Talking Double Dutch? Why We Think It's Polite to Copy an Accent

Article excerpt

Byline: David Derbyshire

STEVE McClaren could tell you all about it...presumably in a Dutch accent.

The former England manager, who started speaking English like a Dutchman while working with a football team in Holland, is perhaps the funniest example of taking on the accents of those around you.

Now scientists have shown just how powerful the drive to mimic other people really is (and no doubt given a crumb of comfort to McClaren whose Dutch effort in 2008 is still doing the rounds on the Internet).

An experiment with lip-reading has found that the brain subconsciously tries to copy the speech patterns of total strangers.

Researchers who made the discovery believe accent mimicry is part of the brain's in-built urge to 'empathise and affiliate' with other people. And we don't even need to hear them saying the words out loud.

Psychologist Professor Lawrence Rosenblum of the University of California asked volunteers to watch a face on a video screen silently speaking 80 simple words, such as tennis and cabbage.

The volunteers all had good hearing, and none had formal experience of lip-reading.

They were asked to identify the words by saying them out loudly and clearly. And to help, they were given a choice of two words - a right one and a wrong one such as tennis or table.

They were not asked to either imitate or impersonate the talker, just say what the word was. But amazingly, the tests showed they were more likely to repeat the word in exactly the same accent used by the speaker rather than their own accent. …