Accent and ego

According to a study at the University of Haifa, the strength of your accent when speaking a foreign language depends, to some extent, on how much you like and respect the person you’re talking to. Your position in relation to the other language also affects your accent, something the article calls ‘language ego’.

I’ve noticed that people who identify strongly with a particular region or country are more likely to have a strong regional or national accent. Whereas people who don’t have such strong affiliations are more likely to tone down or switch off their accent and perhaps adopt another, or least aspects of another accent, to make it easier for others to understand them. This does depend on the circumstances though – in some cases people who wouldn’t normally emphasise their accent might do so to show group solidarity, or to signal their opposition to another group.

My accent in English sort of defaults to RP, but takes on a flavours from other accents depending on who I’m talking to. Though I come from Lancashire originally, I’ve never had a strong Lancashire accent and don’t strongly identify with that area. In Welsh I have a mid-Wales accent which is gradually becoming more northern. In Irish I have a strong Ulster accent, which I tone down somewhat when talking to Irish speakers from other regions. In Mandarin I have a Taiwanese accent, though I can do a sort of Beijing one as well, and in French I had a bit of a Languedoc accent which has morphed into something else now. These accents are a result of spending time in the regions where they’re used, so you could say that I identify to some extent with all them.

15 thoughts on “Accent and ego

  1. Yes, I recognize this: in my childood I lived in Zealand. I had not a pretty time overthere while my sister loved it. She’s still great in that accent while I have forgotten most of it. After that province we went to Fryslân where I enjoyed a great period in my life. For years I live in a Dutch speaking area but I’m still fluent in Frisian. In English I mainly adopted the Midlands accent of a good friend but as a child I learned NY-slang…

  2. Very interesting. I personally notice that when speaking with other non-native English speakers, I either imitate their accent or do just a strong accent, except when they’re Spanish speakers like me, so I wonder how does it work for people talking in a foreign language with someone who shares the same mother tongue. I guess I make that exception unconsciously, because I don’t seem to need the Hispanic accent to empathize with other Spanish speakers. Also, it is the accent that I’ve tried early on to erase to improve a proper pronunciation. Besides the fact that sharing a mother tongue is enough to empathize, also most Spanish-speakers in the Americas (where I come from) do a good English accent, which then makes it unnecessary as well to stress my accent to empathize with them.

  3. Let me take something back, not ” most Spanish-speakers in the Americas do a good English accent” , in any case, just quite a few that I know, but not most, who probably have lived in the United States. Most actually have a strong accent, which I also sometimes have, depending on the situation.

  4. When talking to people whom I like (in English), my accent starts resembling theirs after only 30 minutes or so, and I pick up their manner of speech. I don’t do this intentionally. In fact I probably couldn’t do it intentionally if I wanted to.

    When I speak my own mother tongue, this doesn’t happen nearly as often.

  5. A friend of mine from Coventry went to live in L.A. when he was 25 for 10 years and never picked up any of the accent.
    He did however use an american accent when saying certain words to american people, but only because he said they wouldn’t understand him otherwise. One example was this in a bar:
    ‘Can you bring the drinks out to the patio?’
    If he said ‘patio’ with a ‘t’ or a glottal stop, he said they never understood what he meant so he just resorted to saying it how they say it, with more of a ‘d’ than a ‘t’, like ‘padio’.

  6. In the past year, I’ve been trying to alter my native American accent. I used to make no distinction between short i and e before nasal consonants (pen and pin are both pin, for example). I pronounced can (and every short a before n and m) how some Englanders might pronounce (or rhyme with) cairn. I’ve since replaced the “air” vowel with the same vowel in bat. As for consonants, I’ve been replacing my glottal stops with actual t’s at the end of words. These changes have gone unnoticed, which is important because I don’t want to speak obnoxiously and pretentiously. I was inspired to alter my accent because of a new-found respect for standards and because my accent could be jarring to anyone not using it.

    When speaking with foreigners in English, I try to speak naturally but understandably. I tend to distinguish t’s and d’s between vowels, as in latter and ladder. I don’t normally do this and, since it is standard to flap the t’s and d’s in the US, I won’t be adopting the distinction.

