One of my clients recently asked me why he couldn’t do what Andrew Lincoln on Walking Dead does. And, no, he wasn’t asking me about killing zombies. My client wanted to know why he, a guy from China, couldn’t imitate American speech with no trace of an accent. Well, it’s a fair question. The answer is quite simple.
Andrew Lincoln is amazing at imitating an accent. So are Renée Zellweger, Idris Elba, Rosamund Pike, and a handful of other talented actors. While Andrew has the occasional difficulty, the only consistent error I’ve noticed is when he says his on-screen son’s name, “Carl”. He just can’t quite get it. It’s that tough vowel and “r-sound” combination with which so many Brits struggle. That being said, any difficulties are subtle and Andrew Lincoln sounds so much like an American on Walking Dead that it is startling to hear him speaking in his native British accent.
So how come “normal people” can’t completely get rid of their accent and sound just like actors who play the role of someone with a different accent? If actors can do it, why can’t everyone else?
The main reason simply has to do with an actor’s ability to listen and copy. An actor’s ear training and imitation skills develop with years of practice. They rarely become superstars overnight without hard work. Most actors who can nail an accent have undergone extensive and rigorous training. Would we expect actors to be good surgeons just like that? Maybe on House, but not in real life. No way.
And for ESL speakers there are added complications like vocabulary, grammar, and the vast differences between certain languages and English. ESL speakers have to focus on multiple factors when speaking a second language — even the simple social rules like turn taking can be hard to learn. ESL speakers don’t have the luxury of just concentrating on their accent. And if the sound and speech characteristics of the native language are significantly different from English, it makes it even more challenging. Some of the sounds in English simply don’t exist in some languages. The difference between most English dialects, like British and American English, are significantly less extensive than, say, between Mandarin and American English.
So there is it. Most ESL speakers who learn English as adults won’t ever completely get rid of their accent. But, does it really matter? The goal isn’t to sound exactly like an American or Canadian, but rather to be exactly who you are — someone with a unique accent who is also easy to understand. After all, we’re not all actors. We are, however, directors of our one unique destiny. We all have something to say. And we are saying it.