Aug 30 / Petra Wood

Accents for Actors — a journey into who we are through how we speak... (Part 2)

Kia ora, I’m Petra!

I’m an actor in my final year of training at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School.

My interest in accents began during my time spent living in Australia and Europe listening to many different people speaking English with many different accents. I found this really interesting as accents give us such a unique insight into people’s life, culture and history.

I returned to New Zealand in my late twenties to train as an actor and have seen how important it is to be capable of inhabiting a character’s accent in order to portray them authentically.

Join me as I journey into the world of Accents for Actors — sharing my questions, discoveries, challenges and insights along the way!

Lesson 2:
Architecture of an accent

This masterclass brought a lot of ‘a-ha’ moments for me and helped articulate many roadblocks I’ve come up against whilst trying to learn accents or languages in the past.

I found the analogy of an accent being like a home really helpful. Like a home, our own accent is comfortable, familiar and feels safe. When we learn a new accent or language, we often hold on to our way of pronouncing words and sounds without realising it, because it simply feels less awkward. For example, the French words Paris or croissant or the Spanish words jamon or tortilla when used by native English speakers speaking English are often pronounced in an “Englishy” way. It feels uncomfortable to break out of our own accent for one word and then continue with the sentence.

But why is this?

I know I feel this often when speaking with my French partner. I sometimes try to pronounce French words in the way he does but it makes me feel very awkward so I resort back to my habitual way!
[Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash]

Why is it so hard to step out of our own house of sounds and into another?

As an actor this is especially important to consider, because we must create believable accents for characters. If we sound awkward or uncomfortable, the audience won’t be convinced or they may even find it distracting. This has me thinking about how closely the way we speak is tied to our identity and sense of self — which is why we can be reluctant to pronounce words in a way that feels unnatural or inauthentic.

We also spent some time looking at the parts of the body used to make sound and speech. This really helped me to understand what makes one accent distinctive from another. Slight changes — like how far forward your tongue is when making the letter /s/, for example — can make a huge difference to the speech produced. Knowing the mechanics of what is happening in the body can assist in those instances where we can’t instinctively translate what we are hearing into producing the sound ourselves.

We were introduced to the differences between rhotic and non-rhotic accents. Rhotic accents (such as most American accents) always pronounce an /r/ where it is written, whereas non-rhotic accents (such as the New Zealand accent) only pronounce an /r/ if it is followed by a vowel sound. This was interesting — I’d never noticed I wasn’t pronouncing the /r/ in words such as warm or daughter but when I consciously listened to myself it became very apparent.

I’ve always found the /r/ sound really difficult to do in some other accents or languages and I’ve often wondered why. When learning the General American accent, for example, I have the impression I’m tripping over my tongue when pronouncing the /r/ multiple times in a sentence. And when I was living in Germany I found it near impossible to create the /r/ sound in words like kartoffel (German for potato) and rettich (German for radish) which originates from the back of the mouth compared to my New Zealand accent /r/ which generates from much further forward. I can hear the difference but it has always been very tricky for me to reproduce it!

I’m excited to continue my journey in understanding how different sounds are created across other accents and to keep practicing how to shape these sounds myself! The more conscious I
can be of my own patterns of speech the more empowered I will be with the flexibility of building new ones.

Accents for Actors

is one of our flagship online training courses for actors. Discover the secrets and skills to tame your tongue and wrap your mouth around any accent in this 8-week learning journey. 
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