You know that feeling you get when you hear someone trying to imitate another person’s accent? Usually you’re so embarrassed for the person you just want to hide under the nearest table. Or, worse, the person’s attempts at mockery are so offensive you cringe with repugnance. It’s a rare individual who can take on another’s accent and make you feel like you’re speaking with one of your friends and colleagues. And yet it can be done. If you’ve ever seen Tony Award winning playwright and actress Sarah Jones, you know what I mean.
Sarah Jones has a gift. While playing the character of Ms. Ling (from China), Sunita (from India), or Habiba (from Jordan), all with near-native pronunciation, Jones tackles some of the most difficult issues of the day – homelessness, immigration, business competition — without stereotyping or marginalizing anyone. In fact, listening to her characters makes you think you’re watching a little piece of yourself. Not an easy task.
How does she do it? When asked this question at a recent symposium sponsored by the Business and Finance Committee at the University of Michigan called, ‘Many Voices‘, Ms. Jones answered, “People who play characters… have to… transcend their ‘package’… .You have to be those other people… You have to connect to the humanity of the character.”
That’s the key! By expressing humanity’s shared desire to “have all of what you bring to the world be valued”, Jones conveys her message in a whole gamut of accents but absent any mockery. You don’t get that awful feeling like you can’t believe what you’re hearing and need to find the nearest exit ASAP.
When Jones was asked about her techniques to ‘get into persona’, my ears pricked up immediately. One of them is identical to an approach we use at the Accent Reduction Institute. Jones thinks of a person she respects and admires. She then tries to imitate the way that person conveys empathy and understanding. For her, it’s Lilly Thomas or Meryl Streep. We suggest a similar method in our English pronunciation training programs.
We encourage participants to think of a person whose pronunciation, articulation, and diction they admire. Envisioning being understood easily and with authenticity helps people learn English pronunciation, or acquire new speech patterns in general. If you were to suggest a few role-models for learners of English pronunciation, who would they be? Julia Roberts? President Obama? Check out Sarah Jones’ range of characters in action. It’s hilarious. Not because she mocks her characters, but because they’re a mirror our own selves… accents and all.