In conversation, people often adjust the way they speak based on the people
to whom they are talking. We can see this phenomenon most clearly when people talk to babies or animals and inadvertently switch over to a more high-pitched, sing-song tone of voice. This is an example of an adjustment made to improve communication. People also unconsciously adjust their speech to either align with or distinguish themselves from various conversation partners. People often report that when they speak with someone who has an accent, they find themselves “mimicking” that accent – and can feel pretty embarrassed about it! When people end up speaking more like their conversational partner, it is known as “phonetic
convergence” (Pardo, 2010).
Why would we change our vowels, consonants and speech rate to be more like our friends?
One theory is that we do this not only to facilitate communication,
as suggested above, but also to foster a sense of community with our peers (Giles, Coupland, & Coupland, 1991). It follows, then, that if you do not want to foster a sense of community or inclusion, you would not converge. An experiment done in Britain showed that Welsh-accented speakers converged to friendly London-accented speakers, but when a set of London-accented speakers insulted Wales, Welsh-accented participants began to speak with an even stronger Welsh accent, indicating a desire to distance themselves from their rude conversation partners (Bourhis & Giles, 1977).
Many of these experiments have been done with participants in a single lab
session. It is possible that people are only briefly converging with a random speaker, but immediately losing the effect once they leave the lab. To test how phonetic convergence dynamically affects speech over a long period of time, experimenters turned to pairs of college roommates and examined their speech over the course of a semester (Pardo, Gibbons, Suppes, & Krauss, 2012). In college, people from many different backgrounds come together and interact. In freshman year, students are often placed with a random roommate that they come to know and with whom they may develop a close friendship. Given the idea that we perhaps align our speech with people in order to make friends, we might expect that college roommates that become close would develop similar speech. In fact, this is exactly what the authors found:
The more roommates develop a friendship and share a close relationship, the more they tend to converge on similar patterns of speech.
Phonetic convergence, however, is affected by many complicated factors that can make it difficult to study. For example, gender has an effect: two men tend to converge with each other more than two women, and mixed-gender pairs only sometimes show convergence (Pardo, Urmanche, Wilman, & Wiener, 2017). There are a number of reasons why we should care about phonetic convergence. First, understanding why we have this tendency could be relevant to a number of fields, ranging from social psychology to linguistics. Secondly, phonetic convergence is particularly critical in a clinical environment: any two speakers will likely converge at least a little bit, and a speech-language pathologist would want to remain an unchanging model of speech for his or her client. Clinicians wouldn’t want to be seen as imitating the speech habits or accent of a client from a different geographical region. As a result, being aware of this tendency to converge could be especially important for clinicians, who could potentially try to develop techniques to avoid converging with clients.
- Bourhis, R. Y., & Giles, H. (1977). The language of intergroup distinctiveness. In Language, ethnicity and intergroup relations (pp. 119–136).
- Giles, H., Coupland, J., & Coupland, M. (1991). Accommodation theory:
Communication, context, and consequence. In Contexts of accommodation: Developments in applied sociolinguistics (pp. 1–68). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Pardo, J. S. (2010). Conversational role influences speech imitation, (July). http://doi.org/10.3758/APP
- Pardo, J. S., Gibbons, R., Suppes, A., & Krauss, R. M. (2012). Phonetic convergence in college roommates. Journal of Phonetics, 40(1), 190–197. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.wocn.2011.10.001
- Pardo, J. S., Urmanche, A., Wilman, S., & Wiener, J. (2017). Phonetic convergence across multiple measures and model talkers. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 79(2), 637–659. http://doi.org/10.3758/s13414-016- 1226-0
Amritha Mallikarjun is a doctoral candidate in the Neuroscience and Cognitive Science (NACS) program. Her broad research goal is to facilitate the acquisition and retention of a second language in adult speakers through examination of language skills used by bilinguals and heritage speakers. She works with Dr. Rochelle Newman and Dr. Jared Novick in the Hearing and Speech Department.