Growing up in the heart of Atlanta, I was surrounded by different dialects thanks to all the diverse groups that attended Atlanta Public Schools with me. My dad was from Florida and my mom was from north Georgia, which meant my dialect didn’t exactly sound like the dialect of the northern transplant kids that were in my classes. In fact, I remember getting teased in 1st grade about the way I said the word “on” (pronounced by my younger self as “own”). I didn’t realize it then, but my elementary school peers were giving me my first lessons in dialect modification.
The way we speak is a mixture of the dialects from the people who raised us, the people we idolize and emulate, and the people who dominant our social groups. Even though it doesn’t always seem like it, the way we speak is a choice. We may not realize we are choosing to speak the way we are speaking, but we are.
Our voices are tied to our senses of self, our identities, and when we shift our voices it can feel like we are shifting who we are. From the perspective of an actor, it makes sense to shift your voice so that you can become the character you are portraying. However, from the perspective of a non-performer, dialect modification can be tied to judgments about class and social status, judgements about oneself, and/or a desire to change.
If you are wanting to modify your dialect because you want to sound different, it’s important to understand that the people who you are close to may provide some push back against your new sound. You may get teased and you may sense resistance because you sound “different”. However, you may also receive encouragement and praise, especially from your friends and family who you’ve enrolled in your transformation.
No matter what reactions you encounter as you speak with your new dialect, practice and perseverance are the keys to continued success. It’s rare to change the way you speak overnight — you’ve got to rewire your brain and let the muscles of your mouth and throat learn how to move differently. It takes courage and commitment to change the way you speak. However, the way you speak is always a choice. When you modify your dialect you gain a new dialect to use, and you can always code switch back and forth depending on your audience.
The main purpose of dialect modification isn’t to erase your current dialect (although that may be some people’s wish). The main purpose of dialect modification is to give you a choice so that in any given situation you get to choose which dialect you want to turn own…I mean on!