July 13, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Olive Bradshaw delves into how and why we adapt our accents to those around us 

(By Olive Bradshaw on 20th December 2023)

When I came back from my first term at the University of Edinburgh in 2019, the first thing my family and friends had to say to me was about how my accent had totally changed. Suddenly I was extending my vowels and using words like ‘bizarre’ and, frankly, they could not get enough.   

I knew the friends I had made at university were fairly posh, but I was surprised that it only took a couple of months for me to entirely pick up their accents. And I wasn’t totally shocked; I could hear myself speak and it did feel quite foreign. Nevertheless, it led me to ask the question: was I changing my accent consciously in an attempt to fit in or was it something I couldn’t control?  

In an attempt to explain why my accent had changed so easily, and knowing that this was perhaps a distraction from the entrenched social hierarchies which actually underpinned this particular behaviour, I turned to science…  

The first explanation I came across is that we unconsciously adapt to sounding like the people we are around in order to make communication easier. In a recent study by speech and language researchers Patti Adank, Shirley-Ann Reuschemeyer and Harold Bekkering, Dutch participants were played sentences spoken in unfamiliar Dutch accents and asked to rate their intelligibility. Half of the participants then were asked to repeat the sentence in their own accent, and half were asked to vocally imitate the sentence. Both groups then rated the intelligibility of the accented sentences in a post-test. Those who imitated the accents grasped the meaning of the speech more rapidly. Although alternative explanations are possible, these results suggested that imitation may aid effective speech comprehension.  

I didn’t buy it. The similarity between my accent and the one I had picked up was already high – there wouldn’t be any misunderstandings and I doubt any communication of meaning or tone was lost. So, looking for an alternative explanation, I found claims that people who are judged as more empathetic tend to pick up accents more quickly. Now I’m listening…  

Accents are a sign of belonging to a group just as much as they are a sign of separation, and both your conscious and subconscious mind notice this. This causes us to mirror the people around us, which we do through our vocabulary, inflections and hand gestures. You might have heard of mirroring as a way to tell if your crush is into you – well we do that with our speech too. To grease the social wheels, so to speak.  

Commonly called the ‘chameleon effect’, psychologists Tanya Chartrand and John Bargh first observed the phenomenon they called ‘unintentional mirroring’ amongst college students in the 1990s. They claimed that subconsciously mirroring another person’s gestures, body language, voice modulation or accent could be attributed to the brain’s mirror neurons, motivated by the need to be more likeable and less threatening to those around us. For college students building social circles, this process of subtly resembling the people we engage with goes beyond facilitating understanding, and in fact allows us to bond. Imitation is said to be driven by a subconscious desire for empathy and connection; those seeking a close relationship are more likely to adapt to each other’s behaviours.  

Me? A freshly nineteen first-year student, desperately trying to make friends?…   

In a last-ditch attempt to avoid this unsatisfyingly obvious conclusion, I found another possible explanation – the claim that subconsciously adapting your accent could be rooted in the brain’s innate musicality.  

There are generally two types of language rhythms which linguists refer to as the language’s timing or isochrony. There are those with syllable timing – where each syllable in a language takes up roughly the same amount of time, and those with stress timing – where some syllables take up more time and there is a generally consistent length of time between stressed syllables. Spanish, for example, is a syllable timed language. In the sentence “¿Buenos días cómo estás?”, the syllables:  

“Buen – os – dí – as – có – mo – es – tás”  

each take up roughly the same amount of time. Most native British English accents are stress-timed languages, where certain syllables are given more time than others. For example, in the sentence “Let’s go to the park”, the syllables:  

“Let’s – go – to-the – park” 

are given varied amounts of time, markedly the syllables ‘to’ and ‘the’ are spoken very quickly, while the syllables ‘go’ and ‘park’ are markedly elongated. When speaking English, the difference in the timing of syllables is often what makes the accents of people with influences from syllable-timed languages stand out. 

This timing, paired with variations in pauses, lilts and intonations, all contribute to the musicality of an accent. It is not surprising, then, that musicians tend to be better language learners. They are better able to adopt to the rhythms of different dialects and accents, be that consciously or subconsciously, because musical practice improves the brain’s plasticity. This eye-opening Radio lab episode delves further into the musicality of language.  

One blindingly obvious nuance which I haven’t addressed yet is the fact that the way in which my accent changed in this case was that it became noticeably posher, and the perceived prestige of a ‘public-school’ accent definitely had a lot to do with it.  Britain is concretely divided by class. In fact, today, the argument can be made that language is the only thing which really demarcates class since occupation and income cross class boundaries.  

The distinction between received pronunciation and the ‘public-school’ accent, ubiquitous in the Houses of Parliament and leaders of Britain, is not merely linguistic; it is a marker of class, privilege and societal standing. Thus, my inadvertent shift towards this public-school pronunciation, aside from the desire to fit in, represents a deeper assimilation into the entrenched class structures of Britain – a realisation that, by adopting a posher accent, I unwittingly signalled assumptions about my background, education and socioeconomic status. That is to say, the reason my accent changed in this setting is perhaps different from how it might change to an accent which wasn’t so linked to class, like an Australian accent if I travelled to Sydney… By George, I think she’s got it!  

Going back and forth from university over the following years, the once-dramatic shifts in my accent began to plateau. A change which mirrored the evolution of my own self-awareness and my growing self-confidence. I was young and impressionable, stood at the intersection of identity and conformity and learning, gradually, to balance staying true to my roots and embracing the influences which shaped me during my university experience. Through exploring the currents of linguistic adaptation, I am reminded that our accents are not just sounds; they are reflections of our experiences, aspirations and the human desire to belong.