The Values of a Dialect

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When I’m not helping clients from other lands improve their English speaking skills, most of my work is in the theatre and the movies. I’m a dialect coach. In other words, I help actors speak their lines in accents, dialects, and languages other than their own. When Australian actors play British roles, French actors play American roles, German actors play South African roles and so forth, someone like me is brought in to help.

What fascinates me most about this work is how cultural values are encoded into the way we speak. It’s easy enough to get British actors to say dance, water, or thirty when they’re playing Americans; or American actors to say dance, water, or thirty, when playing Brits. But the really hard part is for actors to take on the values of the target dialect, somehow “get under the skin” of the characters they’re playing, and go beyond merely correct pronunciation. The most cherished parts of our personal and national identities are embedded in our speech, and that’s hard for actors to understand, or for accent reduction clients to give up.

For example, [demonstrating] a British actor finds it hard to be as bold and direct as the American without becoming obnoxious, [demonstrating] and the American has an equally hard time being as muted and speculative as the Brits sometimes are without becoming too deferential, fussy, and mannered.

[Demonstrating] Australians hate anything that sounds like putting on airs and perhaps something of their love of the down-to-earth shows up in the way they speak.

[Demonstrating] People from the American South, it seems to me, have a polite way of not rushing the listener or perhaps being more suggestive than declarative with their intonations. I think those values are built into their dialects.

I’m equally sure that my readers from other lands bring the values of their first language into their speaking of English.

How about gender values? Does your speech reveal how you think about yourself as a man or a woman? How self-assertive or self-effacing does your culture believe is appropriate? Does your culture value humor highly, or is a serious tone more important in social and business contexts? Do you believe that formality in sentence structure and word choice is more desirable when meeting a customer for the first time, or is an informal, folksy, “homespun,” style of speech more appropriate? While these values may not be revealed in whether you use this vowel or that consonant in dance, water, or thirty, your tone, inflection, volume, and tempo, to say nothing of your word choices, may have an enormous impact on how your listeners perceive you and strongly influence whether they like you and trust you.

I’d love to hear comments from our friends around the world. What values are embedded in your style of speech? What parts of your identity do you have to downplay to be successful in English? What values do you feel you have to adopt in order to “fit in” with English-speaking friends and business acquaintances? I look forward very much to hearing your thoughts.