Accents are funny things. They can make what you say sound crisper, muddier, foolish or can give you an air of authority. But the way we acquire them and apply them to daily speech is thanks to an interesting mix of influences that go far beyond your heritage and upbringing.
We all know that 'one person' who went on holidays to New York for a week and returned with a twang. Or that one guy who watched too much British television and now pronounced all his vowels like the Queen.
Well, I have a confession: I am that person. My accent changes from American to Australian to Indian based on my mood, social situation, the language I’m speaking, and whether I am speaking or singing said language.
Video above: Lindsay Lohan has developed a new foreign accent
You're just better at empathising with people
According to a 2010 study by a research group at the University of California, Riverside, people subconsciously mimic other accents due to a phenomenon called "the chameleon effect".
The chameleon effect describes our human instinct to “empathise and affiliate” with other people.
"We intentionally imitate subtle aspects of each other's mannerisms, postures and facial expressions,” says Professor Lawrence Rosenblum, who headed the study. “We also imitate each other's speech patterns, including inflexions, talking speed, and speaking time. Sometimes we even take on the foreign accent of the person to whom we are talking, leading to embarrassing consequences."
The study asked a group of volunteers to lip-read 80 simple words mouthed to them. The subjects were then given two words, written down, and ask to say aloud the word they believe was just mouthed to them.
The study concluded subjects would often say the word in the same accent used by the silent speaker, rather than use their own. Subjects were not asked to mimic the accent of the speaker, but seemed to take on the new cadence subconsciously.
Ok. So that might explain why I sound American when I talk to my Californian cousins, and why I sound Aussie when I’m at work. But that doesn’t explain why my parents who’ve lived in Australia for most of their lives still carry a distinct subcontinental accent.
The older you are, the more 'deaf' you get... well, sort of
According to Dr Christina Schelletter, head of English Language and Communication at the University of Hertfordshire, it’s because some accents are harder to shake than others.
“Non-native speakers [try] to substitute their native sounds for non-equivalent sound in the target language,” she says. “There are individual differences in terms of how strong an accent is, but overall, age and length of exposure to the second language very much contribute to the accent.”
Video above: This four-year-old speaks seven languages fluently
A baby can grasp minute differences in accents as early as six-months-old, and with repetition and reinforcement, the child forms and mimics language and accent according to these sounds. These sounds become entrenched in a child’s brain and can be hard to remove later in life.
The older we get the less capable humans are of identifying, let alone adopting, these minute accent difference; it’s called phonological deafness.
Of course, some people are better at “tuning in to the sounds, stress and intonation of the other language” than others, says Dr Schelletter. It’s a function of “musicality”, she says.
This musicality also explains why it’s easier to pick up a new accent for a language you are already fluent in than for one you don’t speak so well.
Music covers up intonation mistakes when you singing
So what about when people have an accent when they sing, but fail to hold onto a foreign sound when they speak?
Take K-Pop idols, many of whom don’t speak a lick of English but still pronounce English lyrics with a flawlessly Western accent.
Accent reduction teacher and speech pathologist, Illana Shydio, says most people identify foreign accents by a series of mispronunciations. However, many people tend to overlook the importance of “intonation”.
“There are actually a variety of complex and subtle factors at work that cause a native speaker to perceive somebody as having an accent,” she says. “Intonation, cadence, rhythm, inflexion, word stress, tone and pitch comprise a great part of what a listener perceives in a person's speech.”
Video above: K-Pop Idol Dean sings Bruno Mars flawlessly
Intonation refers to the melody and stresses of syllables in words, and phrases in sentences. For example, in English, we intonate upwards when asking a question and intonate downwards when saying a statement. These cadences can vary based on emotion, too.
“However, intonation, melody and pitch of speech get rendered moot when someone is singing, because they simply use the melody of the song, rather than the subtle intonation patterns of speech that took the native speaker a lifetime to learn!” explains Shydio.
“The intonation of speech is displaced by the song's melody and rhythm.”
So the next time Lindsay Lohan starts flaunting a bizarre Mediterranean accent in an interview, or you start rolling your “r’s” after binge-watching The Good Wife, you know it’s not because you’re weird. It’s because you’re empathetic, have a good ear, and are perhaps even a little musical.