Accents, The Wire and Culture: Interview with BettyAnn Leeseberg-Lange

Accents are an amazing thing. They can set us apart or make us feel part of a group. They are the key to our identity, our community and our culture.
As a Brit in the USA, I am fascinated by how fascinating my accent is to Americans. “Say this word and this one and this one!” they cry (often British swear words appeal to a certain crowd!). I am also intrigued by how some people find it easy to pick up different accents. My son can alternate between British (at home) and American (at school) with ease. On the other hand, my husband’s Cockney accent often warrants interpretation by me for our American cousins (it’s the fast way he speaks, plus the use of colloquialisms that confuse).
I also love the varying American accents across the States. How I love to travel to South Carolina to hear the Southern twang reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara herself, or to hear the Texas cowboy drawl whilst hanging in a bar listening to country music. Ah, bliss! I attempted a New Jersey accent in front of American friends recently as my new dinner party party-piece. I need to have a word repeating in my head in order to recreate this North Eastern accent and so I keep pronouncing the word ‘dawg’ (dog) over and over, just like my New Jersey friend’s mother does, and then I gush out a sentence, generally with the word ‘dawg’ in it. It seems to work and the guests all seemed fairly impressed by this girl from Bath, England (that’s pronounced ‘Barth’ btw) 😉
With all this preoccupation about accents in mind, I spoke to BettyAnn Leeseberg-Lange, a professional “accents expert” about her work with Talking Well Consulting. She’s worked on TV shows such as The Wire, and with The Shakespeare Theatre, focusing on dialects and accents.
BettyAnn Leeseberg-Lange

Introducing BettyAnn Leeseberg-Lange

Tell me a little about your history, the work you do and what ‘Talking Well Consulting’ aims to achieve.

I grew up as a “military brat” (Air Force).  We “brats” take that title as a badge of honor.  I was in 16 schools by the time I graduated from high school.  I was in 4 schools and 3 states in the first grade and I passed.

My sister, brother and I developed a game to learn the accents of the new place we had moved to within two weeks.  The one who did it the fastest won.  I do not remember what the prize was, but I do remember that my brother was better at it than I.

That was the beginning of my profession as an accent modification coach.

In between I got a MFA in Acting, was a working actress in NYC in film, TV and theatre, taught in academic theatre programs training undergraduate and graduate actors in voice, diction and dialects.

I served as a dialect coach for a number of professional theatres around the country in Missouri, Chicago and here in the Baltimore-DC corridor: Studio Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre, Roundhouse, Olney, and REP Stage. And I have dialect coached for film (Disney) and television, the HBO series, THE WIRE.

thewireI began Talking Well Consulting when I had a doctor, a very fine doctor – Korean, whose accent was so thick that had I not done what I do, I might not be able to understand him.  I knew there were other doctors, whose accents were very thick, and professors and lawyers and researchers.  I also knew that they are treated as “less than”, given less respect for their work, asked to repeat themselves many times a day and have people just plain stop listening.

I also know that many people, who want to help thickly accented people reduce their dialects, ask them to change sounds by listening to the sounds and simply changing them.  That way works very seldom and can become quite frustrating for clients.  I work Kinesiologically, training my clients to feel each Sound in a word, a phrase, a sentence rather than listen to it.  Ears can only hear; they cannot change the muscles in your mouth that control sound production.

From my experience as a child, I understand that business of being stigmatized.  I decided that since we now live in a Global economy and communication world, and I could help these people reduce their accents, then I was going to do just that. Sooooo Talking Well Consulting was begun.  I want to help internationals in business, medicine, law and research “Adjust Their Accents!  Keep Their Culture!”

You’ve worked on some amazing projects, like The Wire, for example. Share with me some of your experiences working with cast members on set. Did Dominic West and Idris Elba nail that Baltimore accent? (FYI, I had to have closed captions on to understand the street slang – nothing to do with the accents though!)

I was indeed fortunate to work on THE WIRE. It was a wonderful series to be a part of.  The company, from the producer right down to the food truck people were fun and hard working and believed in the project, especially since it was about Baltimore,

We here are very proud of this city.

Idris Elba and Dominic West in The Wire. (Public Domain)
Idris Elba and Dominic West in The Wire. (Public Domain)

Both Idris and Dominic trained at Guild Hall, a very prestigious actor training school in London.  Their voice and diction teacher, Patsy Rodenburg, is someone I know through an organization, Voice and Speech Trainers Association (VASTA). I was fortunate to have studied with her in workshops as well.  This was fortunate since it made my work much easier.  We all had the same vocabulary to work with and that makes explaining accents much easier.

Idris was a joy to work with.  I gave him the basic sound changes he would probably use in a poor Black section of Baltimore and he took it from there, both talking to cops who worked in those areas and people from those areas.  And he has a wonderful ability to hear a sound and produce it.  This is a highly prized skill that has shown up in so many of his films.

I worked with Dominic on each of his scenes both before and sometimes during filming. Actors often wish to work on their dialect before filming and then not have a coach present during filming so they can concentrate on their acting. Dominic and I worked both ways depending on how he felt about the scene and the use of the dialect within it.

You ask how successful were they with the Baltimore dialect?  Well, I know what they did well and what they were not so sure, so clear on, so frankly I am not the best judge.  But I do know that many “born and bred” people from Baltimore told me that they both “nailed it.” And so I think we can take their word for it!

How would someone go about being an accent consultant?

 Most people who have become accent consultants have come from two areas.

