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Does imitation improve comprehension?

Imitating someone's accent makes it easier to understand them, says a recent study, "Imitation Improves Language Comprehension," published online December 6, 2010 in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. In conversation, we often imitate each other's speech style and may even change our accent to fit that of the person we're talking to. A recent study , suggests that imitating someone who speaks with a regional or foreign accent may actually help you understand them better.

Does imitation improve comprehension?
Anne Hart, photography.

"If people are talking to each other, they tend to sort of move their speech toward each other," says Patti Adank, of the University of Manchester, according to the December 6, 2010 news release, "Imitating someone's accent makes it easier to understand them." Adank cowrote the study with Peter Hagoort and Harold Bekkering from Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

People imitate each other in body posture

People don't only do this with speech, she says. "People have a tendency to imitate each other in body posture, for instance in the way they cross their arms." She and her colleagues devised an experiment to test the effect of imitating and accent on subsequent comprehension of sentences spoken in that accent. In the experiment, Dutch volunteers were first tested on how well they understood sentences spoken in an unfamiliar accent of Dutch.

To make sure that all listeners were unfamiliar, a new accent was invented for the study, in which all the vowels were swapped (for instance 'ball' would become 'bale'). Next, each participant listened to 100 sentences in the unfamiliar accent. But first, they were given different instructions on how to respond to the sentences. Some were told to repeat the sentence, imitating the accent.

Others were told either only to listen, to repeat the sentences in their own accent, or to transcribe the accented sentences as they had heard them, complete with strange vowels. Finally, the participants were tested again on how well they could understand sentences spoken in the unfamiliar accent.

People who had imitated the accent did much better at understanding the sentences than the other people. "When listening to someone who has a really strong accent, if you talked to them in their accent, you would understand better," Adank says, according to the news release. Of course, she says, "it's obvious that you can't really do that." If you put on, say, a fake Southern accent when talking to someone from Georgia, they might not think your intention is friendly. But when your brain subtly and unconsciously shifts your voice to sound more like theirs, it appears to be deploying a useful strategy.

How important are regional accents in communication regarding how a person is viewed by the public?

Why is it that after a few drinks you suddenly find yourself slipping back into your hometown drawl? Besides slurring words, adapting or changing the accent you had growing up, whether you do so intentionally or not, takes cognitive power and motor control, NBC News reported, according to a June 9, 2013 New York Daily News article by Victoria Taylor, "Does your accent return when you drink? Blame your brain, y’all."

Apparently, when someone is drunk, the individual's brain has a harder time maintaining the motor coordination needed for adopted speech patterns, according to a recent report. The result is you revert back to the accent you have when under duress, which is your regional accent or your foreign accent. On the other hand, foreign accents seem to make speakers appear as if they're lying, a recent study explains, according to the July 19, 2010 news release, "Foreign accents make speakers seem less truthful to listeners."

Regional accents convey intelligence or naivety just based on the sounds

When it comes to foreign or regional American accents, a British accent makes you appear smarter, according to the article, "Why Do British Accents Make People Sound Smarter?" When you speak standard English as its spoken in upper middle class circles of England, you appear smarter.

It's as if your IQ goes up 20 points compared to someone speaking with a New York 'Brooklynese" or "Bronx" regional accent compared to a standard Philadelphia, Michigan, or New England accent, for example. But a southern U.S. accent, with a rural twang makes you appear as if your IQ dropped some points. See, "Northern Accents Are 'Smart' - Chicago magazine."

Judging a person's intelligence by his or her regional or foreign accent is blatant prejudice

A middle America accent or an accent used by standard English speakers on TV news anchor programs also gives the impression of intelligence. Why do people think a southern accent makes you sound uneducated? See, "Why Does a Southern Drawl Sound Uneducated to Some?" Some of the most intelligent astronauts, attorneys, and government executives have southern accents. Yet a southern accent as well as a rural or 'country' accent usually is associated with preachers, farmers, and even cowboys.

