Should we mimic other people\’s accents?

Interesting piece of research: that if we mimic other people\’s accents when talking to them, we understand what they are saying better.

As if by using their accent (as best we can mind) we\’re training our own ears to understand them better: not, as some might think, in order that they understand us better (you know, on the basis that they\’re so thick that we have to adapt our tones to their).

I have to admit that I\’m a horror for doing exactly this. When living in the US (or, over the years, just working with septics) I do take on a very mid Atlantic accent (and you can even see it in some of my writing, \”an herb\” for example). But when talking to the Brit  next to me will switch back, entirely unconsciously, to the rather archaic BBC I have.

Or when I was working in an East End pub, quite happily wittering on about \”nuffink\”.

But this only works for me in English, with other variants of English. When in another language (not that I speak any others fluently, but over the years have had conversational French, business Russian and supermarket Portuguese) I try as best I can to get the local accent right. And when someone else is not a native speaker of one of the variants of English, when someone is, for example, French, Portuguese or Russian, but we are conversing in English, my accent becomes even more archaically BBC….World Service of 30 years ago almost. Exactly the opposite of what I do with other English speakers.

On the grounds that that is, if spoken clearly and slowly (but no, not loudly), the variant of English which is easiest for a non-native speaker to understand.

Slightly odd and entirely unthought through: I think just all these years abroad have trained me into what works best for me.

I would add though that my native Bathonian never gets used more than a mile or two from Bath Town Centre. No one more than a mile or two from there understands it anyway, making it a singularly unuseful accent to have.

10 thoughts on “Should we mimic other people\’s accents?”

  1. A slightly odd observation:

    A friend comes from Lille in northern France, speaks with a Lilloise accent. (Ch’ti I think they call it. Some sort of french joke surrounds that?)
    She speaks reasonable english, lived in London some years, but with a very pronounced french accent.
    She can understand really strong Glaswegian & for that matter Geordie. And I, an East End Londoner, can’t.
    She does the translations.

  2. I have to admit that I’m a horror for doing exactly this.

    And I thought it was just me! My kids used to wet themselves laughing whenever we went to the US or Canada and I spoke in a local accent. It just comes naturally, presumably an unconscious desire to fit in. (Also happens in the UK where there are regional accents.)

  3. “that is, if spoken clearly and slowly .. the variant of English which is easiest for a non-native speaker to understand”: I’ve often read this claim, but never seen any evidence for it. Is there any?

    Tim adds: Other than anecdote, no, not much. When BT placed their international directory enquiries they put it in Inverness. The Highland accent being the most carefully pronounced, thus most widely understood. But BBC isn’t that far away from that.

  4. Some do, some don’t. IMO it is perfectly reasonable, even if inconsciously done, because the whole point of speech is to be understood, and by adopting the local accent you maximise understanding and minimise the inconvenience you visit on your listener. It can however be lol in the mouths of foreign foorballers who have larnt English with a pronounced geordie (or scouse, whatever) accent.

    These days, however, I would have thought mid-atlantic was more widely heard overseas than BBC.

  5. Most people from the large English conurbations (to which I’d add all Glaswegians) sound to me as though they have a speech impediment.

  6. Putting aesthetics to one side, the Highland Welsh, and English rural accents seem to me to be more comprehensible than the accents of the UK’s large conurbations. Northumbrian is far more comprehensible than Geordie, Dales Yorkshire than the accent of Leeds/Bradford, the East Anglian burr to estuary, and so on.

  7. “Most people from the large English conurbations (to which I’d add all Glaswegians) sound to me as though they have a speech impediment.”

    But why do so few Glaswegians or Geordies tone down the accent for general consumption? Is it because they have little of interest to impart?
    Last one I had conversation with I intentionally lapsed into broadest Cockney with added Yiddish for the fun of it & got a complaint that he couldn’t understand me ¦ ¬P

  8. Pete, that’s very interesting. My (Glaswegian) father, who speaks excellent French, has often been asked if he’s from Lille by native speakers.

    As for failing to tone it down, I think it’s mainly arrogance: a “why should I?” attitude. Although, having said that, it’s only when speaking to non-Scots that I realise quite how thick my own accent is. Suddenly I hear all those “rrr”s and “ach”s that I usually take for granted. 🙂

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