Dialect coach Susan Cameron said she can't ride the bus or subway without tuning in to all the conversations around her because she's fascinated by the small quirks of pronunciation that give away a person's background.
"You tell a lot the way people pitch their voice, the way they speak, the way they inflect," she said. "It has a lot to do with who they are and how they want to be perceived. Your voice is so much of who you are."
Cameron spends most of her time helping actors learn new accents or helping others lose their current accent. For the latter group, many think their regionalisms are unflattering or are holding them back professionally.
Actor Juan Carlos Infante, who works with Cameron, was born in the Dominican Republic and speaks English with a hint of a Spanish accent. He is honing his "neutral" American accent, hoping it will lead to landing more acting roles.
During a recent session, Infante warmed up with mouth exercises and then was asked to read sentences that stress different letter combinations with which he often struggles such as "b" and "v" – as in "obviously." Infante then moved on to a monologue he brought with him, a dramatic scene from the movie "Before Sunrise."
"Aright, I have —," he started Infante.
"Don't aspirate your Ts," Cameron interrupted.
Infante continued with Cameron interjecting every few words. She said in other lessons she can move syllable by syllable with clients. The word "initial," for example, can be especially problematic for some non-native speakers.
"I would say, 'Okay, for the first sound, your 'e' sound, the front of your tongue is arching one-eighth of an inch too forward,'" she said. "Then for the second one, your 'en,' the tip of your tongue is not reaching the alveolar ridge. And for the third one, again, the arch in the tongue is a front, about an eighth of an inch too far. And then for the last sound, the back of your tongue is retracting."
Some days, Cameron said she wants nothing more than to go home to complete silence. Other times, she enjoys the perks that come with the job: she can do almost any accent on request – British, Irish, even Southern dialects at the state level.