What does your accent say about you?

Whether you say tomato or tomato, it’s clear that your accent is a defining feature of who you are. Everyone has an accent (heck, even goats have regional ways of saying BAAH), but what’s the science behind language acquisition and does your accent say something about you? In an American survey, 47% of adults found British accents to be sophisticated, while 51% thought New York accents were rude; Southern accents were considered nice but possibly uneducated, while New England accents were considered intelligent. But it turns out that humans have a bias towards others who sound like them or have the same accent. Of course, it’s important to distinguish between a native language accent and an additional language accent. English native language accents depend on factors such as geographic location and socioeconomic status. For example a cockney accent of the working class London is markedly different than the Queen’s Received Pronunciation. However, when it comes to non-native language accents, things are more complicated. If you decide to move to Spain and learn Spanish as an English speaker, you will always speak with an English accent - even if you remain their for decades. After the age of 12, the length of residence has almost no effect on your accent. Studies pinpoint the ideal age as 6 years old, with diminishing ability from that point forward. Interestingly, some stroke patients wake with an accent completely different to their original voice. This condition is known as the ‘Foreign Accent Syndrome’ and results from damage to the insula region of the brain which is responsible for language processing. One integral aspect of language is the phoneme. Phonemes are the different sound units we use to make up words - some of which are unique to different languages. For example, the phonemes with TH (th and th) as in words like ‘the’ and ‘thing’ do not exist in German, making it difficult for German speakers to pronounce these words properly. Conversely, there are many phonemes in other languages that as English speakers we cannot pronounce or even hear properly. In a groundbreaking study, 32 American and 32 Japanese six month old babies listened to a recorder play “la la la” repeatedly. When the recording switched to “la la ra” a toy to the side would light up and play a musical tune. The babies were primed to understand that recognizing the difference between “la” and “ra” lead to an audio-visual reward and both the American and Japanese 6 month old babies were able to tell the difference and anticipate the toy reward when necessary. But “La” and “ra” are phonemes that do not exist in the Japanese language. When this study was replicated with 10-12 month old babies, the Japanese babies could not tell the difference between these uniquely English phonemes, showing that a critical period for recognizing phonemes and brain development is at merely six months old. If you try and learn a language, regardless of your age, synaptic connections are made, which ultimately create a denser grey matter and stronger white matter networks. In fact, those who have grown up in bilingual households are consistently more sensitive to subtle language differences compared to their monolingual counterparts. Brain scans have shown that bilingual babies have stronger brain responses in their orbital and prefrontal cortices, which are areas linked to focus and problem-solving abilities. But have you ever wondered why so many people hate the sound of their own voice?

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