Are Some People Really Better at Accents than Others?

We all have that one friend who is capable of mimicking a wide array of accents with perfect ease. Being able to imitate Christopher Walken or Salma Hayek to perfection certainly makes for a cool party trick, but there’s also the subconscious side to being able to pick up accents with ease: you begin to imitate people you know without even realizing you’re doing it! Accents are fun and can be a useful asset when you decide to learn a new language, but have you ever wondered why it is some people pick up accents more easily than others? Let’s find out!

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Imitation is more common than you might think.

While not all of us can create hilarious renditions of popular celebrities or accents, most of us subconsciously change our accents depending on the scenario and people we’re with. In fact, researchers have found that our brains unintentionally imitate the patterns of other people, even strangers! These patterns can included subtle changes in mannerisms, posture, and yes, speech, and the majority of the time we’re not even aware we’re doing it. According to experts, humans imitate incessantly because we want to empathize with those around us. And studies have shown that we’ll tend to imitate the accent of the person we’re speaking with, which can sometimes be embarrassing!

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Your surroundings play a big role.

Where you live and your surroundings growing up can actually play a huge role in your ability to imitate and capture accents – even when speaking a foreign language! Let’s say you grew up around monolinguals and in a culture where learning or speaking more than one language wasn’t the norm. It’s much more likely you’ll struggle with accents when you do decide to learn a language, simply because your ear isn’t trained to pick up on them (and therefore you can’t really tell if you’re doing the accent correctly or not). People who have grown up in multicultural societies where many language form a part of their daily lives find it easier to recreate accents and mimic the way others speak.

Take note of how native speakers talk.

Let’s say you didn’t grow up somewhere where hearing more than one language was part of the norm and you’re looking to acquire a language as an adult. Don’t despair, just because you didn’t have that foundation early on, it doesn’t mean you can’t conquer a dreaded new accent! The more you listen to a foreign language, the more naturally the intonation becomes. You can actually train your ear at any point in life to pick up on accents, it just takes a bit more dedication if you’ve never really listened to foreign languages before. Make sure you pay close attention to how native speakers talk, whether it’s in movies, TV series, or in real life.

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Watch how they move their mouths, the shapes they make with their lips, and the words they use. Don’t just stop with the language though, take note of their body language too! After all, in most cultures the entire body is used as a way to communicate, and gesticulating is often a big part of speaking (and will make you feel more like a local).  Go home and mimic all this in front of the mirror. You might feel silly, but over time it will come more, and more naturally.

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Put your passion in play.

At the end of the day, your passion for learning that new language or taking on that different accent is the biggest tool you can use to be successful. You may not have the knack for recreating accents at the drop of a hat like your old college roommate could, but hard work and a desire to learn will ensure that you conquer one accent and language at a time. If you enjoy learning the language, and aren’t afraid to put it into practice, you’ll gain so much more from the experience (and improve that accent a lot quicker) than if you spend one tedious hour after another rolling your ‘r’ alone in your room. Remember: perfecting your accent is something that cannot be achieved in isolation. So don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and let your passion for the language show! You may wind up surprised at your own abilities.

Do you have any suggestions to help language learners acquire new accents? Share your tips with us in the comments section!