Catherine Weate on doing accents

Catherine Weate on doing accents

By Becky Brewis 13/02/14

Don’t know a rhotic from a roti? As she launches her new accents app for actors, dialect coach Catherine Weate shows us how to learn accents – and points out some common pitfalls…

I’m a voice and dialect coach and most of my work is on training actors in different accents.

We saw that there was a gap in the market because not everybody wants to do one-to-one sessions with a voice and dialect coach and not everybody can afford to, especially when they’re young and just starting out. So that’s why we put together the app. 

The important thing for us is that we have real people doing it. When you research an accent, you have to work from a real voice. You might go to YouTube, but there you often only get small sound bites, which you don’t know what to do with. We use real people as part of a step-by-step programme, so that you’re not just listening to the recordings, you actually have help using them.

When you work with an accent, you break it down into manageable parts. Then you build it up with your character. So the steps that you would probably go through are:


Firstly, look at the points of tension on the face. What parts of the face are tensing up? For example, in some accents there might be a tight upper lip, or a tight upper jaw, so the mouth doesn’t open as wide as in others.

In standard English or RP (received pronunciation) there’s a lovely jaw-drop, whereas a lot of American accents go sideways and there’s not much jaw use at all.

Then look at sound placement – where the sound is coming from. If it’s going through the nose, maybe it’s a bit of a nasal accent, like a lot of American accents.

Number three is the rhythmic energy.  So, for example, in English accents the consonants are given more emphasis and in American accents the vowels are given more emphasis. That changes the rhythm. 

Step four is the tune – the intonation patterns. Some accents may be on a minor note and others on a major note. A general American accent is on a very strong major note, which means that if you say, “One, two, three, four, five” it finishes on a definite finish, whereas my original accent, which is Australian, finishes on a minor note. In English a Birmingham accent would be minor, and a London accent would tend to be major.

You need to look at the pattern of those tunes, too. For example, people can hear strong tunes in Irish accents – and a sense of every singe phrase being on the same tune. If you get all the sounds right but you don’t get the tune right, an accent can sound a bit odd. 

Then you have to think about vowels and consonants. Look at them separately. Look at the difference between your vowel and the person’s vowel; compare your consonant with their consonant.

On the app we have a section called pitfalls. In a general American accent the tongue is a lot wider than it is in English accents. All the focus and the energy in an English accent tend to be on the tip of the tongue whereas in an American accent it’s on the sides of the tongue.

Accents fall into two categories: rhotic, in which you pronounce all the “r” sounds, and non-rhotic. Some English accents, such as Somerset, are rhotic, but if your native accent is non-rhotic – ie you don’t pronounce the “r” sound after a vowel, as in “car” – it can be really hard to do American accents. You might get the main words right, but it’s all the little, in-between words, like “there” or “over” that you need to pick up on.

Finally, you have to put the whole thing together in connected speech. Because people see people on television doing accents they think it’s simple . Nobody – even great mimics – can just do a perfect accent off pat. You need to work at it. It’s important not to lose heart and to keep practising.


Catherine Weate was talking to Becky Brewis. 

Find out more about The Real Accent App.


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