5 Ways to Listen Actively when Learning Accents (and why you need to)

Infographic on Active Listening for Accents

Follow the path – become a better listener!

So you probably realise the Australians don’t call out “G’day Bruce!” at every given opportunity. And you know the Irish don’t sing, “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!” while river-dancing in green coats. But how much are stereotypes still sticking to your brain when you try and learn a new accent?

A recent article on the importance of listening as a voiceover artist sparked a few thoughts on the surprises you can find when you listen, really listen, to someone’s accent. We can improve our ability to notice new things with something called ‘active listening’.

Unfortunately, my first encounter with this concept wasn’t at school (where it would have had more value perhaps!), but in the slightly disingenuous environment of a call centre, where I spent a rather short-lived stint after moving, jobless, to the big city a few years back. Here the simple idea of listening openly had an ulterior motive, as is also the case in the sales industry, where ‘active listening’ is often taught as an essential skill in the salesperson’s toolkit.

What is ‘Active Listening’?

Whether it’s to make your company more money or to better council people who need your help, active listening is taught throughout so many industries that it must be some kind of magic technique, right? There are conflicting definitions, and the meaning is much broader than what I’m covering. But to simplify, it’s really as common sense as it sounds: just listen to what the person in front of you is saying without projecting onto them your own judgements and preconceptions. In the UK, the Samaritans use it in conjunction with the ‘listening wheel’ model to train their volunteer counselors. It can’t be that hard though can it? Just don’t finish someone’s sentence for them and you’re fine. Right?

But you know what, it’s much harder than it sounds. However high or low the stakes, everyone’s got their own agenda in a conversation. And they’ll hear what they want to hear so they can get what they want to get. And when you’re scoping out voices to master an accent, it’s so easy to revert to stereotype and hear what you think or assume the accent sounds like, rather than listening actively to your speaker and hearing what is really there.

So how do we do this?

Active Listening and Learning an Accent

1. Go Zen

Regular practice of mindfulness and meditation can help get you in a clear and open state of mind. Why not listen to some music at the same time, as Caroline Contillo suggests here? You want to hear the ‘music’ of an accent after all.

2. Use your senses

If you can’t meet someone in person, try and use video. What is their jaw doing when they speak? Shape of lips? Imitate the things you see and notice how it feels for yourself.

3. How are they feeling?

Emotion has a massive effect on stress and intonation, and sometimes even how a vowel is shaped. For example, some South Africans will often roll their Rs when speaking excitedly, others do it all the time, it depends on geography and culture. Again, video is great for picking up on emotion. Being in touch with how they’re feeling may well fire up other parts of your brain to give you a broader picture of an accent.

4. Pay attention (don’t ‘concentrate’)

If you’ve had actor training, you may have heard this before. Take a second and think about the difference between the two. It’s about giving gentle attention to your subject without building up the tension associated with an instruction to “Concentrate!”. A relaxed pair of ears will hear more nuances.

5. Positive feedback

Now we’re really into Active Listening territory. If you’re chatting 1-on-1 with a native speaker, keep them relaxed and in their natural voice with encouragement, positive feedback and affirming what they’re saying to you. And do express your gratitude to them for subjecting themselves to all this scrutiny!

The Englishman in me is coming out here, but grab them a cup of tea and you can’t go far wrong either. Oh, you don’t believe me?

 What this will do

As soon as you open up to your subject, it can be like a poker game. You try to focus on one part of the accent you’ve noticed, and then suddenly a curveball  (okay, maybe I don’t mean poker anymore!) hits you out of the blue and distracts your attention: “Huh, I never noticed that before, the Glaswegian ‘town’ vowels are much less extreme than I thought, maybe I’ll practise the – wait, what was that?! How did she just say “purple”?! Hang on, what did I notice about ‘town’ again?” … and so forth.

Hearing this at play

Next time I’ll show you an audio example, and things you might not notice straight away that linger underneath the surface of an accent. Along with that, I’ll share a few resources you might need to get your listening skills to the next level, and where to find examples of the accent you’re looking for.

As soon as you listen properly to a really authentic, native speaker, confusions are bound to pop up. And yes, some may be singularly idiosyncratic and will contradict sounds from other speakers who were born in the same village. But the point is this: you won’t be able to learn the similarities and make an educated choice as an actor, unless you find a wide variety of sources and then listen to them …actively.

Your Thoughts

Have you ever found unusual rhythms, melodies or tones lurking beneath an accent? Perhaps you’d like to set the record straight on how your own native accent should be spoken? Add your comments below.

… and if you found this article useful, please share!


Paul Baston is a freelance voiceover artist and accent coach – letting companies reach new audiences and helping actors master new voices. Check out his demos here.

About the Author

Voiceover artist, voice coach and creator of this blog.

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