    I’ve been told I speak German with almost no accent. I can articulate the German r and pure (or nondiphthongal) long vowels and front, rounded vowels (i.e., ü and ö). My accent mostly comes from my stumbling over consonants in normal speech and the rhythm of my speech. The pronunciation of vocalic r (or syllable-final r) and the ach- and ich-laut also contribute to an accent (as in a deviation from a spoken standard). In German, the syllable-final r can be pronounced exactly like a German a or like any other r, but most commonly like something in-between. The ich-laut isn’t always an actual palatal fricative (as in the h in a harsh pronunciation of hue) but articulated more forward in the mouth and moving nearer to a sch-laut. The ach-laut can be divided into an ach- and “Buch-laut” and can vary in harshness. (The ich-laut could similarly probably be divided into ich- and Elch-laut.) I pronounce words in German as the dictionary indicates and I haven’t ever been to any German-speaking country. Therefore, I don’t have–that I’m away of–any regional accent.

  7. Dutch is my first language. In a conversation in that language with non native Dutch speakers I tend to imitate their accent. It is a bit like talking to little children: going to their level to make it understandable. With native English speakers, talking to me in Dutch, I might do this too, but mostly I switch over to English. This also counts for the other languages I master enough so I can talk in it without inner translation.

  8. I have been told in Argentina that I speak Spanish with an Argentinian accent. That is strange, because I’ve spent no more than a couple of weeks in Argentina in my life, whereas I’ve been many times to Chile and Spain, and spent a lot of time in both, especially Chile. Assuming it’s true (which I’m not sure it is) I interpret it as a consequence of exaggerating some characteristics of Chilean speech (like the pronunciation of ll and y) that bring them closer to Argentinian, and not using others (like pronouncing ch like English sh) that are not characteristic of Argentina. On the other hand I am guilty of at least one chilenismo (pronouncing a final s like an h, or dropping it altogether) that is much less characteristic of Argentina.

  9. Peter j Franke raises the rarely discussed matter of Dutch speakers accommodating to native English speaking Dutch learners by yapping back in English and thus making it fearsomely difficult for us to improve our Dutch.

  10. Ah yes, this is a problem I’ve encountered every time I’ve gone to the Netherlands. I had a Dutch friend in school (I grew up in New England, in the US) when I was twelve, who moved back to Noord Brabant after a year in the States. We kept in touch and I learned some Dutch from her over the years (I had been studying German since 10 and I’m fluent in it now–it’s my best foreign language), but on each of my three trips to the Netherlands, I found it almost impossible to practice my skills. I could listen to those around me, but every attempt to speak was met with a response in English, almost without fail.
    I’m a bit aggravated by this, but never at the person doing it to me–I imagine they’re only trying to help, or just make it easier for both of us to communicate–plus, I’m sure it’s a rare American who shows up and wants to practice their Dutch.

  11. I think a regional accent should refer to how you speak in general (the way your words flow together, the actual vocabulary you use, etc), rather than the pronunciation of individual or isolated words and sounds(pen, pin, ladder, latter, etc). Once you get to a certain level, this is the hardest part. I mean, hypothetically-speaking,even if you can produce all the individual sounds of human language with all the possible variations, it does not guarantee that you will “sound” like someone from a certain region if you try to speak naturally. In fact, the more analytical you get about certain sounds, the more UN-natural your speaking may become…

    I’m also wary about people who say things like “I’ve been told I sound like someone from…” Unless you have spent a considerable amount of time in a certain area, or among a certain crowd, I think this is meaningless. If you have not had “real” experiences with a language, I would say that a productive compliment given by a native speaker would be something like “I don’t know where your accent is from, but you speak very well, very clearly”.

    I’m more wary about the idea of speaking with “no accent”. This is BS and everyone knows it. Its like saying you don’t you smell like anything (自分の臭さはわからない).

  12. My native language is Finnish and I speak the Heinola dialect. I lived in Helsinki for 3,5 years but never started using the local accent. I spent long periods in Ristiina when I was a child and I always came back home speaking the Ristiina dialect. I still do sometimes. Especially with words that have two CV syllables (as in “mopo” or “kala” or “mato”). My best friend’s boyfriend is from Turku and my friend always starts speaking the Turku dialect when she speaks with him on the phone and she can’t stop afterwards.

