Is Your Friend Faking Their Study Abroad Accent?

Did your friend come back from college sounding a bit … different?
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Is Your Friend Faking Their Study Abroad Accent?

The way a person talks is very individual to them. A certain person’s voice can bring feelings of love, joy or fear. Along with this comes a notion that the way a person talks is somehow immutable. That once we’ve passed the crackling notes of puberty, we sound pretty much the same for life. That’s why when there’s a sudden change of accent, it can be jarring. And at times, it can sound very fake.

There have been several public cases of people suddenly appearing with a new accent. Recently, people obsessed over Meghan Markle, who married into the British Royal Family just months ago, because she seemed to have already picked up the British accent. A few years ago there was a similar situation with Lindsay Lohan, who launched a thousand gossip blog posts when she spoke with a new, unidentifiable accent in public. For some reason, people get very worked up over a person’s accent.

You don’t have to be famous to have your accent change, though. The phenomenon of “semester abroad” accents is a popular example, and it refers to the phenomenon of someone living in a new country for a few months and coming back sounding like Mary Poppins. So you have to wonder, is it real? Or is your friend just trying to make herself sound more posh after spending a bit of time outside of her home country? Here we investigate the world of personal accent change.

How You Talk Will Change Throughout Your Life

First, it must be said that pretty much everyone’s accent changes over the course of their life. There are so very many factors that can contribute to the way a person talks, but on average people tend to follow a similar pattern of speech changes.

As someone goes from adolescence to adulthood, their speech will become more formal. This is generally because of the societal expectations put on someone to sound more and more like Standard English when they enter the working world. When a person gets closer to retirement age, however, they’ll become less formal again, because they’re no longer pressured to speak that way. This isn’t really an “accent change,” per se, but it does illustrate that the way people talk is not very stable.

Giving In To College Peer Pressure

College is a very vulnerable four years in people’s lives. For many, it’s the first extended period of time spent away from home. And that means some things about a person will stick out more than they ever have before. Other students might point out that the way a person dresses or eats or talks is “weird.”

Consciously or not, people in college often try to fit the accepted “norms” of speech better, and it’s part of what psychologists call the chameleon effect. People tend to mimic each other, especially in new environments, because it can increase “likability.” Basically, people like people who are like them, so mimicking is a good strategy to get along in a new place. In college, when everyone is trying to make new friends, a person will likely play down the traits that make them stick out the most, like their southern twang or Bostonian lack of “r”s. This will often be only subtle shifts in speech, but sometimes people do sound significantly different after college.

Consciously or not, people in college often try to fit the accepted “norms” of speech better.

The desire to get rid of distinguishing speech traits leads to a convergence on General American. General American is the accent that sounds American without sounding like anything specific, and it’s generally associated with newscasters. Any time someone says they “don’t have an accent,” they probably mean they sound General American.

Your Accent Can Change Within A Single Conversation

People often choose to speak General American because local accents are stigmatized. Comedian Stephen Colbert, for example, decided to lose his southern accent because there are negative connotations to it. While it’s unfortunate, there is a cultural preference for General American, and sounding very regional will associate a person with stereotypes.

Reducing your accent in college, however, doesn’t mean that your voice is changed forever. And college isn’t the only time people’s accents change, even if it is the most common time for that to happen. You might have had the experience of seeing a friend’s accent change when you visit your hometown with them, as they return to their childhood habits. People can even change their accent based on the subject they’re talking about.

In one study of accents, researchers found that one girl would use a more Toronto-sounding accent when she talked about Toronto, but a New York-sounding accent when talking about New York. When talking about her rural Canadian hometown — which she didn’t like — she stuck with the New York accent as an act of distancing herself from her rural past. There are a lot of unconscious factors at play, yet this is evidence that an accent can be a fluid thing. It’s a way of marking your identity, or what you want your identity to be.

Are Three Months Enough To Get A New Accent?

So far, we’ve established that accents can change, and usually it’s people neutralizing their accent to fit in. So where do foreign accents come in here?

Unlike local American accents, adopting a foreign accent can give a person a bit of a social boost. Most commonly, people covet British accents, because to Americans they sound intelligent and cultured. Well, certain British accents at least; adopting a cockney accent will probably have the opposite effect. In any case, when someone spends a semester studying in London and comes back sounding prim and proper, red flags will likely go up in your mind.

An accent is a way of marking your identity, or what you want your identity to be.

It is perfectly possible to try to put on a fake accent, and many actors have tried. More often, however, people just start incidentally picking up traits of the accent they’re surrounded by. They might not master all the intricacies of the new accent — in fact, it’s hard for an adult to master a new accent no matter how long they try — but they might start pronouncing “garage” more like GAH-ridge and dropping an “r” here and there. Some of the most common changes occur with how vowels are pronounced, but those can be so subtle that they’d be hard to pick out of someone’s speech, like a slightly more nasal “a” or an “o” that’s further back in the mouth.

So is your friend faking their new accent? If they have just started pronouncing a few words differently and maybe dropping a few foreign slang terms in, then they probably aren’t putting anything on. If they sound like they’re doing their best Emma Watson impersonation and saying “bloody hell” every other sentence, then it’s probably being forced a bit.

Our advice, however, would be to not make fun of other people’s accents no matter what. The way we talk is deeply personal to us, and it can be affected by many, many, many factors that we have no control over. There is so much unnecessary stigma for accents that adding to it isn’t going to help anyone. The last thing we need is to shame everyone into speaking with a General American accent. That would be bloody boring.


Header image courtesy of The Royal Family.

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