The accent can carry lots of weight in conversation

A rose by any other name may still smell as sweet, but if the name is said with an accent, there are unexpected complexities that are being unraveled now by scientists. And understanding these complexities may be of value to foreigners living in a country where the principal language is not their own.

Expats may notice that as they talk to Costa Ricans their body language and accent changes.

That is not unusual, according to a recent article in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. It said that imitating someone who speaks with a regional or foreign accent may actually improve understanding.

“If people are talking to each other, they tend to sort of move their speech toward each other,” said Patti Adank, of the University of Manchester, who cowrote the study. People don’t only do this with speech, she says. “People have a tendency to imitate each other in body posture, for instance in the way they cross their arms.” She and her colleagues devised an experiment to test the effect of imitating and accent on subsequent comprehension of sentences spoken in that accent.

The experiment used Dutch students who were challenged with an unfamiliar Dutch dialect. People who had imitated the accent did much better at understanding the sentences than others, according to the results.

“When listening to someone who has a really strong accent, if you talked to them in their accent, you would understand better,” Ms. Adank said.

If someone puts on, say, a fake Southern accent when talking to a resident of the U.S. State of Georgia, the southerner might not think the
intention is friendly. But when a speaker’s brain subtly and unconsciously shifts the voice to sound more like the listener’s, it appears to be deploying a useful strategy, said the summary from the Association for Psychological Science.

In a more complex report, researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel said that more empathy one has for another, the lighter the accent
will be when speaking in a second language. That study was published in the International Journal of Bilingualism.

The research said that both personal and sociopolitical aspects have an influence on accent in speaking a second language, and that teachers giving instruction in languages as second languages, especially among minority groups, must relate to the social and political connection when teaching.

A study in Scotland using magnetic resonance imaging showed that the brain of Scots responded differently when they listened to speakers with Scottish accents than to speakers with American or British accents.

“The initial results suggest that such vocal samples somehow reflect group membership or social identity, so that ‘in-group’ voices are processed differently from the ‘out-group,'” said researcher Patricia Bestelmeyer, based on research at the University of Glasgow. The results suggests that people process words spoken with their own accent more quickly and effortlessly than other accents.

A University of Chicago study found that a foreign accent undermines a person’s credibility in ways that the speaker and the listener don’t consciously realize. Because an accent makes a person harder to understand, listeners are less likely to find what the person says as truthful, researchers found. The problem of credibility increases with the severity of the accent, the study determined.

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