I have a friend from the southern United States, and I can always tell when she’s on the phone with someone from home with a southern accent. Her drawl gives it away, becoming more and more pronounced the longer she talks. If the person has a strong accent, by the end of the call she’ll sound just like Scarlett O-Hara in Gone With the Wind. I often make of fun of her for it, but as it turns out, a new study demonstrates that imitating the accent of the person you are speaking to actually makes it easier to understand them.
The University of Manchester’s Patti Adank, co-author of the study, explained to Science Daily that my friend’s unconscious reaction to hearing a strong southern US accent is actually perfectly natural:
“If people are talking to each other, they tend to sort of move their speech toward each other. People have a tendency to imitate each other in body posture, for instance in the way they cross their arms.”
But why do we instinctively do this? To see if this tendency has any benefits, Adank and her team had Dutch volunteers listen to different sentences read in a made-up, and therefore unfamiliar, Dutch accent. Some volunteers repeated the sentence as it was spoken, copying the made-up accent. Others repeated the sentences without copying the accent, while a third group wrote down what they heard.
Then, the volunteers listened to different sentences in the made-up accent. The volunteers who had repeated the first sentences while mimicking the accent found the second group of sentences much easier to understand than the other volunteers did. According to Ms. Adank:
“When listening to someone who has a really strong accent, if you talked to them in their accent, you would understand better.”