The accent on understanding

Of all the accents surely the Scots and Irish have the most lyrical and entrancing brogues. Accents don’t have to be this broad though, even within Australia for instance, different accents exists between Adelaide and Brisbane. This is not just a random musing on the existence of accents but a lead in to the idea that accents actually play an important role in your communication.

Have you ever been speaking to someone who has a different accent to your own and found yourself imitating that accent? If so, you are not alone. New research has shown that we often change our accent to match that of the person we are talking to. Just like we mirror each other’s body language, we also copy elements of speech patterns. It turns out that this imitation is not just a form of flattery but also serves a real purpose.

To make sure that all participants in the study were unfamiliar with the accent being used, the experimenters invented a new accent. The participants (who were Dutch) listened to 100 sentences in the unfamiliar accent. Some of them were told to repeat the sentences using the same accent, some were told to only listen, others were told to repeat the sentences using their own accent, and others were asked to transcribe the sentences complete with strange vowel sounds.

When they were given comprehension tests it was found that those people who had imitated the accent did much better at understanding the sentences than other people.

It might be a touch offensive to completely copy someone’s accent while speaking to them but when your brain subconsciously and subtly shifts your voice to sound more like your interlocutor’s it is actually doing it to enhance your understanding of each other.

It is tempting to ponder how using this knowledge might enhance global relations. If the American President were to adopt a Chinese accent would he have more understanding of their position and vice versa? The flaw in this strategy would be that the unskilled imitator usually ends up sounding like a mildly constipated Indian regardless of the accent they are intending to deploy.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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