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How not to do an American accent

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Barbara Berkery gives the BBC's Stephen Robb an American accent primer

Everyone can do an American accent... at least everyone thinks they can. But how many would pass muster with a Hollywood studio? The BBC's Stephen Robb took a lesson from one of the movie industry's top accent coaches.

Any actor or actress hoping to convince in a foreign accent must have three words in the back of their mind at all times.

They won't be phrases like "shape of mouth", "position of tongue" or "placement of voice" - although all of these will be fundamental to learning and adopting an accent.

The three words haunting the performer, driving hour after hour of dialect practice, are "Dick", "Van" and "Dyke".

NOW LET'S HEAR YOURS
Chattering teeth
Thanks to all readers who phoned or sent in examples of their American accents. A selection will be featured on the Magazine on Tuesday

The American's "strike a light, guv'nor" Cockney caricature in Mary Poppins is widely regarded as delivering the worst film accent of all time. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, it was not.

And that's up against competition from Sean Connery playing a Spaniard, an Irishman and a Russian at stages of his career.

British dialect coach Barbara Berkery admits that a lot of actors seeking her tutelage plead at the outset: "I don't want to sound like Dick Van Dyke."

Her glittering cast of former students include Gwyneth Paltrow, whom she trained for Emma and Shakespeare in Love, and Renee Zellweger for Bridget Jones's Diary and Miss Potter.

Half-hour challenge

Paltrow won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love and Zellweger was nominated as Bridget Jones, but probably the greater tributes to their English accents were the nominations from an obviously impressed British Academy - they sounded the part.

Berkery has also coached Brad Pitt (Seven Years in Tibet), Jim Carrey (A Christmas Carol, due out next year) and Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean), and is currently working with Jake Gyllenhaal on his English accent for Prince of Persia.

Barbara Berkery

You must play a character who has an accent, but you must never play an accent
Barbara Berkery

In other words, or for words in another accent anyway, London-based Berkery has become the English dialect coach Hollywood turns to. "It's a nice position to be in," she says.

Usually conducting her training for several weeks in the run-up to a production, and then throughout the shoot, Berkery has consistently achieved convincing results with hugely-dedicated and highly-talented actors; what she can do with me in half an hour is a different challenge altogether.

Exposure to US films and television means most people probably believe they can affect a passable American accent - myself included.

But Berkery explains that "mimicry is not the same as doing accents - if somebody is just mimicking, I think we do feel it isn't quite truthful."

Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews
Dick Van Dyke's accent in Mary Poppins is one of the worst ever

Her work involves building the accent authentically by teaching the real mouth shapes and tongue positions involved - for a general American accent, she tells me, that means a wide mouth and the tongue higher up in the mouth.

She also tells me to smile, in order to place the voice towards my nasal resonator - one of the three voice resonators along with the facial and throat resonators. Berkery describes learning to do an accent as having "a mask on the face that fits perfectly".

With my lifted tongue, wide mouth, attempted smile, and the concentration involved in maintaining these as we start voice exercises, my mask resembles something like Jack Nicholson's The Joker with a lobotomised, vacant look in the eyes. I feel certain that a cinema audience would find it distracting.

Berkery takes me through some of the major vowel changes from standard English to general American - their short "ah" in bath and sample, the "aw" in cloth and Boston - and the sound that comes out of my mouth is unrecognisable to me.

Julia Roberts
Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly ran Van Dyke close

It is a long way from my own south-east England accent, but not much nearer my trusted American impression. It does sound vaguely American, but like an over-the-top, slightly camp game show host with an occasional lisp - not what I had been aiming for at all.

And I find the process very unnerving. "The voice is the soul and you are moving it," says Berkery.

"People do find it very frightening - it's like being off-balance."

As we continue, moving from vowel exercises to working on consonant changes, Berkery frequently offers comments like "Make it less" and "Don't do as much".

TRY THIS AT HOME
Reading exercises
Follow these instructions to start learning an American accent:
Widen your mouth, as you would making the 'ee' sound in weed
Smile, to place the voice towards your nasal resonator
Position your tongue further up in the mouth, rather than against the ridge behind the top teeth
Read out loud the following:
Round the rugged rock, the ragged rascal ran.
Saying 'l' as you do the final letters in bell, well and level, read the following:
Lucky Lily liked to live in Louisiana.
Barbara Berkery's advice: "Let yourself go, and have fun."

