In 2011 I was approached by an online “how-to” site to do a series of 2-5 minute “teaser” accent videos. The sort where you learn a few key features of an accent and you’re on your way. Great for the actor who has an audition in a few hours and needs a little something to point them in the right direction. The company asked me to make a list of all the accents I could do in a one-day recording session. They said, “You know, like 30 or 40.”
Eager to please, I made as exhaustive a list as I possibly could. I came up with 37. I remember adding Malta to the list, thinking that I had just done a documentary theatre piece including the story of a Maltese woman who agreed to be a story donor for my play. Her “character” was such a huge hit in the play, the woman and her friends loved the depiction of her, so I thought to myself, “Hell, I’ll throw this one in too.” I wasn’t thinking it would be particularly useful for most actors (my target audience after all) but instead I was operating under the haze of a little accent coach hubris trying to get as close as possible to that 40 mark without imploding.
Feeling the fear of the internet being forever, I called Phil and asked him to help me strategize. So we approached it straight up KTS style (this was before we were calling it KTS, btw): some Oral Posture features, a few key sounds, and bit of prosody. I was ready to take the leap into saying to the world, “I know how to do this thing.”
I made 37 videos. In one day. One take each. (puff puff)
Then nothing really happened. The videos were edited and released on the Howcast website, of course. In the following months, I would pick up a private client now and then who’d seen the videos, but that was about it.
Until one day…
The videos were released on YouTube. Each was called, “How to do a so and so accent”. It turns out this is a popular search phrase! I began to get a lot of emails and my client base started to grow. Quickly. Occasionally, I would come across rude or ignorant internet comments, but I was able to let them not affect me too much; I was grateful for my budding business, and that it was allowing me to do what I loved.
Then I got an email about the Malta video. It wasn’t kind. Then I got another. And another. Each one harsher than the last. Then I was contacted by a Maltese news outlet, asking me to comment on the reaction to my video going viral! Oh great. I went viral. In the bad way.
I decided to speak to the reporter because I wanted to contextualize my analysis choices and to apologize to those I offended. In most of the videos, I had said something like, “You know, Texas is a big place. Here are some features of one Texas accent.” I probably used the word “general” more than I would these days, but I had tried to convey to a broad audience that the accents I was presenting were broad descriptions, sketched in with a few brush strokes. I tried to be clear that the descriptions were not sufficient for a nuanced performance, but that they should be used as a starting place.
I guess I gave myself a pass when describing what I identified as a Maltese accent (I didn’t realize it at the time, but much of what I was depicting was an idiolect, specific to my original story donor). In all the videos I did an adorable tag to encourage people to do their own research. “But don’t take my word for it! Listen to some native speakers and make your own analysis!” I tried to explain all of this to the reporter. These ‘apology’ interviews never go well, though, and I think my response actually made things worse. Headlines read something like: “Accent Coach Apologizes for Offending People of Malta”.
After the interview came out, there was more Maltese media uproar. Other videos were created to correct my perceived wrongs. I continued to get lots and lots of emails from offended Maltese people. A different news outlet asked me to comment on the first article and the subsequent internet activity. I ignored the request. Finally, I received a rather threatening email from someone. That was it for me. I called the how-to website and asked them to pull the video. A bit more uproar after that. More (Maltese) headlines. Eventually things quieted down. And then the only thing left was my shame.
I did get a lovely email from a guy apologizing for the “ignorant people who had forced me to take down the video.” He apologized to me on behalf of his people! I thought it was sweet he took the time to reach out. It made me feel a little better for a time.
I often share this story in the Experiencing Accents workshop (and thought it would make a useful first KTS blog post), because I learned some valuable things from this experience.
- Impressionistic language about accents is not only not useful. It can be offensive. Usually when we say people might find such language offensive, we’re thinking about descriptions like “harsh” or “nasal.” In this case, I had described the Maltese accent as “friendly.” I had suggested beginning with a smile to help find the oral posture. The people of Malta, being rarely depicted in media in this way (not many other Maltese accent resources for this country existed before my video went up), objected to being reduced to a single adjective, even one (I saw as) positive. And you know what? I don’t blame them. So now I hold myself and my students to a stricter standard: descriptive accent analysis, period. (Detailed phonetic transcription is a great tool for that.) And I leave the subjective impressionistic language alone. That’s what I do. And that’s what we teach in the KTS Teacher Training progression. (Sort of. Phil and Erik are not as absolutely averse to impressionistic language as I am. But they couch it very, very carefully, and with a healthy dose of skepticism and an emphasis on its subjectivity and its dangers.)
- Speech is INCREDIBLY personal. It is identity. It is community. It is the thing that separates us as a species from our other primate relatives. So I tread lightly and with respect.
- It’s ok to make mistakes. I may have offended some people. Ok, a lot of people. But I’m still here and I’m still helping people refine their speech and accent skills.
- It’s courageous, funny and necessary to teach from your mistakes. As a teacher, I think it’s essential to own your failings and foibles in front of your students. They are TERRIFIED of making a mistake, especially when it comes to accent work. It feels like if the wrong sound comes out they will die. Let them know that accent work is non-fatal. Sometimes embarrassing! But non-fatal.
- It’s also ok to own your analysis. You know stuff! A lot of things I described in the video-that-is-no-longer were dead-on accurate for the one particular speaker who had been my original subject. But because speech is INCREDIBLY personal (see second bullet), it can be difficult for many people to accurately perceive their own accent features (let alone describe them).
In other words, people who don’t know about accents, don’t know about accents.
My Aunt Shirley, also a character in one of my plays, is ADAMANT that my depiction of her in not accurate. But all her friends and family assure me it is. It’s difficult for us to see (and hear) ourselves. It’s ok to ignore some native speaker nay-saying. Trust yourself. You know stuff.
Let mine be a “cautionary tale” (as we’ve taken to calling it in Experiencing Accents). At the same time, let it be a “throw caution to the wind” tale! As long as you’re working from a deep level of respect layered with a profound level of analytical skill, you probably won’t piss off an entire country. And even if you do, it’s ok. You know who to call to commiserate.