6 Easy Tips for Better Character Dialects

Every now and then, it dawns on screenwriters and playwrights that not all people in the world speak with a non-regional (yet vaguely Midwestern) American dialect. And when this very unfortunate epiphany occurs it is you, the actor, who must suffer the consequences. Whether for a show, a commercial or an audition, it is likely that you might have to learn a dialect (or fifty) to stay competitive in the acting biz. Here are some quick and dirty tips to get you started.

1. Figure Out What Kind of Learner You Are

There are many ways to learn a dialect. Some people prefer to mark their scripts with phonetic substitutions, while others learn by ear, or some combination of these and other methods. The first step is to figure out which way helps you learn the fastest. Don’t waste your time trying to do it the “right” way. Whatever gets it in your body is right. For example, I have learned that hearing a demonstration first and mimicking the dialect before ever touching my lines saves me lots of time and frustration. This surprised me because I am usually much more of a visual learner, but when it comes to accents, I need the aural cues first.

2. What Are “Substitutions?”

Substitutions are the changes in vowel and consonant sounds when translating one dialect to another.  If you have ever taken a voice class you may have had an introduction to the IPA, or International Phonetic Alphabet. This can be a very handy tool, providing shorthand for each and every substitution. However, if you don’t know it, or don’t have time to learn, despair not! You’re the only one reading your script; create your own code of cues that will help you remember the changes. Pay special attention to the tricky ones. Right now I am learning a Polish dialect for an upcoming show, and I can already tell that the r’s and the o’s are going to be tough for me. So first things first, I circle all of them, and accustom myself to looking out for trouble spots from the beginning.

3. Pitch Patterns

Pitch patterns, or the rhythm and shape of a dialect, can gloss over a lot. If you get the rhythm down, it will feel “right” to the audience. Since American pitch patterns are relatively flat and monotone, start listening to the ups and downs of your dialect. If you can nail the musicality, you’re headed in the right direction.

4. Have an Emergency Sentence

Sometimes it can help to have a sentence that can jog your memory if you start slipping. Especially for auditions, or any situation where you might have to try out different dialects in a hurry, it’s good to have some backup. Lots of books will provide practice sentences that employ many key sounds for each dialect. For instance, one I learned in a voice class while studying Southern U.S. was “Jennifer, get your hand out of the bath.” That one stuck with me, and I still use it! But it doesn’t have to come from a book. It can be anything that gets you into the rhythm of the dialect. For the Polish dialect I’m working on now, I’m using “it is nothing unusual,” a fragment of a sentence I heard on the International Dialects of English Archive, because the speaker’s voice is very clear in my mind and helps me regain the essence of the dialect when I start losing it. Speaking of which . . .

5. Sources!

Here are a few ideas of sources that can help you learn a dialect in a hurry:

  1. The International Dialects of English Archive is a fantastic source for research! It has audio examples of people from all over the world. There are recordings of men and women of a variety of ages and backgrounds, so find the closest match you can and start listening!
  2. YouTube is a great source for interviews. Try to find a native speaker if possible. I like watching the interviews as well as just listening, because it helps me to see how people hold their lips and jaws, and where they place certain sounds in their mouths.
  3. Movies. Obviously primary sources are best, but if you absolutely cannot find a native speaker of your assigned dialect, do your research and find a film where that accent is well-portrayed.

6. Know When to Sacrifice Authenticity

Congratulations! You have perfected your New Zealand accent for your upcoming production of An American in Hobbit Town. (Calling dibs on that title right now). But to your dismay, you enter rehearsal only to find that your fellow actors have very different interpretations of what New Zealanders sound like. Fellow actors of the perfectionist persuasion, I know it will chip away at your soul to hear this, but the truth is, sometimes you have to sacrifice authenticity for the good of the show. Here are some times when it is OK to compromise:

  1. When you have to gel with the rest of the cast. Even within a region, a state, or a city, there are going to be variations in dialects, and chances are, different cast mates will gravitate to different versions. I recently did a production of Dancing at Lughnasa, and all five Mundy sisters showed up sounding like we were from different parts of Ireland. Ultimately it was most important that we sounded like we were in the same family, so we all had to tweak a bit in order to blend in.
  2. When you risk compromising audience accessibility. As fantastic as it is that you now feel confident in your Bulgarian accent for Friendzoned: The Viktor Krum Story (I’m on a roll, you guys), your audience may not be familiar with the dialect. This is a really hard one for me, but basically any time I have to perform in dialect, I have to keep reminding myself that clear storytelling is the most important thing. If you have to cheat on the accent in that interest, so be it.
  3. When you’re in a comedy! This is pretty self-explanatory. If you are cast as Brigitte-Marie, the French maid in France! A French Farce! I’m guessing some good old-fashioned stereotypical flair is going to trump accuracy. So lean into it and have fun!

In certain instances, you may have luxurious access to dialect coaches, time and infinite resources. But if you are trudging along on your own, hopefully these tips will give you a leg-up. Sally forth!




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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com