How to Master an Accent


Let’s say you’re an acting student with your eyes on a Broadway revival of “Oliver!” Maybe you’re a restaurant critic who needs a Southern drawl to match your updo when you eat incognito. Whatever your role-playing dreams, acquiring an accent can be a difficult, but rewarding, task.

Nobody knows her way around a patois or a flat A quite like Sarah Jones. In “Sell/Buy/Date,” her new solo show about the lives of sex workers, Ms. Jones transforms into several characters — from a feisty elderly Jewish woman to a seasoned black rapper — with the kind of dialectal veracity that would make any linguist swoon.

‘Say I Love You by Saying I Hear You’

Despite her agility, Ms. Jones prefers to call what she does with her voice “characterizations of people,” not accents.

“I have to know there’s a real person behind that character,” she said. “For me it’s not an accent. I know people who do brilliant accents. But I don’t know how to do that.”

“Sell/Buy/Date” continues until Dec. 3. Before a recent performance, Ms. Jones shared tips that can help anyone sound like someone else. Click on the audio excerpts from her interview to hear how she does it herself.

Study Up

If you are going to study just one character or create a character based on a specific person, Ms. Jones recommends having “ample access to that person’s full life.” Find videos and recordings of that person’s sound and try to replicate that sound.

‘Ample Access’

“Knowing what someone eats for breakfast just might help you find the colors in how they laugh or how they cough or how their accent differs from somebody from the same neighborhood,” she said.

Let’s say you want to sound like a Trinidadian woman, as Ms. Jones does in her show. She recommends you watch YouTube clips of speakers at council meetings in Trinidad until you find the person you most want to sound like. If you can meet your subject in person, it will help make your goal much easier to reach.

“I ask them to speak something very slowly three times in a row and then I have them say it at normal speed the way they’d say it three times in a row,” she said. “I have them say it the way they’d say it in school as compared to how they’d say it to a friend.”

Write It Down

‘Trick My Mind’

Ms. Jones said an important step in her development of a character is writing out how someone speaks. The written version of a word or phrase may often look nothing like its spoken companion. The word “girls,” when spoken by a native Arabic speaker, might look on the page like “gez.” Write it down to better understand how the word forms in your mouth.

“Phonetically break it down so you can let it go,” she said. “It helps to get out of your own speech patterns and how you understand words to appear and sound on a page — and in your head — so you can get into how it sounds coming out of that person’s mouth.”

Get Help

Vocal training can help with accent acquisition, Ms. Jones said.

“If you’re a singer, you’re probably more attuned literally to the variations that you’re going to find in the ways people speak,” she said.

‘Get Lost and See What You Find’

To help maintain her vocal prowess, Ms. Jones enlists a vocal coach and a doctor who uses homeopathic medicines, massage techniques and energy work that she admits she doesn’t totally understand.

“If you think of your voice and accent work the way you think of a car, you are not your own mechanic,” she said. “Find somebody who studied this instrument of yours and go to them. Talk to other people who have done what you want to do. Find a vocal mentor.”

Practice. And More Practice.

Ms. Jones recommends so much practice “that you think it’s not sane.” Watch and listen to people speak over and over — doing that “Malcolm Gladwellian 10,000 hours of repetition,” as she put it — until you feel you get it as right as you can.

‘A Record of Truth’

“I think wrapped up in respect and humility is this notion that accuracy matters,” she said. “It’s rigor. It’s saying, ‘I care enough and I have enough humility to do the deep level of work to have a record of this truth of this person’s voice or accent or character.’ It says a lot if you put in that work.”

For her characterization of a Chinese-American woman, based on friends’ parents, Ms. Jones said she remembers “practicing and practicing and practicing” about two weeks until she could “feel her, see her when I closed my eyes.”

“I was exhausted,” she said. “I’m sure my ex-husband was like: ‘I married a Chinese woman! I have a new wife!’”

Stay Humble

‘Something Beautiful, Not Something Perfect’

Mastering an accent is difficult, so don’t sweat it if you feel you don’t sound like a native, Ms. Jones said.

“To befriend an accent at a deep enough level that it will come to you when you want it — so you’re coaxing it into you — first have an attitude of humility,” she said. “Hopefully, your goal is to create something beautiful, not something perfect.”

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