I moved to the UK about five years ago. I’ve embraced some British culture like queuing and Come Dine with Me, but I leave some things alone, like Black pudding. It seems over time my accent has done the same.
When I go home, people tell me I sound more British. When I’m in London, people immediately know I’m American from the way I speak.
Why do mixed accents happen? And why do people adapt their accents in certain situations?
How do accents happen?
Language is subtle, yet in our native tongues, we can hear subtle differences like how I can tell if someone is Canadian form how they say the word sorry. Accents are formed based on what we hear as children from those around us.
When it comes to accents, children pick up accents faster the younger they are and they begin to lose this ability from as early as one. For example, until the age of eight months, American and Japanese babies can tell the distinction between “ra” and “la.” Two months later, the Japanese babies lose this ability because it doesn’t have a big role in their language and the US babies become better at understanding this difference.
By the time babies are seven, their accents are unlikely to change. While someone past the age of seven is more than capable of becoming fluent in a new language, it’s unlikely they will be able to do so without an accent.
Do people change accents on purpose?
Bidialectalism is the changing of dialect in the same language. It’s largely subconscious and common in everyday life. For example, people don’t speak to employers the same way that they would speak to their best friends. People are more likely to do this if they come into regular contact with different versions of the same language, for example, me using UK or US English, however, there is a darker side to why some people change accents.
In the UK, almost one-third of people believe they’ve been discriminated against at some point in their life for their accent. According to the Daily Mail, one in five people in Britain have admitted to changing their accent to achieve their goals. This gives insight into the strong intuition people have towards fitting in and making a good first impression, and the biases we have against certain accents in society.
Many people will assume people who speak like them will be similar to them, and accent has been a way of identifying where someone grew up, the type of background they have and the class they belong to.
So, why do people change accents?
As social creatures, we never want to be rejected, especially over something we can control like how we sound in our native language.
Many people switch accents or put on a persona based on who they want to be or to avoid discrimination.
People view what they’re familiar with more positively. My guess is people change their accents as if to say “I am one of you” to make a good first impression. Can you blame them?
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