By: Kipp Tribble
I grew up in the South. And I sounded like the love child of Forrest Gump and the cast of “The Waltons” for a long time. Not that people in the South are idiots, but many people perceive them as such because they have that horrid accent. Hearing a chick with that accent – especially in Texas or around Savannah — can be endearing, but from a dude…not…quite…the…same. But the Southern accent isn’t the only accent assaulting our ears every day. There’s the Wisconsin/Minnesota/Dakota accent that was beat over our heads in Fargo. There’s the Jersey accent that is usually accompanied by someone brandishing a handgun. And there’s many more voices scattered throughout the nation.
I realized how bad my accent was right around the time I was heading to high school. I also knew I probably needed to do something about it since I was headed for a career in…sitting on my couch every day. And since vocal coaches and speech therapists in the South also have Southern accents, I decided to attack the thing on my own. And it worked. People now think I am from Ohio. Step up? Who knows.
1. Focus: Oddly, you have to focus in life to accomplish something. I once read (yes, I read on occasion) that if you do something everyday for 30 days, it becomes a habit. So I buckled down and focused on not speaking with an accent for over a month. I nearly flunked out of school because I can only focus on doing one thing at a time, but I got through. It’s not like you have to focus on speaking like James Earl Jones every second of the day, but you need to keep that awareness in the back of your head. We all know that accents have a tendency to show up or become more pronounced when you are excited, angry, or intoxicated. Concentrate on your diction when these moments come up. Because no one wants to listen to an intoxicated person with an accent, right? I read that somewhere, too.
2. All About the Vowels: Accents tend to pop on the vowel sounds. So says the God of Vowels. English accents, Australian accents, Vietnamese accents, and all across this country we call the U.S. of A., the vowels are the main giveaways when trying to pretend you have no accent. In the South, the ‘O’ sounds are elongated. Up in Minnesota, ‘bag’ oftentimes sounds like ‘beg’. In the Mid-Atlantic area, vowels are sometime dropped altogether. So from this, I deducted that vowels are the key to correcting that pesky accent. Concentrate on fixing the a, e, i, o, and u’s (and sometimes y) to keep your speech in submission. This is usually achieved by slowing down your speech slightly and focusing on shortening the vowel sound – or adding them if you live in New Jersey.
3. Tune Out Those Around You: Sometime the biggest problem in trying to fix an accent is the speech-abusers around you. It’s kind of like trying to stop eating junk food while working in a Twinkie factory – it’s an uphill battle. I focused on what stuck out about my friends and family’s accents and worked on how not to talk like that. But the key to that process is to recognize what separates that accent from a neutral way of speaking. Such as, if you are Canadian and say the word ‘Hoser’ every hour punctuated by ‘eh’ not being a normal way of speaking. I’m not perpetuating stereotypes, but that one is pretty much true. I once met a Canadian. It’s difficult to have a deaf ear when you’re trying to correct your speech and you keep hearing your own accent being spoken to you, but buckle down. You have to do it.
4. Know Why You Are Doing It: I’m not here just to bash accents. Accents are what make the world go around (someone said that, right?). But if you feel the need to get all neutral in your vocal chords, ask yourself why. Billy Bob Thornton has had a successful career while sounding like he just stepped out of the hills of Tennessee with a 3rd grade education. Accents can be fine, but also a hindrance in some careers. Make sure you are working to get rid of it for the right reasons – like trying to score with chicks – and then set to work. Once you know why you are doing it, you have to then truly want it. It takes a bit of work, so half-assing it won’t get you where you need to be.
5. Mimic a Celeb: I listened to public speakers, celebrities, politicians, and anyone who could speak — in order to get a feel for a nondescript accent. Pick someone who is well spoken and used to speaking for a living. I first tried George Carlin CD’s, but my parents didn’t approve of my dropping the F-bomb every other word. National newscasters are a smart way to go, because many of them have perfected a neutral speech pattern – unlike their local colleagues who seem intent on keeping the local accent. Watch, or listen, to them on a regular basis and study their voices. Listen to their pronunciations and especially pay attention to those telling vowels. This way you can get a feel for what you need to correct in your own speech in order to sound like you’re from Ohio.
6. Practice: With anything in life, practice makes perfect. That’s what my first girlfriend told me. I hope she’s happy with herself for ruining my life. Anyway, in order to correct a lifetime of speaking with an accent, you will need to rehearse speaking. I always did two different things: worked on my speech in front of a mirror and recorded myself (back in the days of cassette tape – gotta’ love technology). Hearing yourself on tape is always strange to hear, but you can definitely hear an accent if you have one. Listen to the parts you really need to work on and concentrate on correcting those areas (likely the vowels). Just one vocal flaw will give you away. Keep up the practice and you’ll be on your way to awesome vocal-ness. Practice, Man. Practice like you’ve never practiced before.