Have you ever heard yourself? I mean, have you? Of course, you might say. I have heard my voice many times on recordings and it sounds so embarrassingly different. But this is not what I am asking about. We all have experienced this many times. And this question is neither about all the stupid nonsense that you are saying, I am not referring to content here. So maybe I should rephrase the question.
Have you ever heard the way you speak? Have you ever consciously listened to the way you pronounce things? Especially when you are talking in a foreign language? This is what this is really about. It is about accents, a really fascinating topic. I started going down this rabbit hole during this week, and there is a background story, a little anecdote, if you will.
At school I am required to speak English all the time, which is my second language. The students pretty much only know me that way. So as it happened that I was talking to a Spanish teacher in the hallway, in Spanish of course, which happens to be my third language, some students from my homeroom heard me and later told me that I would sound really funny when I speak Spanish. After having lived in Mexico for 12 years, I think of myself as very fluent, and am not really aware of my German accent as I speak, in the moment. The point is, that people who hear me speak immediately identify me as foreign. I have heard recordings of my Spanish, and I know about my accent, and of course I have an accent in English as well. But when I am in a conversation, I hear myself speaking completely accent-free.
So here we go, with the help of my eighth graders I found myself a nice little research topic. Why is it, that we do not hear our own accents, but are fully aware of them when other people speak? This is a really fascinating question, and if any of my students are reading, remember we have science fair coming, there is an idea for you. But as usual, I am drifting off in a different direction.
The first thing that came to my mind was the Dunning Kruger Effect. I will spare you the details, because you can find them in many articles, for example in the Wikipedia entry, or in the original study by… guess whom… Dunning and Kruger! Anyway, what their study shows is that our human brains are very good in over-estimating their own capability. We tend to think of ourselves as being better in certain skills than we really are. Take driving for example, it is always the others that suck at driving. But we personally are of course one of the best drivers on the road. We should get recognized with a medal for being an example of good driving, it is always the others who break the rules and commit mistakes. Sound familiar, right? Anyway, the Dunning Kruger Effect especially refers to the bottom, the people who have low skills. According to the study, they are simply not able to evaluate their ability or lack of ability. On the other hand, high ability people wrongfully assume that tasks should be as easy for others as they are for themselves.
Well, as I mentioned, I have been speaking Spanish on a daily basis for twelve years, and I am fluent in it. So I can humbly say that I am not on the low end of the spectrum at this particular skill. That means the Dunning Kruger Effect may play a role here, but is not a satisfying explanation.
I had to go and simple google to get some more ideas. And of course I found several interesting articles. And article by Wired Magazine from 2014 examined exactly my question: Why is it so hard to lose an accent? (Technically it is a little different from my question, since I am more concerned about the awareness) As it appears, this might be hard-wired into our brain. A main reason for accents is the fact that languages have different sounds, and there are sounds that simply don’t exist in our native language. According to the article, already babies at the age of 10 months react less to sounds that are not part of their language. The article states the example of the “r” and “l” sound, which are absent in the Japanese language.
Our brain is very selective, and it learns to focus only on the sounds that are part of our native language(s). When it hears other, foreign sounds, it ignores, or rather substitutes them with familiar sounds. Hence the lacking awareness of an accent, our brains are hard-wired to do so. And as we get older, this tendency gets more and more intense. As the study states, there is a direct correlation between the strength of a person’s accent and the age at which they started learning that language. There you go, I have a weaker accent in English, which I started learning at the age of 10, and a stronger accent in Spanish, which I started at 22 years old. I don’t even want to imagine what it sounded like to the people in Paris this summer, when I tried to tell them in French that I don’t really speak French.
We could conclude here, but the rabbit hole goes deeper. It is not only the second and third language, we even have accents in our first language. There are many regional accents and they also depend on social groups. We tend to speak the way the people speak that are surrounding us. So, as much as we try, nobody really speaks the 100% true standard language. We all have our little quirks. Try to listen to yourself consciously. Depending on who you are with, you tend to adapt to their way of speaking, a simple thing of imitation. This relates directly to our ability to empathize. So what about people on the Asperger spectrum, who have a hard time with empathy? Maybe they won’t adapt to the accent of their partners as much. This sounds like another interesting research project for a science fair. Oh, right, drifting again…
So, I don’t want to go deeper into this with my article. But I would love to do so in a discussing with you, the reader. My simple question from the beginning has so many layers to it, instead of an article this could easily become an entire book.
I just want to close with a description of what my accent would be like. Remember that we replace unknown sounds with familiar sounds. Spanish has a few sounds that don’t exist in the German language, mainly the sounds for “r” and “rr”. It took me years to kind of learn to pronounce the “rr” and it still comes out wrong now and then. Since the single “r” in Spanish is easier to me, I often use that to go in place of the “rr”, unconsciously of course. There are many more sounds from the English language that are missing in German, like the “th”, “w”, “j” and soft consonants at the end of words, only to name a few.
But in my head I pronounce them correctly all the time of course. Amazing, isn’t it? To myself, I am a 100% fluent, accent free, Spanish speaker. Which makes recordings of myself, for instance on WhatsApp, much more embarrassing to me. And the same for you. Just try it. Listen consciously to yourself when speaking to people from different regions in your native language. Record yourself speaking in your second language and listen to it. I dare you!
Here are a few articles and a good video from my journey down the rabbit hole for your further consideration:
“I don’t have an accent – or do I?”
“Why it’s so hard to lose an accent”
“The Dunning Kruger Effect”
“How to do a German accent”