  13. Two unrelated things:

    (1) the whole “I have an X accent” thing normally means that on some of the linguistic options (in spanish how do you pronounce “ll” or word final -s, in english, how you pronounce “a” in “path”) you have taken a series of choices which belong to one region. Most of us don´t have a full “X” accent, as that involves vocab choices etc etc and not simply phonology. Sad truth, which years of living in Chile have taught me. I hate the accent here and have intentionally avoided it. As a result my accent is totally unplacable. I had my best over compliment from my shiatsu therapist last week. He used to be a nationally renowned actor here and speaks very good english (ie the exact sort of person who can spot at 100 yards an English person speaking Spanish) and he said it was impossible to place my accent. I don´t sound Chilean, I don´t sound Spanish, nor mexican or Colombian. I don´t sound anything. People just have no idea where I am from and normally guess something sort of central american (colombia and Mexico tend to be the most popular). Apart from the Central Americans who are totally clueless.

    (2) On Dutch. I´m moving to Holland next year and so am going to relearn Dutch (I lived in Flemish speaking Brussel for a year when I was 19). I have noticed my Dutch tends to turn into German or Spanish when I get stuck (I have started the “talk to yourself” thing which is an essential part of my language learning). I have already worked out how I´m going to stop people using English on me: I´m going to speak to them in Spanish when they try their English on me. 😉 If I can kid Latinos into thinking that I´m not an English speaker when I speak Spanish, I can do it with the Dutch too. 🙂

  14. From Tommy: “I’m more wary about the idea of speaking with “no accent”. This is BS and everyone knows it. Its like saying you don’t you smell like anything.”

    Of course you can have no smell–hydrogen doesn’t!–and you can have no accent. I would say I speak the General American (GA) English accent without any accent. Contradictory? No, I used accent twice with the same meaning but in two different contexts. No one can speak English accentless because there is no one standard accent. (Although, a rhotic variant of RP and a conservative or pedantic variant of GA come close to merging.) One can only speak an English variety accentless. Accents set apart or distinguish–they accent–speech. Speech which doesn’t set itself apart from what’s expected, can properly be called “accentless”. (While GA may be an accent to speakers outside North America, it mostly isn’t to those inside.) I have encountered people from particularly Sweden and the Netherlands who speak American English so well it wasn’t obvious they weren’t American, at least initially. They were to me (but not to Britons, say) accentless English speakers. These sorts of speakers are on the English version of Deutsche Welle Journal. Some sound American–and very well could be–but there is something noticeably off about their speech. Sometimes, they mangle a word so badly it becomes obvious: If they were American or had even been residing in America, they would have probably heard the word they butchered that day and avoided the mistake. If I met these newsreaders in person, I wouldn’t immediately conclude they were foreign but from some part of the USA I don’t know much about or just speaking in a manner peculiar to themselves (i.e., with an idiolect).

  15. James:
    I like your idea about responding in a different language while in the Netherlands (or in any country where you want to learn the language, but the locals won’t cooperate.)
    My main problem is whenever I’m there, it’s been with other friends, also Americans, so usually people hear me speaking English with a relatively standard Northeastern U.S. (Connecticut) accent. In the future though, I could try to step aside from my friends when attempting to talk to someone in Dutch, and respond in German if they speak English to me, and they’d hear (to them) native-sounding German, and we’d go from there. (I’ve been told by Germans that they can’t quite place my accent at first, although within five minutes or so it becomes clear to them I’m not a native speaker.)

    I take your point about “accent vs accentless”, but I guess I must disagree on semantics–if you want to be technical about it, eveyrone has an accent (of course). Just because you can speak in a way that isn’t identifiably regional doesn’t mean you don’t still have an accent, as you prove in your post–one might speak a variety of American English that would prevent many Americans from pinning down where you’re from, but a Brit could still make you for an American from a mile away. I suppose “accentless” would only apply under stricter conditions–i.e. the speech community that is listening to you can’t place you.
    But just because someone else doesn’t think you have an accent doesn’t mean you dont!
    Perhaps I’m being overly pedantic though…I’m just in that frame of mind today.

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