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Have you ever changed the way you speak to match the person you are talking with? You may not even realise you are doing it! This relates to the process of phonetic accommodation. Don't worry if you are unfamiliar with this term; today, we will explore the definition of phonetic accommodation and the different ways people change their speech. We will also consider how native and non-native speakers of English adjust their speech in communication.
Phonetic accommodation is the process in which people adjust their way of speaking to sound more similar to the other person in a conversation. This is done by native and non-native speakers of a language.
This process changes the following aspects of language:
Speech rate (how slow or fast we talk)
Pronunciation (speech sounds, intonation, stress)
Utterance length and pauses
Accommodation can also happen in non-verbal language (such as body language, gestures, and facial expressions).
There are different reasons why we accommodate our speech. This process happens either consciously (making a deliberate effort to do it) or subconsciously (automatic and beyond our control).
Conscious phonetic accommodation happens when we want to:
1. Gain approval from others
When we speak with others, we often want to ensure that they do not negatively impression us. Changing how we speak to sound more similar to others may help us fit in with others and create a positive impression of ourselves. It allows us to become closer to people and increase the attraction between speakers.
2. Reduce social barriers
If we use language similar to people we are talking with, it can reduce misunderstandings. This is especially important for non-native speakers, as they are more likely to consciously choose to be understood by native speakers.
On the other hand, we subconsciously accommodate when we are introduced to new phonetic variations and become immersed in other languages or accents.
An important thing to remember is that there are differences in the ways native and non-native speakers of English accommodate. Some factors can increase or decrease the chances of accommodation.
Native speakers of English begin the accommodation process from birth - they pick up the language and speech patterns from parents and others close to them and imitate them.
On the other hand, someone may move to another country and not speak the native language. The longer they spend in the country and the more of the language they learn, the more they will accommodate their speech to sound like the people around them.
Non-native speakers are also more likely to consciously accommodate when they want to sound more natural and more like a native. Unlike native English speakers, who acquire the language since birth, non-native speakers make more of a conscious effort to understand the distinct aspects of the language.
For example, non-native speakers pay close attention to accents, intonation, and syntax. These are all things that native speakers do naturally, as they have been picking up these speech patterns since birth.
According to Giles and Johnson (1987)1, non-native speakers will be more likely to accommodate their speech to native speakers if they have something in common (such as sharing similar social identities) or are comfortable around them. This can also depend on the attitude of the native speaker towards the non-native speaker. If the native speaker shows a positive attitude towards the non-native speaker's identity, they will be more likely to accommodate.
It is important to be aware that there isn't just one way native English speakers talk. There are native English speakers worldwide, and speech patterns can vary slightly (such as different accents).
Speech rate concerns the speed at which we talk. When we accommodate our speech, speech rate is one of the aspects that is most likely to change.
We can either increase or decrease the speed of our speech to become similar to others and convey different emotions. For example:
Fast speech is usually associated with excitement or passion. If someone is talking about something they love, they tend to speak faster. To match their enthusiasm, others in a conversation may also adapt their pace.
Slow speech is usually associated with seriousness or sadness. If someone wants people to pay attention to what they are trying to say, they may slow down the speed of their voice.
When we phonetically accommodate our speech, our pronunciations can change. So what are the different aspects of pronunciation we alter when we accommodate our speech? They are:
Speech sounds (known in phonetics as phonemes) are the vocal sounds we use in words when we communicate. Speech sounds are split into consonants and vowels. During phonetic accommodation, people change how they pronounce words or certain sounds in words.
People could subconsciously match the accents of others. For example:
If a native speaker of English moved from the South to the North of England, they would subconsciously pick up the new regional dialect over time. For example, the long vowel /ɑː/ in words like 'bath', 'grass', and 'path' would change to the shorter vowel /æ/.
If a non-native English speaker moved to England, they would also acquire the regional features of the language over time (depending on where they move to).
Or they could consciously match the accents of others. For example:
A native speaker of English could change their accent if they are in a different social setting to fit in. If they are in a formal social setting with others, they may enunciate their words more (pronouncing each speech sound more clearly) to match the formality of the others.
