How much thought do you give to accents in your everyday life? Whether you work regularly with international partners, live in a community with people originating from around the world, work as a voice impersonator, or have friends across the country, chances are you run into different accents on a daily basis. According to an editorial in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, “Spoken language doesn’t exist without an accent.”
But how do we as humans know how to impersonate voices? Actors have to do it all the time for roles, whether it’s an American actor adopting a British accent or a Chinese actor speaking with a flawless American accent. To understand that, we need to take a dive into the science of accents and exactly how actors learn how to impersonate voices.
Accents Are Crucial to Language
In order to understand a voice impersonator, the first thing we need to make clear about accents is that they are an integral part of language. According to Scientific American, accents are crucial to the way language develops. “New accents begin to develop when isolated groups of speakers start making nearly imperceptible changes to the way they pronounce words,” the article says. This can eventually lead to the development of entirely new languages.
Babies Adopt Accents
Accents are ingrained in us from a very young age. According to two studies from researcher Katherine Wermke, published in Journal of Voice and Speech, Language, and Hearing, babies cry with accents. The first study compared babies whose families spoke German and Mandarin Chinese. In the second study, Wermke compared the cries of week-old babies whose parents spoke German versus the Cameroonian language Lamnso.
Both these studies showed that infants cried differently. Mandarin Chinese and Lamnso are both tonal languages; German is not. The Chinese and Cameroonian babies had higher pitch than the German babies, which implies that babies are learning about accents, tones, and pitch before they’re even born. This is another indication of how crucial accents are to language.
How Accents Change
A study in Linguistic Society of America details how accents can change over time — specifically, how isolation can affect accent change over a short period of time. Researchers studied participants on the reality show Big Brother UK, in which participants live in a closed house and all their interactions are recorded.
The researchers found that there was no single way that accents changed; it was very complex and individualistic. Generally speaking, there were small daily fluctuations in accents, but no large-scale changes over weeks and months. At the end of the three-month period, the contestants did not all speak with the exact same accent.
Voice Impersonators Can Use Different Accents
If accents don’t change markedly, even in a closed environment over months at a time, how can actors willfully adopt different accents for a role? How is it possible to maintain your existing accent but also adopt a different one with virtually native fluency?
Maintaining your existing accent while learning a new one has to do with brain flexibility — or the lack thereof. A new study from researchers at the University of California at San Francisco can help us understand how the brain processes and differentiates a mother tongue from subsequent languages. There’s a tug of war between neuroplasticity — which helps us learn new things and allows the brain to remain nimble — and stability, which is what helps us retain what we already know.
But here’s how actors impersonate voices: mimicry. According to Live Science, it’s not changes in brain chemistry that allow actors to adopt perfect accents — they’re simply mimicking what they hear from native speakers. It’s mechanical. Thanks to instruction from a voice coach, actors actually deconstruct how to move their mouths differently to create different sounds (and therefore different accents). According to the article, it’s just as much about learning the sounds of the accent as it is about the rhythm and pattern of speech.
That’s why voice impersonators can speak with different accents and mimic them flawlessly. But even if a person is taught how to speak with a different accent, our brain’s stability ensures we’ll keep a tight grip on the accent we’re born with — and likely maintain some version of it over the course of our lives.
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