Some think it's useless to change your accents if you're hosting a radio show, since under stress, alcohol, or medications, when imbibing, or getting emotional, the stress seems to force you to revert back to the accent you had as a child that you picked up from those around you in your regional area of the USA or your native country. There are tutors who advertise that they'll help you change your accent for public speaking purposes or if you are acting in a stage or screen role and need to change your accent to play a part, for example of the specific script character's regional accent.

Some people judge others based on whether they pronounce words containing the letter 'L' with a Hispanic accent, where the L is pronounced with the tongue in a position more forward in the mouth than the standard English pronunciation of 'L' or 'T'. There's even foreign accent syndrome, whereby due to a stroke or other neurological changes in the brain, Americans suddenly begin speaking with a foreign accent, even when they have no knowledge of the country whose language they sound like. See, "Foreign accent syndrome."

A foreign accent undermines a person's credibility in ways that the speaker and the listener don't consciously realize, 2010 research at the University of Chicago shows.

Because an accent makes a person harder to understand, listeners are less likely to find what the person says as truthful, researchers found. The problem of credibility increases with the severity of the accent.

"The results have important implications for how people perceive non-native speakers of a language, particularly as mobility increases in the modern world, leading millions of people to be non-native speakers of the language they use daily," says Boaz Keysar, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and an expert on communication, according to the July 19, 2010 news release, "Foreign accents make speakers seem less truthful to listeners."

"Accent might reduce the credibility of non-native job seekers, eyewitnesses, reporters or people taking calls in foreign call centers," explains Shiri Lev-Ari, lead author of "Why Don't We Believe Non-native Speakers? The Influence of Accent on Credibility," written with Keysar and published in the July 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Levi-Ari is a post-doctoral researcher at the University whose work focuses on the interactions between native and non-native speakers.

To test the impact of accent on credibility, American participants were asked to judge the truthfulness of trivia statements by native or non-native speakers of English, such as, "A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can."

Simple prejudice could affect ratings of truthfulness, so the researchers tried to minimize that effect by telling participants the information in the statements was prepared for the speakers, and was not based on the speakers' own knowledge. Despite knowing the speakers were reciting from a script, the participants judged as less truthful the statements coming from people with foreign accents. On a truthfulness scale prepared for the experiment, the participants gave native speakers a score of 7.5, people with mild accents a score of 6.95 and people with heavy accents a score of 6.84.

"The accent makes it harder for people to understand what the non-native speaker is saying," Keysar says in the news release. "They misattribute the difficulty of understanding the speech to the truthfulness of the statements."

In a second experiment, researchers tested whether awareness reduces the impact of accent on perceived truthfulness

Researchers told participants that they were being tested to see if accents undermine credibility. That experiment was conducted with identical recorded statements, but with different results.

hile participants rated statements with mild accent just as truthful as statements by native speakers, they rated heavily accented statements as less truthful, Lev-Ari explains in the news release. Accent is one of the factors that influences people's perception of foreigners in a society, Keysar points out. But its insidious impact on credibility is something researchers had not previously known, he adds. A grant from the National Science Foundation supported the research.

For further information, check out the sites, "Heat Maps of Linguistic Trends Across the Nation" and "Documentary Gives NYC ACCENT a New Hearing." Some national radio talk show hosts boast of their pronounced New York City accents. As for drinkers, the brain focuses more on motor coordination, not speech accents. American boasts of many regional dialects and slang.

There also are numerous immigrants and children of immigrants who use words from their native country. Some people don't begrudge you to eat ice cream. They forgin (begrudge) you the entitlement to eat ice cream. And a dishpan to some who insert words from their great grandparent's country, is not a dishpan, but a schisel (Germanic, Yiddish). And a teapot becomes a tchonik (Russian).

For more information, check out the data from a linguistics survey. Researchers recently designed a series of heat maps that show how words like "caramel," "aunt" and "mayonnaise" are pronounced differently across the country.

