About once a week for the past fifteen years someone has asked me “So… which CD’s or books should I buy to learn a dialect?”
I just did the math on that.
Turns out, I’ve attempted to answer this question nearly 800 times.
I get it.
Everyone wants to buy a CD.
There’s nothing wrong with that.
There’s nothing wrong with buying a CD (or a book) about flying an airplane either.
But what are the chances that when you’ve finished with that book or CD, you can jump into the cockpit of a jet and fly like a Blue Angel?
See, that’s the catch.
When acting in a dialect other than your own, you run a high risk of crashing and burning. And just like the Blue Angels, you are working in close proximity to others, so your mistakes can end up dragging someone else down with you. Sure, no one actually goes to the hospital over a badly trilled ‘R’ or a Southern Georgia accent that keeps drifting over to London and back, but snarky reviews, low ticket sales, and tainted reputations are deadly common.
Books and CD’s (and videos) can be very useful in learning a dialect but you need to keep in mind that that these are just components of your dialect solution, rather than the solution itself.
No matter how great the CD is, it’s wisest to make sure you get feedback and coaching from someone knowledgeable at the same time, especially if you don’t have a strong history of dialect success. (Meryl, you have my blessing to skip this step in a pinch.)
That said, at some point you may need to shop for a commercial CD, so let me share with you what to look for.
When shopping for a commercial dialect CD, look for all of the following features:
1) Recordings of the target dialect spoken by natural speakers of that dialect (not just the instructor’s own attempt at the dialect — it’s not enough). The best recordings will be clear of ambient noise and include the dialect donor reading a diagnostic passage as well as speaking extemporaneously.
2) Transcriptions of those recordings into English and into the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).
3) Recorded instructions about what are often referred to as ‘sound changes’ ‘substitutions’ or ‘signature sounds.’ (Be aware that these ‘sound changes’ are nearly always presented in terms of their divergence from the General American dialect. If you happen to speak a dialect other than General American in your every day life, you might easily find yourself confused or misled.)
4) Written versions of those instructions which include the use of the IPA or at the bare minimum a spelling approximation of the sound changes. (Spelling approximations are subjective, and thus less reliable.)
5) Recorded practice word and phrase lists.
6) Discussion of the dialect’s rhythm, intonation, inflections, common words and sayings etc.
7) Information on where to learn more about the dialect, words and phrases, the IPA etc. (usually in the form of web links).
And now the (slightly bitter) truth. I have yet to find a single product that meets all of these basic qualifications. Paul Meier’s work [paulmeier.com] comes close, as does the work of Gillian Lane Plescia of dialectresource.com and the folks at Accenthelp.com, so you might want to start in there somewhere. If you are looking for a common dialect (Received Pronunciation British for example), you may wish to buy materials from more than one source to make sure you have the tools you need to get started.
Enjoy shopping, but as a dialect coach, an actor advocate, and an audience member I hope that you’ll help keep the skies friendly, and won’t fly solo until you’ve worked with a qualified dialect professional. You’ll be happy you did.
Pamela Vanderway is a professional dialect consultant specializing in pre-production research, casting support, and coaching referrals for film and television projects as well as dialect fittings for professional actors. She’s also just plain crazy about the craft of acting and the remarkable people who dedicate their lives to it. You can find new voice and dialect information every week at her website Dialect411.com and you can tweet with Pamela daily on Twitter @Dialect411.