Either they come from science, speech therapy, or the arts, theatre specifically.  Some also are ESL (English as a Second Language) instructors.  Should someone want to become an accent modification coach, I suggest they talk with someone from the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) if they wish to go the scientific way or someone from the Voice and Speech Trainers Association (VASTA) if they would prefer to come from a theatrical perspective.  There is also some training in pronunciation through the ESL teacher training programs.

I come from the theatre and, of course, think we are better prepared because we have been dealing with dialects and accents a part of our training as actors and as faculty.  Also, most theatre accent coaches teach Kinesiologically, teaching their clients/students to feel for where a sound is produced rather than listening for it.

BettyAnn Leeseberg-Lange brings 30+ years of acclaimed vocal work to her coaching practice, Talking Well Consulting. Her specializations are dialect modification of international accents plus reduction and elimination of regional accents in the US. (
BettyAnn Leeseberg-Lange brings 30+ years of acclaimed vocal work to her coaching practice, Talking Well Consulting. Her specializations are dialect modification of international accents plus reduction and elimination of regional accents in the US. (

This is an important difference as when dealing with adults who wish to modify their accent for understandability. The ability to learn by changing the working of muscles, much as one would do for learning tennis, golf or zumba, is a skill that adults can do as well as children – not as easily, but as well.

Also, and this is essential to me, they want to keep their cultural identity.  It is imperative to them.  Taking away cultural identity amounts to character denial and disrespect.  I suspect if you asked someone from the South or New England here in the states, that it was necessary to COMPLETELY change their accent, you would have quite a quarrel on your hands.

So as I said before, my mantra is:  “Adjust Your Accent!  Keep Your Culture!”

What are the most common accent ‘problems’ you come across? Why is it important to learn to modify your accent for particular situations?

Accent “problems” are different in each language as speakers work to develop an understandable US English accent.  US English has sounds that are not in any other languages and all other languages, even other forms of English, have sounds that don’t show up in US English. Discovering those sounds is the first task and then training clients to produce those sounds in US English is the second.  And it is very important to note that adjusting an accent can take a while.  It took us all at least a year to make sounds, long for words and sentences.  Why do we expect others to learn to speak US English clearly in less time?

You ask why it is important to modify an accent.  Well, the first reason is so you can be understood.  You mention that you had to us closed captions to understand the slang in THE WIRE.  You also mention that your husband is Cockney and many people here in the US have difficulty understanding him.  These are questions of communication.

In the worlds of medicine, the law, business and research, being understood for presentations, negotiations, courtroom appearances and business discussions is not only important, it is often imperative.  As I said before when people do not understand the speaker, they often stop listening.  This is definitely a deterrent to the presentation of solutions to business problems, the negotiations regarding large sums of monies, the saving of a life in a courtroom and the development of life-saving medicine.

Being able to be understood is not just important, it is imperative in this Global world.

What’s your favorite accent, and why? And your least favorite…?!

I can tell you my least favorite accent: French.  And that is because I am no good at it.  I have a dear friend who is also a dialect coach.  She is brilliant at French accents.

My brother, the untrained mimic, is brilliant at French accents.  I am not.  I think it is best to know your own strengths and weaknesses.

As to my favorite accent, that is not possible to answer.  I love them all.  For so many different reasons: their rhythm patterns, the music, the way they can be formal and informal, the way they can be richly emotional, the way they make poetry.

Now, knowing all that, how would you choose?

Which accents are the hardest to succeed at, and which one is your party trick?!

It is not an accent that is most difficult to learn.  It is the skills a person comes with that make the new accent difficult or easy.  If someone has difficulty singing, even a simple song, in their own language or in US English, it will be more difficult as the music of US English is so different than so many other languages.  Also some people’s tongues are very tense.  In any language, there are sounds in which the tongue is tense and others in which the tongue is relaxed.  How they use their tongue in speaking can affect how many new sounds they can produce easily.

As to my party trick, my husband says it is all the Irish accents I know.  I tell people that I don’t guess where they are from or do any accent off the top of my head – unless they pay me as it is my profession. It is the same way with doctors at cocktail parties; they don’t want to listen to symptoms anywhere but in their offices either.

My husband is a Cockney and Americans have a very hard time understanding him. Why is that do you think?

Do you know that Cockney is the oldest English language and accent there is?  Well, it’s true!  Tell your husband, “Good on ya!”  That’s Australian!  My grandchildren live in Sydney and they say that to compliment people.

Cockneys too have their own language and it is so wonderful and funny and beautiful and sassy and so smart.  All those language jokes in poetry  And people here in the states don’t get language jokes very often.

As to understanding his accent, Cockney’s use OW for OH and OI for AI and people here in the US get very confused by that alone.  Then there is that issue of dropped H’s and the glottal stop for TT and DD in the middle and at the ends of words and…and…and…

So, Claire, this is what I do….and I love it!  I know I am helping people; I am aiding communication and the growth of respect; I hope I am teaching people here to become excited about other languages and other cultures and I believe I am assisting people in keeping their cultural identity, which is so precious.

 And I wish for all my clients to” Adjust Your Accent! Keep Your Culture!”

Should anyone wish to contact Betty-Ann she can be reached via,

Facebook: Talking Well Consulting;

Twitter: BettyAnn@TWC;

Skype: talkingwell

and www.Talking Well

On the website, if you fill out the questionnaire, you can receive a FREE 30-minute accent analysis.

And free is good, right?