Hearing accents

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

We all speak with an accent, and we judge each other by our accents. Our accents can change gradually, or sometimes dramatically. But if you want to speak an additional language without any foreign accent, you may be facing an uphill battle.

Did you know that some animals – like these Japanese macaques – have accents too? Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Accent, accents everywhere

Everyone has an accent. And I’m not just talking about humans. The clicking sounds sperm whales use to communicate with each other vary by region, and Japanese Macaques have local accents too. In fact a variety of animals have patterns to their calls that are influenced by where the animal lives – for example wolves, other monkeys and cod. There has even been research into whether a cat’s miaows are affected by its owner’s accent.

Our accents can change over time – both as individuals and as whole countries. One study observed the way reality TV participants regularly changed their accents while living in isolation together for three months.

In the case of the rare foreign accent syndrome, a person’s accent can drastically and immediately change as a result of damage to the brain. Well-known examples are an Australian who has spoken with something similar to a French accent since a car accident twelve years ago, an American who has been speaking with a Cockney accent since having a stroke and a Brit who spoke in a thick Russian accent for several years after a brain hemorrhage. The first recorded case of foreign accent syndrome was in 1941 when a Norwegian woman began speaking in a German accent after being hit by shrapnel. The story goes that she was thought to be a German spy and was shunned by the people around her.

Talk like an Egyptian

If you’re hoping to speak a second language and sound like a native, you may be running out of time. The strength of your accent is directly correlated with your age at the time you learned the additional language. Unfortunately, your ability to speak an additional language accent-free has been tapering off since puberty. If you want to speak an additional language accent-free, your best bet is to learn it before the age of six. How much of the time you continue to speak in your native language will also affect the accent you speak with in a second language.

It’s difficult to sound like a native speaker when you’re not because the sounds you recognise (and will later copy) are established before your first birthday. In one study, researchers played the sounds ‘la’ and ‘ra’ to six-month old Japanese and English babies. At that age, all the babies could pick the difference between the two sounds. But at the ripe old age of ten months, Japanese babies could no longer hear the difference between ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds, which don’t exist in Japanese. It’s amazing to think your pattern of speaking was already largely set before you spoke your first word.

Here’s a sobering fact for all of us who speak additional languages with a detectable accent: speaking with an accent makes you harder to understand. And research shows we are less likely to trust someone we find harder to understand. The more severe your accent, the less credible people assume you to be. This accent discrimination may be frustrating for travellers but of course is far more damaging for immigrants.

Can I borrow your accent?

Do people ever tease you about the fact you pick up accents easily? You might not even be aware you’re doing it but what’s been dubbed a ‘wandering accent’ is quite common. Without intention, you mimic whatever accent you hear at the time. It’s also known as the chameleon effect. It turns out we even imitate other peoples’ speaking styles when lip reading, and not able to hear their voice.

We mimic other people as a result of wanting to empathise and bond with them and imitating someone’s accent is the best way to improve your ability to understand that person. We now know exactly which part of the brain is active when impersonating someone else which may help to treat someone who has lost their own accent through foreign accent syndrome.

A head’s up: if you suddenly find yourself speaking with a distinctly British accent, a whole new line of acting work may be open to you. In the movies, most villains are portrayed by people with posh British accents – also known as received pronunciation (RP).

We perceive speakers with this accent as highly intellectually but low in morals. Sounds like a villainous combo to me.

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  1. Wow, that’s amazing – particularly the Japanese baby study – not even 1 year old and they are behind the ‘l’ and ‘r’ eight ball. My friend from uni acquired the wandering accent when he moved to the UK to work. Back home we would tease him for his posh english accent, whilst back in the UK they’d laugh at his aussie twang – shows that sometimes you can’t win. He now lives in the US, but we haven’t spoken since the move, only on social media in writing, so I wonder what its like now…

    Great article, as usual informative, fun and different! 🙂

    • Thanks Marti! I agree, the Japanese study is amazing, showing such a big change at such a young age. It makes you think about all the other things we don’t recognise or see or hear because we haven’t been exposed to them! Definitely a case for immersing kids in different situations young, and often.

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