- Laura Blitt
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It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what kind of Spanish you speak. If I talk for more than ten minutes, it’s inevitable: my Portino accent from nearly three decades in London will fade further, and in the blink of an eye, I’ll sound like you.
Sorry, I found that intolerable. I found this intolerable. It’s not easy to pick up the accent of a country you don’t know when your interlocutor looks at you with the slightest suspicion that you’re making fun of him, listening to his way of speaking.
But over time, I realized that there was nothing I could do to hold on to the “correct” way of speaking, and I gave up on conversing with Andean tones, coastal accents, and Spanish zettas where they shouldn’t be.
However, my choice of words is intentional. Contagion got me into the habit of saying “muscarilla” instead of “barbijo,” years ago I said “falta” to “pollera,” “montevilla” instead of “montega,” and left to make a blazer. Room for blazers.
Fortunately, English mimicry is subtle. In my early years the accent from Belfast, Northern Ireland dominated (thanks to a friend), then the accent from Edinburgh, Scotland took over (thanks to another friend’s husband).
And, as I recently discovered, I have fallen victim to a phenomenon called linguistic assimilation, a phenomenon that, to a greater or lesser degree, happens to all of us.
Phonological and Linguistic Integration
“When we refer to accent change, accent pattern, we’re talking about phonological assimilation,” explains Zuzana Erdoza, professor of linguistics at the National Autonomous University of the State of Mexico, to BBC Mundo.
But in general, “when we listen to other people speak we don’t just pick up the accent, we pick up their lexicon. That is, the common words of a particular group or group. A particular area,” he adds.
The words another person uses, or the way he pronounces a sentence, the way he constructs its structure, is what we call linguistic integration.
Although imitation of pronunciation is an unconscious act, adopting the grammatical structure (for example, using the active or passive form of the verb) and the vocabulary used by our interlocutor is a choice.
There are several reasons for this speech change. One of the reasons has to do with social acceptance, Ms. Erdosova explains.
“In every society, there are certain relationships, hierarchies and those who know more about this adapt their speech to be acceptable. If I decide to merge with the way the other person speaks, I am integrating and some identity bond”, explains the linguist.
Whereas, if we do the opposite – called linguistic differentiation – “I consciously mark a social distance between myself and my interlocutor”.
Lacey Wade, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, agrees when she says that people consciously or unconsciously change their speech to show “connection” with their interlocutors.
It’s a way of saying, “Hey, I’m just like you.”
“It’s a way to show them that you like them or that you want them to like you,” she adds. “(…) Even if we don’t realize we’re doing it, that doesn’t mean it’s not a socially motivated gesture.”
“Sometimes we catch ourselves doing it (…) and continue when we see a positive social benefit or stop when we feel it’s something we don’t want to do,” says Lacey Wade.
Another reason for convergence has to do with our desire to communicate.
“We talk better when we’re on the same page and using the same words because we understand better who’s talking like us,” says Ms. Wade.
A sense of speaking the “same language” helps improve communication.
Third, he claims that it is an automatic cognitive effect of understanding language.
Personality and language ability
When we hear someone speak, we store their sounds in our memory, and research indicates that those sounds influence our own speech. Interestingly, sometimes we change our speech based not on what we hear, but on expectations of what we are going to hear.
“A lot of times we assume what’s right, but a lot of times we rely on beliefs and stereotypes,” Ms Wade says of inaccurate and exaggerated fakes. This is when we say every word out loud, assuming that the other person is a stranger and cannot understand us.
According to Lacey Wade, this can be a problem even if the speaker has the best intentions.
Apart from the above, each individual has their own personality and ease with languages.
On the one hand, “Some are very open, others are very closed, and some are good at accents. Some perfectly imitate certain accents or dialects of certain languages, which can be seen in many videos on YouTube,” says Ms. Erdozov.
“It’s a matter of hearing, how our brain first processes and differentiates the phonetic differences between one part and another, and then reproduces them,” he says.
Mrs. Wade admits this has happened to him, for example, when watching a TV series set in the American South.
“When I turn off the TV after watching a show with southern actors or southern accents, I find myself talking to my kids like a southerner. After a while it fades away,” she laughs.
The next time you meet someone whose accent is different from yours, see if you too are prone to linguistic assimilation.
This article is part of the digital version of the “Hey Festival de Arequipa”, a gathering of writers and thinkers that will take place in Arequipa from November 3 to 6, 2022.
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