Being an accent mimic can go one of two ways. Either you can deliberately imitate any person on the block, and entertain everybody with your renditions of Christopher Walken and Jennifer Lopez, or it's subconscious, and you find yourself reproducing the accent of your new classmate, boyfriend, or boss. To their faces. Which makes for some supremely awkward social moments. But what makes us good accent mimics — and why do some of us get notoriously "wandering" accents when faced with somebody else's?
I am a supreme subconscious accent mimic. I once sent my Australian brother into fits by answering a phone call with a British mate and immediately, unconsciously slipping into cut-glass crisp-vowel English. My Uruguayan driving instructor thought I was making fun of him. And Aussies I meet in England no longer think I ever went near Sydney, let alone grew up there for 21 years. It does funny things to your identity, not knowing which direction your vowels are going to go today. But it turns out that a wandering accent isn't a flaw, or some bizarre act of mockery; it's part of normal human social behavior, and it seems to have some pretty amazing psychological reasons behind it.
Whether this is comforting or not depends on how mortifying you find the idea of coming back from study abroad with a British accent. But either way, be assured: you're just doing it to try and make friends.
1. It's More Common Than You Think
Contrary to popular belief, the idea of a wandering accent is actually more common than you might believe. One misconception about it is that it stems from a kind of poorly founded personal identity; if you're an innate people-pleaser or intent on blending in, the thinking goes, you're more likely to want to fit in with a crowd as much as possible, and that extends to accents. However, as we'll see, it's actually a pretty strong part of human interaction — but it may only show up if you spend a prolonged period with people with radically different accents.
2. Musicians Are More Likely To Be Affected
This one might explain Madonna's adopted British "accent."
Another theory, as yet not quite understood, is that a brain's innate "musicality" may affect how easily they can slip into the rhythms of another dialect or accent. Accents are hugely musical; stresses, pauses and lilts on words are the real way in which one language-speaker distinguishes herself from another. It's known that musicians tend to be better language learners because of the effect that musical practice has on the brain's plasticity; this may have a further impact on how easily the brain can slip into accents, deliberately or not. If you're a musician, chances may be higher that you subconsciously mimic accents at parties.
3. It's Part Of "The Chameleon Effect"
The important thing to realize about a subconscious wandering accent is that you aren't actually doing it to be rude or mean. (If you're doing it on purpose to make fun of somebody, you're an a*hole. Stop it.) It's actually seen as part of a much broader spectrum of human social interaction, where we subconsciously mimic the people around us in order to seem more "in tune" with them. It's got the spectacular name "the chameleon effect".
The chameleon effect is actually pretty famous in psychology. It was first really discussed in the '90s by two psychologists, Tanya Chartrand and John Bargh, who discovered what they called "unintentional mirroring" in interactions between college students. Basically, by imitating another person's gestures, body position, head tilt, voice modulation and, yep, accent, you're trying to make yourself look more like them, and hopefully seem less threatening and more likeable. Hence why it shows up a lot in college students, who are trying to build their own social circle.
It's thought to be a pretty ancient part of human behavior, and it's embedded deep in the brain. The responsibility for picking up on another person's actions and speech and imitating them falls to the brain's "mirror neurons," which have the explicit duty of subconsciously controlling our interactions so we resemble the people we're talking to. Evidently, our cavemen brains feel safer around people who talk, look, and act like us, and mirror neurons are there to make it happen. Pretty fascinating.
4. It Makes You Understand & Be Understood
The accent imitation aspect of the chameleon effect has its own unique advantages. Speech pattern and modulation is a huge part of making ourselves understood, and various studies in accents have shown that imitating an accent subconsciously is actually a way to get your meaning across smoothly — which is a pretty crucial part of any social interaction.
A report by the Association of Psychological Science on the phenomenon talks about a Dutch study where volunteers listened to people talking in an unfamiliar accent, and then either wrote what they said down, listened again, or actually said it themselves while imitating the accent. The results? The people who'd done imitations — no matter how terrible they were — grasped the meaning of the other person's speech much more rapidly. Boom: actual conversation achieved.
5. It Comes From A Place Of Empathy
The chameleon effect doesn't just make us easier to understand — it also appears to make us bond more. A 2010 study from the University of California found that imitating an accent subconsciously often comes from a desire to feel empathy with a person, or to feel a strong connection with them. You're more likely to imitate an accent, in other words, if you really want to feel close to the person who's got it, and to share in their feelings. Hence why couples are likely to take on each others' accents with more rapidity than workmates or passing acquaintances.
The problem with this, of course, is that accents are actually a pretty tricky thing. Imitation, as everybody who's ever done it accidentally will probably know, can actually lead to social break-ups rather than more empathy and cohesion. Embarrassment is probably not what the caveman brain had in mind when it came up with the chameleon effect, but alas, it's sometimes what results.
6. Severe Accent Change Can Be A Result Of Brain Trauma
Subconscious accent shifts tend, in most people, to be in response to the accents they're hearing around them. But there's another type, called Foreign Accent Syndrome, in which a person encounters some kind of traumatic brain injury and suddenly begins to talk in what sounds like another accent altogether — often, bewilderingly, one that has no relation to where they live or the people around them. Sounds funny, but it's actually pretty tragic — because they often can't alter it, or make themselves understood more easily.
It was first described in 1947, but the brain damages that can lead to Foreign Accent Syndrome are actually legion. Strokes, concussions, heart attacks, MS, migraines: it just takes one trauma, and suddenly a German speaker will be talking with an accent that sounds Chinese. It's still a pretty rare and under-researched syndrome, so we don't actually know what precise bits of the brain are damaged — but it's clear that the speakers aren't actually speaking in another accent. They're really mixing things up, stressing all kinds of different syllables and giving their speech the wrong rhythms. A person with Foreign Accent Syndrome isn't imitating anything in particular; it's the listener who will "place" their accent somewhere specific.
So next time you feel awkward at the supermarket after accidentally giving a Russian lilt to your responses to the cashier, be reassured: you're not actually a closet racist, or having some sort of bizarre stroke. You're just trying to make yourself more easily understood. Now go hide until the blushes stop.