The Effects of English Language Accents

Have you ever stopped to think about the effect your accent has when you speak English?

Eimear Shannon has written this blog to discuss this interesting topic.

What English accent do you have?

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Firstly, how do you know what accent you have?

Perhaps you studied in the UK or USA and people often comment that you have a British or an American accent. What about your mother tongue language or an accent from the region you grew up in?

As children, our accents can change easily. However, our accented become more cemented as we get older. Adults who emigrate later in life often retain their childhood accents. There are also cases in which children retain the regional accents of their parents or the household even though the family has emigrated.

Some people are very good at putting on different accents and often, these people are very good musicians. That is because mimicking an accent in a second language is very much connected to linguistic and phonetic ability. Musicians tend to be more aware of phrasing, phonetic patterns, and intonation than most people.

What is the best English accent for business?

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In the world of business, the English accent is constantly voted the best. However, under the umbrella term ‘English’ accents, there are so many different variations. It is hard to know exactly what is meant by the term ‘English accent’. . . it is probably Received Pronunciation or The Queen’s English.

Importantly, the UK has many different regional variations that it is hard to say that there is a quintessential ‘British’ accent. In the US too, and indeed North America, there are a wide variety of accents. We tend to make presumptions about accents too. For example, we think of New Yorkers as no-nonsense people (‘I’m walkin’ here) and the Midwest accent as being gentle and neutral.

Does an English accent bias exist . . . Yes!

On the Netflix series 100 Humans, an interesting experiment was conducted in which the same female lecturer delivered the exact same lecture on well-being to 3 groups of people. After each lecture, the audience had to vote on her content, their level of interest, and her presentation. The highest number of votes were tallied when she spoke in a London-English accent but more specifically, a posh English accent. The other accents were an Oregon accent and Southern American (specifically Mississippi).  People were less interested and more critical of her when she spoke in both American accents than in her English one.

So, why do we gravitate towards the English accent as being the pinnacle of formality and best practice? Is it due to Downton Abbey and The Crown or is something else going on here? Would we take James Bond as seriously if he spoke with a southern drawl or was from Liverpool?  It might be something to do with Britain’s colonial past and the authority wrapped up in all that cultural baggage. Perhaps we wish to be perceived a certain way and our accent is our way of sending information out to the world about who we are and what we represent.  Perhaps it is just soothing to the ear.

Accents can change depending on who you are with

Interestingly, we often change our accents in the same way we change our behavior and the way we dress, depending on the company we are with. This is a very subconscious thing but in some cases it is intentional. For example, you might not talk to your boss with the familiarity that you talk to your best friend. We often change our accent, tone, and even vernacular (words we use) depending on conversation and people involved. This is most obvious when talking to young children or toddlers. You would not entertain a 2-year-old by explaining last quarter’s report in the same way you would not sing nursery rhymes to your CEO during an important meeting. This example might seem extreme but it does highlight, in simple terms, how we change the way we speak depending on the audience and the expectations placed upon us. Accents change in the same way.

You might use your childhood accent or slip back into it when you spend time with childhood friends and extended family but at a convention with international colleagues, you try to speak clearly, intonate everything, and watch the speed with which you speak. Teachers often get asked to focus on British English accent or American English accent as student might have personal reasons for choosing one over the other. This might be based on your work or study environment.

Does accent matter?

Should you work towards a specific accent or keep your own when speaking English? That depends on your clarity of pronunciation. Is meaning being lost due to your mother tongue accent affecting your overall spoken English? For the most part, if you are communicating clearly, people do not mind. We cannot all sound like a member of The Royal Family, otherwise life would be very dull, wouldn’t it dahling?


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Finally, you check out some of our other blogs:

Important Hyphens in Business English Writing

Why Is It Difficult To Learn English