60-Second Science

Imitate an Accent to Better Understand It

Study subjects who imitated a foreign accent understood the speaker better than those who merely listened. Karen Hopkin reports

Seeing may be believing. But according to a new study—

[Man with foreign accents interrupts to ask for information.]

Where was I? Oh, I was saying that according to a new study, the key to understanding someone with a different accent is to repeat what he says and to approximate the accent. The work appears in the journal Psychological Science. [Patti Adank, Peter Hagoort and Harold Bekkering, "Imitation Improves Language Comprehension"]

If you speak to people from different places, you’ve no doubt encountered a variety of interesting accents. [Man with foreign accent concurs.]

To find out how we can make sense of unfamiliar inflections, psychologists spoke to volunteers in an accent they’d invented. Some subjects were told to imitate the odd sounds. Others were told to simply listen, or to repeat the sentence in their normal voice. Turns out the mimics did better at deciphering the unusual exchange. The scientists say that simply moving your mouth like other folks do allows you to intuit their potentially eccentric speech patterns, and get what they say. [Man with foreign accent sums up.]

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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