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Want to Understand Foreigners Better? Imitate Their Accents

Updated on December 24, 2010

How to Put on a Convincing Irish Accent

I know a girl who naturally slips into the foreign accent of whomever she is speaking to. She never liked this trait about herself because the people she was speaking with often mistakenly assumed that she was making fun of them. It turns out, however, that this bad habit of hers may actually be a benefit to her in some cases. She may be better able to understand speakers with foreign accents because of the fact that she is imitating the way that they speak. Since I often have trouble understanding people speaking with a foreign accent (no matter how much I wish that I didn’t have this problem) it’s an issue that I’m especially interested in.

Scientific American recently reported on a study published in Psychological Science that found that “the key to understanding someone with a different accent is to repeat what he says and to approximate the accent”. In other words, if you are having trouble understanding someone who is speaking your language with a foreign accent, simply repeat back to them what they are saying, trying to pronounce it the way that they are pronouncing it. The result should be that you actually understand what they are saying better.

How did the study determine this odd finding? They had psychologists make up an accent that wasn’t real at all using odd sounds that speakers would clearly not be familiar with. They then had volunteer listeners converse with them as they used this language. Listeners were asked to participate in the conversation in different ways include:

o   Simply listen to the conversation and try to understand what is being said. These listeners heard the accented conversation and tried to make out what was being said which is what most of us do when we are trying to understand people who are speaking to us with a foreign accent.

o   Listen to the conversation and repeat back what was said in your normal voice with no accent. Sometimes we also do this when we are speaking to foreigners to see if we are hearing them right. For example, someone might ask us in a foreign accent, “where is the bathroom?” and we might respond in our normal voice, “are you asking where is the bathroom”?

o   Imitate the sounds that you hear. Other listeners were asked to repeat back what was said to them and to attempt to say the words exactly like the speakers were saying it to them. This is something that most of us would never think to do in a conversation with a foreigner because it would feel rude.

Despite the fact that mimicking someone speaking in an accent you don’t understand may seem a little bit rude, it’s actually the best way to understand what the person is trying to tell you. “The scientists say that simply moving your mouth like other folks do allows you to intuit their potentially eccentric speech patterns”. You may not know quite what it is that you are saying but as you work on saying it you are likely to be able to make out the meaning of the language.

Do you have trouble understanding people who are speaking with foreign accents? If so, do you believe that imitating their accent might help you to understand them better?


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  • profile image

    Libor Supcik 5 years ago

    Dr Conor Quinn seems to disagree very much / check his TED video

  • pe555 profile image

    Peter Donnelly 7 years ago from UK

    I am from the UK and am always falling into the trap of copying someone's dialect. I just can't help myself. My fiancee is always telling me to behave and stop doing it. By the way, there are lots of British accents. Not all of us talk like the queen.Lol

  • ocbill profile image

    ocbill 7 years ago from hopefully somewhere peaceful and nice

    I wish I could do a better British accent. I understand Chinese and Filipino accent well too

  • Hello, hello, profile image

    Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

    I am a foreigner and I know it hurts especially when you can't speak properly.

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    ssaul 7 years ago

    yes i love doing it, it feels great especially the British accent

  • DiamondRN profile image

    Bob Diamond RPh 7 years ago from Charlotte, NC USA

    I agree. An ear for the accent is half of the battle to understanding someone. Look at the problems we have between the deep south and the northeast in this country.