and Philly.

    I agree with intonation being important. However, I think it is most important with accents of the British Isles, many of which have very interesting intonation patterns compared to North American accents. With some accents, the intonation is the most important and salient feature in my opinion. Northern Irish accents are a great example of this. If I just take my plain, boring GenAm accent and start using a final rise on every statement, I’m already half way there, so to speak, with that particular accent. I’m not trying to say how wonderful I am with accents; I’m just saying I’ve found that intonation can make a huge difference.

    • Salamander says:

      Come to think of it, that makes a lot of sense! I have some Czech friends, and when I spend a lot of time talking with them I find that I start sounding like them, except without the accent. It baffled me, but that is probably what is happening — I pick up their intonation! Likewise, my sister-in-law spent several years living in France, and when she came back, I noticed her English sounded different. She obviously did not have a French accent when she spoke English, but her intonation sounded very French. I kept saying “You’ve got a French accent, without the accent!” which made no sense to anyone at the time.

  8. Adyla says:

    I read the text. I watched the video.
    I’m Brazilian; and, as an English learner, I must say that is not easy to perceive and internalize (I study American English) British accent. And even if I wacthed this video 1,000 times, I woudn’t learn Cockney accent.
    People who don’t study or aren’t even interested in language usually think that both accents are similar. But we know they are wrong.
    I’ve been studying English for five years. I love it.
    But I still have too much to learn and it’s impossible to do this in three minutes.