My Weird Talent: Phonetic Accommodation

No one believes me. Not even my family; they think I’m trying to be cool or something. They tell me to stop doing it, stop trying to impress people, just stop it.

But I can’t. 

And I finally decided to do some research into it.

I think it started when I was in grade school? I remember we were walking through some impressive executive building with lots of glass windows and my family was together and I started doing some faux British accent, copying what the EPL (English Premier League) commentators said during soccer games. It was entertaining to my grandparents; apparently, it was hilarious to see me doing this somewhat British accent.

But then as I grew older, I realized something bizarre;

I started to do it unconsciously. Or, maybe I did it before or I hadn’t interacted with people with noticeable accents before.

Either way, when I talk to people with accents, partway through the conversation, I’ll start mimicking them. And it’s not to belittle them or try to sound cool, it just happens and it is embarrassing and awkward, because often times it’s interpreted as being rude. I mean, when has mimicking ever gotten a good rep?

I became hyper aware of it and when I spoke to someone with an accent, I had to try really hard to speak in a neutral midwest American accent. It was stressful, knowing that I could instinctively slip into their accent on just a word.

For example, I had a British teacher in high school and when she asked a question, I would respond with her accent. It was hard to stop myself. And even now, in college, I still do so; we had a British presenter in one of my classes and I had to try incredibly hard to answer in a neutral voice. Even as I’m typing right now, I hear my words in an accent.

And then, when I went to China last summer, I hung out with mostly Aussies and that translates to Ashley speaks with an Aussie accent for a good month after she comes back to America. My English class actually thought I was British or Australian because for the first couple of classes, I spoke with a thick accent (and it didn’t help that the professor also spoke with a British accent).

Even now, when I read certain words, I slip into my somewhat Aussie accent. This has led to people loving when I read the Bible out loud in church.

But!

BUT!!!!

There’s a scientific name for this and discovering the term is such a relief.

Behold:

phonetic accommodation.

It’s when someone converges with an interlocutor (aka someone in dialogue). It’s also called spontaneous phonetic imitation.

I read some abstracts and snippets of theses about this and it seems like there’s differing opinions about it. There’s studies about nonnative speakers, different racial groups, and cross-linguistic groups. One study said that the phenomenon isn’t truly automatic; it’s happening subconsciously based on implicit socio-cognitive biases.

Okay, lots of big words. I had to look up some terms but in short, I might be flipping into different accents because of what society has taught me. Check out the list of socio-cognitive biases on Wikipedia; it’s a long list but quite fascinating.

Other people said that people with an uncertain identity might more easily mimic other accents. Which, okay, I do fit into that category too, haha. But on the same forum, this theory was shot down pretty quickly.

I think I fit in the most with what one person proposed; they moved a lot in their life and said that their phonetic accommodation ability is more like a survival technique. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any research to back it up, but I can see this being a thing. I don’t know how it’d be researched but it makes sense.

I’ve moved around a lot and many parts of my personality are shaped from moving every two to three years. My bubbly personality is innate but also part survival technique, from a childhood where I had to adapt to new friends and a new environment quickly. My quirky phonetic accommodation makes sense in this sense too; in Canada, I eventually picked up the Canadian accent and when I came back to the Midwest, I picked that up too. With my Aussie friends, it was a bit weird and I imagine if I go to India or Russia, that would be really bizarre too. But, one good thing is that my phonetic accommodation works outside of English too; when I was in Korea, although my Korean is sub-par, my accent quickly accommodated to the Seoul accent. And same with my French in Montreal.

So then it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s still awkward. And not common, as far as I’ve seen. If only I can find a practical thing I can apply this talent too…

///

A big hello to my readers a month later! That’s right, it’s already been a month since my last blog post. *ouch

But I’m back, thanks to a lovely comment on my Sam Kim “Seattle” analysis~

 

This reminded me why I blog; so I can connect and share with people. I want to have these conversations and make people think or laugh or smile or wonder.

I hope this post has done so for you, dear reader! And please do comment if you’d like to discuss more or give feedback~

Thanks to all of you guys you have stuck with me and read my thoughts 🙂

~ashley j chong

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