Many people remember accents on students in their high school or elementary classrooms

Some children substitute their ancestor's foreign words for the English word for a tangible object. For example, a dib becomes the word for a glutton, but a deeb becomes the word for a flirter. In the Lebanese community, a dib is a bear, and a deeb is a wolf.

Regarding regional U.S.A. accents, you can check out the linguistic maps site since they also show geographical distinctions in the use of "y'all" versus "you guys" and the name for carbonated beverages such as soda or pop? and coke for carbonated beverages. Based on region of the country, some people call pancakes 'flapjacks.' Other areas of the country have restaurants calling them hotcakes.

In other areas of the country, 'pop' means carbonated soda water, and in other areas, such as New York, carbonated water without flavoring is still seltzer. Then again, there's breakfast jacks, or just plain jacks that refers to either pan-fried cakes or that familiar egg sandwich on an English muffin served in a fast-food eatery. Or there's a bagel with a schmear instead of a smear of cream cheese written on a billboard or sign to advertise a menu item in some eateries.

Foreign subtitles improve speech perception

Do you speak English as a second language well, but still have trouble understanding movies with unfamiliar accents, such as Brad Pitt's southern accent in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds? In a new study, published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, Holger Mitterer (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics) and James McQueen (MPI and Radboud University Nijmegen) show how you can improve your second-language listening ability by watching the movie with subtitles—as long as these subtitles are in the same language as the film. Subtitles in one's native language, the default in some European countries, may actually be counter-productive to learning to understand foreign speech, explains a December 10, 2009 news release, "Foreign subtitles improve speech perception."

Mitterer and McQueen show that listeners can tune in to an unfamiliar regional accent in a foreign language. Dutch students showed improvements in their ability to recognise Scottish or Australian English after only 25 minutes of exposure to video material. English subtitling during exposure enhanced this learning effect; Dutch subtitling reduced it.

Students watched a sitcom episode or a movie which depicted a specific type of accent

In the study, Dutch students who were unfamiliar with Scottish and Australian English watched either an episode of the Australian sitcom Kath & Kim or a shortened version of Trainspotting, which depicts a Scottish drug addict, Renton, and his friends—with English subtitles, Dutch subtitles or no subtitles. After this exposure, participants were asked to repeat back as many words as they could from 80 audio excerpts taken from each source spoken by the main characters (Kath from Kath & Kim; Renton from Trainspotting), half of which had already been heard by the participants in the extracts and half were new to the participants (from a different Kath & Kim episode or from a part of Trainspotting that was edited out).

The researchers found that English subtitles were associated with the best performance on both previously heard and new material. But although Dutch subtitles also enhanced performance on the old items, they led to a worse performance on the new materials. The participants seemed to be using the semantic (meaning-based) information in the Dutch subtitles when listening to the English speech and so the Dutch subtitles appear to have helped the participants to decipher which English words had been uttered, as seen in the improved recognition of previously heard materials. This did not, however, allow participants to retune their phonetic categories so as to improve their understanding of new utterances from the same speaker.

Listeners can use their knowledge about how words normally sound to adjust the way they perceive speech that is spoken in an unfamiliar way

This seems to happen with subtitles too. If an English word was spoken with a Scottish accent, English subtitles usually told the perceiver what that word was, and hence what its sounds were. This made it easier for the students to tune in to the accent. In contrast, the Dutch subtitles did not provide this teaching function, and, because they told the viewer what the characters in the film meant to say, the Dutch subtitles may have drawn the students' attention away from the unfamiliar speech.

These findings also have educational implications. Since foreign subtitles seem to help with adaptation to foreign speech in adults, they should perhaps be used whenever available (e.g. on a DVD) to boost listening skills during second-language learning. Moreover, since native-language subtitles interfere with this kind of learning, such subtitles in television programs should be made optional for the viewer. You also can check out the site, Public Library of Science.

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist. This work was funded by the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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