Have you ever been in the uncomfortable situation where you have accidentally imitated someone else’s accent? I have. While traveling, a British woman approached me asking for directions, where I responded “yes, of course” in a British accent. Or the one time I said “sorry” in a Spanish accent when conversing in English with a Spanish speaker. *shakes my head*. While this is embarrassing beyond, research reveals that imitating someone’s accent subconsciously, actually says that you are a good person (*wipes sweat off forehead).
An accent is a sociolinguistic term to describe a specific pronunciation in a language, influenced by a speaker’s previous acquired languages, the time in which they learned a new language, their socio-economic status, and ethnicity. Therefore, someone from India will have a different accent than someone living in Japan. As humans, we naturally try to bond with individuals who we are interacting with — to find similarities and find a connection between ourselves. We imitate people’s speech patterns, the words that they use, and now research from the University of California reveals that this is the reason why we “subconsciously mimic” accents as well.
The experiment had participants watch videoclips of international speakers saying words, without sound. The participants were given one correct word and one incorrect word, and had to determine what the international speaker on-screen was saying. To determine the certain word, almost every participant imitated the accent of the international speaker saying a certain word to have a better understanding of what they were saying — without being told to do so.
Researchers concluded that this accent imitation is a sign of empathy, to help us better understand someone. Researchers also applied this study to daily life, and explain that the reason we imitate accents when speaking to someone is for the same reason — we are trying to better relate to them subconsciously: “This unintentional imitation could serve as a social glue, helping us to affiliate and empathize with each other. But it also might reflect deep aspects of the language function. Specifically, it adds to evidence that the speech brain is sensitive to — and primed by — speech articulation, whether heard or seen. It also adds to the evidence that a familiar talker’s speaking style can help us recognize words.” (Rosenblum, 2010).
While it may be awkward, it is a sign of helping us better connect to others. What is your perspective on this topic?
University of California — Riverside. “Humans imitate aspects of speech we see.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 August 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/08/100805103907.htm>.