If communicating with a native speaker of English, a non-native speaker could change their accent, so it sounds more natural and more similar to a native. This makes it easier to be understood by native speakers.
Intonation refers to the change in the pitch of our voices when we speak. Intonation in the English language can convey different emotions. For example, speaking with a high pitch could indicate excitement or surprise. It can also determine the grammatical meaning of utterances. For example, if a sentence ends in a higher pitch, it can indicate a question.
People may change the intonation of their voice to match the emotions or mood of the other person in a conversation and show that they can empathise with others.
If a person is excited about something, the pitch of their voice may rise. The other person may change the pitch of their voice to match the excitement that they feel and show that they are also happy for them.
No, we do not mean this type of stress!
Stress refers to the emphasis of certain syllables within a word or certain words within an utterance. It is particularly important for non-native speakers to be aware that putting stress on different syllables or words can change the meaning of an utterance. Because of this, it is more likely for them to consciously accommodate their speech to match the stress patterns of native speakers for them to sound more natural.
Let's take the following sentence:
'I didn't say she hugged my brother.'
TRY IT OUT: put stress on one word in the sentence at a time. Do you notice that the sentence changes meaning depending on where the stress is placed?
Stress can also be placed on certain syllables, e.g.:
In the word 'water', the first syllable is stressed, so it is transcribed as: /ˈwɔːtə/
In the word 'insane', the second syllable is stressed, so it is transcribed as /ɪnˈseɪn/
The small dash above the letters is called a 'stress mark'. This highlights where the stress falls in a word.
In these cases, if you change the stress, it will not change the meaning of the word. Instead, it would simply sound unnatural. However, in some cases, the meaning can change depending on the stress used. For example:
The word 'present' can either be a noun or verb:
'She gave me a present.'
Here, 'present' is a noun, and the stress is placed on the first syllable. This can be transcribed as /ˈprezənt/
'I had to present my work.'
Here, 'present' is a verb, and the stress is placed on the second syllable. This can be transcribed as /prəˈzent/
Utterance length refers to how long someone talks. This can depend on how familiar speakers are with one another or how invested they are in a conversation. For example, someone who speaks using short utterances may feel annoyed or disinterested. As a result, the other speaker may pick up on this and respond with short utterances to end the conversation.
On the other hand, someone who uses long utterances may be interested in the conversation and have a lot to say. The other person will respond with long utterances to keep the conversation flowing.
Pauses refer to the moments of silence between speech. Someone may leave a long pause if they are thinking about something or want the other person to take in information. This is often done between native and non-native speakers, allowing the non-native speaker to comprehend what is being said.
1H. Giles and P. Johnson. Ethnolinguistic identity theory: a social psychological approach to language maintenance, International Journal of the Sociology of Language. 1987.
We phonetically accommodate by changing the following aspects of our language:
Phonetic accommodation is the process in which people adjust their way of speaking to sound more similar to the other person in a conversation.
Phonetic accommodation can be either a conscious or subconscious process.
We accommodate our speech to gain approval from others and reduce social barriers.
This refers to when our pronunciations change to become more similar to others in a conversation. The aspects of pronunciation are speech sounds, intonation, and stress.
What is phonetic accommodation?
The process in which people adjust their way of speaking to sound more similar to the other person in a conversation.
Fill in the blank:
Phonetic accommodation is the process in which people adjust their way of speaking to sound more _______ to the other person in a conversation.
Phonetic accommodation only occurs subconsciously.
True or false?
It also occurs consciously.
Which of the following is not an aspect of pronunciation?
B. Utterance length
B. Utterance length
What does speech rate refer to?
The speed at which we talk.
What are the different aspects of pronunciation?
Speech sounds, intonation and stress.
Phonetic accommodation in English only happens with native speakers.
True or false?
Phonetic accommodation in English happens with both native and non-native speakers.
Fill in the blank:
We accommodate to ____ approval from others.
We accommodate to ______ social barriers.
What are the aspects of language we change when we accommodate?
Speech rate, pronunciation, utterance length and pauses.
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