Accent Coach? Dialect Coach? What's the Difference?

I’m glad you asked! (Or probably didn’t ask, but I’m going to answer the question anyway!) I spent quite a few years in the USA referring to my job as a dialect coach, or someone who works with actors to acquire a specific dialect for a role. After some time in the UK, I now find myself telling people that I am an accent coach … so basically someone who works with actors to acquire a specific accent for a role. But isn’t that the same thing? Why the change in name? Is it even that different?! Why is this even a blog topic?!

According to British linguist David Crystal, the difference between an accent and a dialect is subtle, but certainly definable:

“Accent refers only to features of pronunciation, whereas dialect includes distinctive grammar and vocabulary. Some dialects (notably, standard English) are spoken with many accents.”David Crystal

Sticking with the hardline definition, that would mean that on U.S. soil my job entailed going through a process of teaching an accent, but also teaching new words and even grammar to an actor. And it would mean that on this side of the pond I only work with actors on the differences in sounds and pronunciation. 

While in theory this might explain the change in vocabulary, I would retort that theories don’t always become laws! On either side of the Atlantic, I am always doing accent work when I am coaching an actor to learn specific sounds of a region. However, that can veer very quickly into dialect coaching, as even within English there are various grammar and vocab that are regionally specific. 

So, am I a really a disguised dialect coach in a world of accent coaches? Have I cast off a label in order to fit in? Is this a soul-searching moment?

For me, the US dialect coach and the UK accent coach do exactly the same work (keeping in mind that every show is different). Perhaps we can chalk this up to a difference in vocabulary, with 'accent coaches' in the east, and 'dialect coaches' in the west.

So the next time you are looking for someone like me, don't get bogged down in all those labels! A professional coach will identify if you are looking for an accent or a dialect, and will work accordingly - regardless of what their label is on the tin. :) 




The General American Accent … Taught by a real, live, general American!

Ah, the GenAm accent, the bane of every UK actor’s career. There is nothing I cringe at more than the dulcet tones of my motherland being butchered in performance. (I know the feeling is mutual, UK friends!)

Let me fess up – General American is not a real accent. Each speaker of GenAm will have their own discreet regionalisms and differences to other speakers classified as GenAm. But generally speaking (see what I did there?) the term refers to an accent characterizing a middle class sound, which doesn’t contain any overt regionalisms other than being from the United States. The accent makes the listener go “I can tell you’re American, but I can’t tell exactly where you are from.”

Now, I realize that probably over half the people who peep at this blog are actually American (hello, compatriots!) and might think that this has nothing to do with them. Oh, how they are wrong. You see, perhaps you don’t need to learn a General American accent, but knowing the sounds and shapes of your home accent is the first step in learning a new accent. So listen up my actor friends, and let’s take a journey to middle America …

1.     See an R, Say an R. It sounds so simple, but in practice it can prove a nightmare. Every R written in the English language is pronounced in an American accent. However, the R is uniquely American in that it is produced by the back of the tongue squishing up in the back of the mouth, described by The Accent Kit’s Edda Sharpe as “slug tongue.” Practice your slug tongue:
The mirror was in the corner of the Paris court.

2.     Goodbye Ts, Hello Ds! Americans are notorious for finding language shortcuts, and Ts are no exception. When Ts appear in the middle of the world is it usually changed to a tapped sound, closely resembling a D. We also tend tap Ts at the end of words, causing them to appear cut off. Practice your tapping:
But you must give up butter to lose a little weight.

3.     Nasal? GenAm gets a bad rap for being a nasal sounding accent, and there is an element of nasal twang, addressed in Tip #4. Specifically, nasality appears in GenAm when the vowels before a nasal consonant (m, n, ng) tend to blend with that nasal consonant, causing a more nasalized sound. This can be done by lowering the soft palate a touch earlier to allow the vowel and consonant to party together. However, GenAm has less nasality than is often perceived, so careful you're not overdoing it.
His drinking friend from the bank wants commitment.

4.     Say cheese! While it is a gross stereotype that Americans tend to be constantly smiling, sometimes gross stereotypes can help when learning an accent. In this case smiling actually helps oral posture, or where the mouth tends to hang out when speaking the accent. Not only are the lips in GenAm more spread than in most UK accents, but the sounds tend to resonate (you’ll feel a buzz) around the soft palate and in the nose. Funny enough, smiling helps place the voice right in that nasal resonator.

Obviously these tips only skim the surface, but with a little practice you too can sound as generally American as I do.