My mother tongue is American English. According to my Swedish friend, I speak her native language with a Russian accent. In my own country I’ve been asked where in Australia I’m from. And when I met a guy on the road–who grew up less than an hour from me–I marveled at his strong accent. Why don’t I have the same one?
Language mimicking is common, and often times unintentional. Apparently several years ago Oprah offended someone by doing so. But Arika Okrent, author of “In the Land of Invented Languages” says it’s a human trait to mirror accents, body posture or behavior. And I guess if you listen carefully, Oprah does it all the time. And so do I!
After a few weeks abroad, I began adopting local phrases and arranging words differently. My accent and the pitch at which I spoke morphed. Of course I wasn’t aware of the drastic change until I went home several months later and heard how loud American’s speak. It was almost deafening. One friend told me to “Drop the fake accent.” But it took several months before it began morphing into the local rhythm.
The friend who told me that does not leave town much. When I explain that accents vary within every country—even our own–they only drew a blank stare. Obviously the concept was foreign to them! Yet Curtis at Overseas Exile says living abroad won’t give you an accent. So then why do lots of people pick them up even within their own native country and language?
According to one site, people that pick up accents are language geniuses but don’t realize it! One major trait is being able to identify regional or foreign accents. A second plus is being a musician because, “Language and music both have rhythm, meter, and intonation. Languages and music both have pitch, tempo, and sometimes even melody.”
Relating language to music made complete sense to me. Though I wouldn’t call myself a musician, I’ve played a number of instruments in my life and tend to gravitate to music. I also pick up accents and regional phrases within my own native language.
What do you think? Do you pick up accents while traveling?