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Why Do People Mimic Accents

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Have you ever caught yourself imitating someone else’s accent or speech mannerisms after spending time with them? This can be especially obvious when their accent and speech are very different from your own.

Sometimes it can even be embarrassing- our friends might tease us if we come back from vacation with an ever-so-slightly different accent. Of course, the ‘vacation accent’ quickly fades once we’re back home, leading us to think it was a put-on, pretentious behavior.

This is not the case! Everyone does speech mimicking, but most people don’t know why. There’s a scientific explanation for why people copy each others’ accents, called accommodation theory.

Why We Imitate Accents – Accommodation Theory

Accommodation theory is studied in social science disciplines like psychology and linguistics because it affects a lot of our social behaviors, including speech. In short, linguistic accommodation, or speech convergence, is when our language becomes more like the language we’re exposed to.

It can happen at any level of language, including phonology (speech sounds; speech signs in sign language), how words are constructed (morphology), word order (syntax), and word choice (lexicon). It can happen over the course of a conversation and then fade after the conversation ends, but has more long-term effects when there is repeated exposure.

There’s also evidence that imitation depends on a variety of factors, some folks change their speech patterns and accent more than others. Here, we’ll look at some experiments on accommodation and what they mean for us as language users.

Imitation is a Social Behavior

Accommodation is in some ways an automatic social behavior— yawns and smiles are contagious because we perceive another’s behavior and our brains automatically mirror them.

But it’s often more complex than that, because various social and personal factors also impact who we mimic, and when. In a set of laboratory experiments, linguist Molly Babel found that accommodation behaviors were impacted by linguistic and social factors.

Study participants listened to words spoken by a Black male speaker and a White male speaker and were instructed to repeat the words they heard. Some participants also looked at a picture of the speakers as they repeated the words they heard.

Study participants imitated the speakers’ /æ/ vowel (as in ‘cat’), and /ɑ/ vowel (of ‘ball’), but imitated the vowels /i/, /o/, and /u/ much less. This difference was due to linguistic and not social factors.

Differences Between Men and Women

However, social factors also affected accommodation. Men mimicked the speech they heard automatically and didn’t change the amount they imitated over time. Women, on the other hand, tended to increase their accommodation behaviors over the course of the experiment.

The more attractive that women rated a male speaker, the more they imitated him. For male participants, the more unattractive they rated a male speaker, the more likely they were to imitate his vowels.

Furthermore, the more ‘pro-Black’ (or less ‘pro-White’) study participants scored in a bias test, the more likely they were to imitate the speech of the Black speaker. So, even though the imitation of the speakers’ vowels was an automatic process, the amount they converged with the speakers was mitigated by many factors.

Accommodation isn’t unique to language, nor is it unique to spoken language. We don’t justimitate the speech sounds or signs that others use, we mimic word choice and sentence structure as well.

Imitating Gestures in Sign Language

In an experiment on accommodation in dialects of British Sign Language, signers of different regional dialects imitated some of the regional word variants that their conversation partners used. This only happened about 14% of the time, which could be because their dialects were different— sometimes speakers increase the difference between themselves and their conversation partners in order to more strongly project their own identities.

In an experiment involving word imitation where dialect was not a source of difference, they accommodated 47.4% of the time. Again, we find that while accommodation might be an automatic process, many social factors play a role. We copy the words that others use, but we might do so less if we perceive them to be different from us and we (perhaps unconsciously) want to enforce that difference. Linguist Jevon Heath has found that personal factors, like personal autonomy, can also affect how much an individual accommodates.

There’s a lot scientists still have yet to learn about accommodation. While these experiments tell us what happens in a laboratory setting, accommodation in the real world is harder to study.

We do know that the effects of accommodation wear off once the stimulus is removed: your ‘vacation-accent’ goes away once you come home, and study participants don’t keep imitating language they heard or saw once the experiments are over.

However, if we’re exposed to new or different language use on a regular and long-term basis (say, the introduction of a new sound or word; moving to a new place), the way we talk/sign could change to become more like that of the language users around us.

Because accommodation affects every level of language, it is theorized to bring about long-term language change: over centuries, millennia, and even decades, the small adjustments we make to imitate each other can eventually add up.

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