Not only is my performance dreadful, there is clearly much too much of it; my overacting makes Dick Van Dyke's infamous turn look like a masterclass of subtlety and technique.

"You mustn't play an accent," Berkery says. "You must play a character who has an accent, but you must never play an accent."

Berkery and her students start with nothing and build an accent from its essential parts.My brief lesson hints at the phenomenal amount of work involved in reaching a point where that accent convinces on a giant screen, in surround sound and over a two-hour running time.

While Berkery suggests most actors "can have a good stab at the accent if you have enough time", she stresses that those that "get it really perfect" do so through exceptional dedication.

She had two months working with Zellweger before filming started on Bridget Jones's Diary, comprising lessons in the morning followed by afternoons out together in London when the actress was forced to keep up her accent.

Zellweger later worked undercover in a publishing house using her English accent, and also maintained it on set for the entirety of the film's shoot.

"Some people never, ever heard her own accent until we finished the film," says Berkery.

Hugh Laurie in House
Master of the House: Hugh Laurie is acclaimed as an American

"It was a testament to her talent and hard work. It was a complete transformation; she is a girl with a very strong Texan accent and she did completely transform herself."

An authentic accent will be "second-nature" to an actor, Berkery says, likening it to fluency in a foreign language where a person doesn't have to think about the process of speaking.

"You don't want the audience to notice," she adds. "You don't really want people to think, 'That's a good accent,' because if you think that you are not thinking about the character."

On those terms, maybe my accent wasn't such a flop after all - nobody's ever going to be distracted thinking how good it was.


Thanks to all readers who phoned or sent in examples of their American accents. A selection will be featured on the Magazine on Tuesday. Alternatively, add your comments on this story, using the form below.

What a great story. It never occurs to us that there is such a thing as an American accent. This video was a lot of fun for a Texan to watch. Had no idea it was so difficult.
Steve Hoxworth, Laredo, Texas U.S.A.

Trying to sound 'American' is all well and fine, but what I, as a native American, find very annoying is that everyone who attempts our accent seems to adopt a southern dialect. This is not the only accent in the United States! I implore those of you who want to speak with an American accent, even if it is to ridicule, at least attempt a different region, say Midwest, West or, if you're brave enough, the north-eastern accent. Just like Britain, every region has their own accent, so it's not completely fair to ball them all up into one 'American' accent label.
Michelle, Aberdeen, Scotland

Only ever having seen her in Bridget Jones I remember being astonished upon seeing an interview with Zellweger and realising she is American. On the other hand don't criticise Van Dyke until you hear that guy playing Susan's English boyfriend in Desperate Housewives - excruciating. It's a pity good voice coaching is not available to some members of the general public.
Mark, Liverpool, UK

It sounded best when you relaxed and just went with it. There are so many types of American accents that it becomes difficult even for us to pinpoint where someone grew up. It evolves as well, depending on where you live. Well done, Stephen.
Candace, New Jersey, US

"...standard English to general American - their short "ah" in bath" - a short "ah" is standard English in other parts of the UK. "aaaaah" in Bath is very SE.
MarkC, Manchester, UK

Robb would probably do well reading some Jack Kerouac, since he had some of the intonation right. Get an audio recording of Jack reading Railroad Earth.

Aside from that I wonder why there were no mentions of regional dialect, especially given that New England accents vary from one town to the next.
DP, Birmingham UK

I teach French to adults and would love to know more about the details of forming different accents by placing your face and tongue etc in the right position. I think what voice coaches do for film stars, language teachers should know how to do for their students. At the moment we mainly rely on mimicry, but I do tell my students to widen their mouths when they say a French "R".
Fiona Cooper

I don't think there is really such a thing as "an American accent", any more than there's such a thing as "an English accent". Just as speakers from southern England have difficulty distinguishing between Yorkshire and Lancashire accents, so Britons in general find it difficult to distinguish even between U.S. and Canadian accents, let alone, say, Boston and New York.
Tony Leigh, Bristol

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