The first thing to nail when learning a new accent

Learning a new accent is hard. Even for those with a natural affinity for picking up new accents, it takes time and a lot of practice. There’s many approaches to learning a new accent and it’s difficult to know where even to begin on your accent learning journey. A great starting point is what we call oral posture, or in other words: how to use your facial muscles for different accents. Understanding this will make any subsequent steps much easier to learn and that’s why it’s the first thing you’ll want to master when learning a new accent.

We don’t often think about our facial muscles – they’re small and we usually speak without being aware of what exactly our mouth is doing. They are muscles just like your bicep or hamstring but you’d never think about including them in your workout at the gym. Yet, you use them every day when speaking and therefore actually work them out more often than many of your other, bigger muscles. This facial muscle workout is tailored specifically to all the sounds particular to your language, your accent, and your idiolect. As a result, you build up strength in certain areas of your face while keeping other muscles more relaxed. This frequent workout results in a very specific setting of your facial muscles, something that is often referred to as oral posture. It’s the perfect base setting for the vowels and consonants YOU use everyday when you speak and it acts like a filter through which your every sound is released into the world. Your personal oral posture allows you to produce YOUR vowels and consonants in a manner unique to your accent, and to do so while being 100% comfortable with it.

Now here’s the thing: a speaker of a different accent is doing an entirely different facial muscle workout every day and as a result, they have a very different oral posture than you! They’re using different muscle movements when they speak and as a result, build strength in different areas of their face. Their “filter” is perfectly tuned to the vowels and consonants THEY use every day. This is why, when you learn a new accent, the first thing you should do is learn a different workout for your facial muscles. Without changing your oral posture, you won’t be able to produce the sounds of a new accent comfortably. For example, if your own oral posture is naturally quite tight with a lot of tension in the jaw and lips, it will be very hard for you to pronounce very open and relaxed sounds that are needed for other accents. You first need to change your oral posture to accommodate for those open and relaxed sounds.

When you use your target accent’s oral posture rather than your own, on the other hand, all the vowels and consonants will already start falling into place and as a result it’ll be so much easier for you to produce these new sounds comfortably. As an actor, it’s especially important to always stay in your target accent’s oral posture when you’re in character as it’ll allow you to quickly jump into your target accent without having to remember how to say every single word.

Find your target accent’s hesitation sound

In order to find out how to change your oral posture, you need to know two things: 1) how you normally use your facial muscles, and 2) how speakers of your target accent use their facial muscles. A good way to find out the oral posture of an accent is the hesitation sound. This is the sound we make involuntarily when we don’t know what we want to say next. It often just slips out without us actively forming a specific sound with our facial muscles and therefore it’s the most relaxed sound your face can make. In another accent, some muscles might be more tense or more relaxed by default and therefore their most relaxed sound looks and sounds very different from yours. Observing a speaker’s hesitation sound gives you a glimpse at their default muscle settings – which muscles tend to be always tense, which ones are more relaxed and so on. It gives you a snapshot of the “filter” that colours every single one of that speaker’s vowels and consonants. 

I want to show you 3 examples of 3 different accents: Standard British English, General American, and Glaswegian.

Watch excerpts of the three videos below and focus only on how the speakers are using their facial muscles. What tendencies can you see? How open or closed is their mouth generally? Or how wide? How often do they round their lips when speaking? How much of their teeth are generally visible? Can you see any tension in their cheeks? See if you can find their hesitation sound to get a good idea of the base setting of their facial muscles.

1) Standard British English – Emma Watson:

2) General American – Amy Adams:

3) Glaswegian – Robert Carlyle

I took screenshots of these three speakers at the moment they were using their hesitation sound. Looking at the three pictures below you can immediately see how different each of their oral posture is:

The hesitation sounds of Standard British English, General American and Glaswegian

Emma Watson generally keeps her mouth fairly open, with a gap between her upper and lower teeth frequently visible. Her oral posture allows her to open her mouth very wide, which is necessary for her vowels in words like BATH or TRAP. In addition to that openness, she also has some tension especially in the lip corners and her cheeks. This makes it look like she always has a teeny smile when speaking.

Emma Watson’s hesitation sound

Amy Adams also keeps her mouth fairly open but opposed to Emma Watson, she doesn’t have much tension in her cheeks or lips. She just allows her jaw to drop loosely and her lips to move to different places flexibly. This makes most American vowels quite relaxed and stretchy, and also gives her the space to comfortably produce her American Rs.

Amy Adams’ hesitation sound

Robert Carlyle, on the other hand, doesn’t allow for much openness in his oral posture. He rarely opens the mouth to reveal his teeth and his oral posture is stretched horizontally, rather than vertically. As a result, you won’t hear him use many open vowels that are commonly used in the other two accents. This tight oral posture has an important effect on many vowels such as in words like GOOSE or MOUTH as well as on Glaswegian R and L sounds.

Robert Carlyle’s hesitation sound

Now, the above three examples show three completely different speakers, with completely different faces, so the oral postures I described above could just be the way they are because of each speaker’s personal facial structure. And to some extent, a person’s individual facial features of course can have an impact on the way they speak. But if you go and find videos of other speakers with similar accents to the three examples discussed here, you will see the same tendencies in how they use their facial muscles, even if their faces look completely different.

We can also observe the impact of oral posture by looking at the same speaker using two different accents. Colin Morgan is a great example of an actor who’s performed using many other accents successfully besides his native Northern Irish one. Compare the excerpt from Channel 4’s “Humans” below, where he’s is using a Standard British English accent, to his interview about “The Fall”, in which he’s speaking with his native accent. Can you see how he’s using his facial muscles in very different ways to achieve the different sounds of these two accents?

Colin Morgan’s base oral posture when speaking with a Standard British English accent (left), and when speaking with his native Northern Irish accent (right).

So there you go, now you know where to start when learning a new accent: Learn how to use your muscles in a different way. Easier said than done, you say? Changing the use of your facial muscles to such an extent is by no means an easy feat. We don’t pay attention to our facial muscles when we speak and we also usually don’t analyse other speakers’ muscle movements when they speak. It takes time and practice to know what fine nuances to look for, let alone to then implement changes to your own way of speaking. This is where working with a dialect coach comes in handy ;). We have years of experience in analysing other people’s speech patterns, know exactly what to look for and can help you get comfortable with new muscle movements. If you’re still unsure about where to start, reach out to me and let’s have a chat!

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