Imitating Someone’s Accent Makes It Easier to Understand Them

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.”

8 replies
  1. Robert
    Robert says:

    Interesting. I’d like to know the difference in personality types between the guys who imitated the accent, and those who didn’t. I’ve always wondered as to how this phenomenon affects some people, but not others.

    Also, I guess other forces are at play with the friend from Southern US – not wanting to seem too cut off from her family, for one. Also, I’m sure it’s much easier to pick up an old accent than a new one.

    I remember listening open-mouthed as a friend’s mother changed from a standard southern English accent to an almost incomprehensible Scottish accent in a conversation with her father.

    Reply
    • Caroline Mikolajczyk
      Caroline Mikolajczyk says:

      Hey Robert!i agree with you totally, im totally unable to do that myself to be honest, i mean, i can barely speak with an English accent as mine (French) is stuck with me…but i find it very interesting that people can do that to be honest, it’s like being a comedian. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Sarah Spencer
    Sarah Spencer says:

    This is an interesting point. As I am learning Spanish in Spain I have come across incidents where, for example, a British person might have a very convincing Spanish accent but not be particularly accurate in what they say. They however are much more likely to be understood than someone speaking accurate Spanish but in a very strong British accent.
    I find it very natural to pick up the accent around me, whatever situation I am in and I like spotting it when I see other people doing it. I have a French friend who learned English in Newcastle and has the most intriguing of accents!

    Reply
  3. Cassandra Scott
    Cassandra Scott says:

    I don’t know if changing your accent to match the person you are talking to makes you easier to understand, but I do think it is almost impossible to avoid. English is my native language. When I lived in Germany I started speaking as if everything was a question- going up at the end of all my sentences. In Edinburgh I sound mildly Scottish but back home near Inverness I talk like a proper highlander. I speak both French and German fluently and in my case this “changing accent” only occurs with English. I don’t even notice I am doing it!

    Reply

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