Have you ever spent time with someone and then found yourself copying their accent or speaking patterns? This may be particularly clear if their speech and accent sound significantly different from your own.

It might occasionally even be humiliating since our friends could make fun of us if we return from vacation speaking with a little different accent. Naturally, once we return home, the “vacation accent” rapidly disappears, causing us to believe that it was an act or pompous conduct.

It’s not like that at all! Everyone imitates speech, yet most individuals have no idea why. The accommodation theory offers a scientific justification for why individuals mimic one another’s accents.

Accommodation Theory: Why We Imitate Accents

Psychology and linguistics study accommodation theory because it affects numerous social behaviours, including speech. Linguistic accommodation, sometimes called speech convergence, is when our language adjusts to the language we hear.

It can occur at any level of language, including phonology (speech sounds; speech signs in sign language), morphology, syntax, and lexicon (word selection). It can happen during a discussion and then go away after the talk is complete, but repeated exposure produces longer-lasting consequences.

Additionally, there is proof that imitation is influenced by a number of variables, with some people changing their speech patterns and accents more than others.

Imitation is a Social Behavior

Accommodation is in some ways an automatic social behavior— yawns and smiles are contagious because we perceive another’s behavior and our brains automatically mirror them.

But it’s often more complex than that, because various social and personal factors also impact who we mimic, and when. In a set of laboratory experiments, linguist Molly Babel found that accommodation behaviors were impacted by linguistic and social factors.

Study participants listened to words spoken by a Black male speaker and a White male speaker and were instructed to repeat the words they heard. Some participants also looked at a picture of the speakers as they repeated the words they heard.

Men and Women Have Different Issues

However, accommodations were also impacted by societal variables. Men automatically reproduced the speech they heard, and their imitative behavior remained constant throughout time. Women, however, tended to exhibit more accommodating actions throughout the trial.

Women emulated male speakers more when they thought them to be more beautiful than they did. Male participants were more inclined to copy a male speaker’s vowels the more ugly they thought the speaker was.

Additionally, research participants were more likely to mimic the Black speaker’s words the more “pro-Black” (or less “pro-White”) they scored on a bias test.

Sign Language Impersonation of Gestures

Signers from various regional dialects of British Sign Language copied some of the regional word variations that their conversation partners used in an experiment on accommodation in dialects of BSL. This only occurred 14% of the time, which might be explained by the fact that their dialects were distinct. Speakers sometimes exaggerate their conversation partners’ accents to emphasise their own identities.

They accommodated 47.4% of the time in a word imitation experiment in which dialect was not the source of variation. Once more, we discover that while accommodation may be a natural process, a variety of social influences are at play. We often mimic the language of others, but we might do so less if we feel that they are different from us and that we wish to (perhaps unknowingly) underline that difference. Jevon Heath, a linguist, has discovered that a person’s level of accommodation may also be influenced by personal aspects like personal autonomy.

There is a lot about accommodation that scientists still don’t fully understand.

We know that accommodation wears off once the stimulus is removed: your “vacation-accent” goes away when you come home, and study participants stop duplicating language they heard or saw after the tests.

However, if we’re exposed to new or different language use on a regular and long-term basis (say, the introduction of a new sound or word; moving to a new place), the way we talk/sign could change to become more like that of the language users around us.

Because accommodation affects every level of language, it is theorized to bring about long-term language change: over centuries, millennia, and even decades, the small adjustments we make to imitate each other can eventually add up.

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