Acting it out
Pronunciation in the English language can vary depending on where you were brought up. In the Mad Libs performance, Benedict Cumberbatch was in the character of a cop and attempted to adopt a heavy Boston accent (perhaps a stereotypical NYPD officer often portrayed in crime TV dramas). At the same time, Jimmy Fallon started the performance talking in his usual American accent, until he decided to change into a ‘Ukraine accent’, when he was forced to announce his character’s nationality, pre-chosen in courtesy of the Mad Libs game.
Apart from pronunciation, intonations also have an important role in making accents unique to their associated places. For example, speakers of American English have a tendency to change their volume for emphasis, whilst those of standard British English are more likely to change their pitch (Fisher et al. 2016). Whilst our ability to perceive and distinguish between accents is impressive, it has some negative consequences in socio-political relations as well. An experiment involved people using standard and non-standard dialects of American-English to make several phone calls to the same landlord for housing requests. The results revealed that the landlord seemed to have discriminated against prospective tenants based on the sound of their voice, indicative of non-standard dialects. Based on this study alone, Hispanic Americans experienced more discrimination than African Americans (Purnell et al. 2016).
Multilingualism and Cultural Acquisition
Here, I present an example from my personal experience. I was born and raised in Hong Kong, an international and multilingual city. I attended preschool with American, Canadian and Chinese teachers, and spent all of secondary education in a UK boarding school. Having spent 7 years immersed in the British social life, my Cantonese has unfortunately suffered the consequences. In one of my trips back home, I once got into a local HK taxi and uttered my destination in Cantonese. With just 5 syllables, the driver asked me if I had studied abroad. He said my Cantonese was ‘slacking in bite’ and that my pronunciation was ‘lazy’. More recently, I have graduated 6th Form in Britain with a somewhat hybridised accent. One friend stated that my English pronunciation was American-Canadian but my intonation was British.
Being multilingual means being fluent in multiple languages. However, this does not automatically mean being able to speak those languages with a non-standard accent, even if all those languages were simultaneously learnt as first languages. Although we acknowledge that a variety of accents exist due to cultural difference, we still seem to subconsciously assess the speaker’s linguistic competence. In turn, we let those assumptions affect how we socially interact with people possessing unfamiliar accents (Berthele 2011).
There is a fascinating power in how speech patterns can be very telling of where a person grew up in. Furthermore, with the rising integration of globalisation into our private lives, normal speech is influenced by the speaker’s life history in how they travel through different social spheres. This demonstrates how the voice is plastic in its capability to be shaped through culture – an exemplar of the embodiment of social life.
Berthele, R. (2011) The influence of code-mixing and speaker information on perception and assessment of foreign language proficiency: An experimental study. International Journal of Bilingualism 16(4): 453-466.
Fisher, J., Kayes, G., Matthews, C. (2016) This is a Voice: 99 exercises to train, project and harness the power of your voice. London: Wellcome Collection.
Purnell, T., Idsardi, W., Baugh, J. (2016) Perceptual and Phonetic Experiments on American English Dialect Identification. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 18(1): 10-30.