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A Movie Dialect Coach on Why Language Matters

Jordan Yanco has helped Al Pacino and other A-list actors with their accents.

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Growing up in North Bergen, New Jersey, with an Israeli father and frequent trips into New York City, Jordan Yanco noticed at a young age that people spoke in different ways. Speech was an important tool to Yanco from early on — he was thrust into the world of show business at only five years old because he could read aloud from The New York Times — and so in high school, he learned German and then in college, French. Accents and speech patterns became a home base for him, and since he could make all these sounds, he spent time impersonating anyone he could. But he couldn’t explain to people how to do what he could do.

Yanco, 39, is now a dialect coach based in Queens. He can do more than 60 accents and has worked with the likes of Al Pacino (on his recent film The Pirates of Somalia)  and other A-list actors, but it wasn’t until he discovered linguistics that he was able to start telling other people how to do all of the accents he could do, and realized that he could make a career out of the passion he has had since he was a kid.

“I realized if I could do these sounds, I could teach these sounds, I have the terms, and I could make it accessible and fun, because that’s me, I am accessible and fun,” Yanco said. “Over the years I discovered that this is what people want and there is a need for it.” He’s right: Across the board, stars are investing more time in properly learning accents after some learned the hard way — like Anne Hathway in One Day or Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own — that a bad accent is the only takeaway an audience will have from a movie. Just as Yanco became increasingly aware of differences in how people talk, so have audiences — they notice when someone sounds off.

This is a new concept — The New York Times writes that for most of Hollywood history, character’s accents were usually ignored or drawn from a very small menu of “Southern” or British or some type of Eastern European dialects. But then in 1982, Meryl Streep took home an Oscar because of her perfectly accented portrayal of her character in Sophie’s Choice, and audiences began to realize the power a good accent had. 

Yanco now makes a living working with actors for TV, film and theater. On top of that, he does private and group sessions. He works to make sure that actors and actresses sound authentic and teaches them to avoid stereotypes. 

“I’ve had a very fortunate run and it’s all because back in the day I just knew this is what I need to do,” Yanco said. According to The Times, the world of dialect coaches is small — with only a few dozen working in Hollywood and New York.

 

So why does Yanco’s job matter outside of helping actors get in character? How you speak — and what accent you have — says more about you than you might expect. According to BBC, studies have shown that it can take just 30 milliseconds of speech — so even just a “Hello” — for listeners to figure out if a person’s ethnic and cultural background is different than their own. For many, your accent is a source of pride, and this accent recognition can create a fast bond.

“Let’s say you hear someone from where you’re from. That’s going to make you elicit a response, that will make you feel something,” Yanco explained. “You’re connected to them, you fit in with their tribe. Accent is all about identity, it’s all about tribe. When we use certain language, we want to try to fit in with that tribe.”

But on the other hand, studies show that listeners attribute all sorts of characteristics to how someone sounds, including height, physical attractiveness, social status, intelligence, good character, criminality and sociability.

Accents allow people to be “linguistically profiled” based on stereotypes of their regional backgrounds, class, gender or ethnicity. This can lead to discriminate, both conscious and subconscious, and can make it hard for marginalized groups and minority speakers to get into school, get a job or find a home, writes BBC. 

If you are entering a boardroom full of executives, you will use different language than that of your friends and family. Language matters, accent matters, because once someone hears how you speak, they put you in a box, Yanco explains. If you practice using speech for executives, you know how to better access that tool. If you really need to “glam it up and be polished,” you would be prepared to pull out that tool.

In Yanco’s mind, there is no one “better accent.” However, he says there are things that sometimes get in the way of good communication.

“There is no accent that is better than any other accent. As long as the message gets across, that’s all that counts,” he said. “Because isn’t that what we all want from communication? To communicate. Now, if you’re not being understood, and there’s something getting in the way, a dialect coach can help.”

Yanco stresses that if you are learning an accent, whether for a job or just to learn it, you should never rely on a stereotype. It might be a place to start, but it would not be the accurate portrayal of that community or the tribe, Yanco says.

“Who wants to see someone insulting the culture or language? You want to do them a service, that you’ve learned the culture and language,” Yanco said. “It always helps to learn the language if you have the time, and learn the phonetics. Learn how people that are coming from that language are using it to speak.”

A tip Yanco had for everyone was to eliminate the “um,” “uh” and “likes” from your speech. Using those fillers gives off the impression that you are not confident enough in the statement to just say it. You will sound more polished and assertive if you remove those words from your speech. He recommends replacing it with just a pause because that pause is more impactful and helps give mystery.

“With the right tools, you can just change your whole life,” Yanco said.