Do our accents change when we study abroad?
Do we consciously or unconsciously change our accents when studying abroad? Source: Shutterstock

Are you about to become an international student? You may have had siblings or know friends who studied abroad and came back with not only life-changing memories, but also a new accent.

Experience tells us that our accents can change at any point in life – even in adulthood. For example, some speech experts think Meghan Markle has started to sound more British since marrying Prince Harry, based on some of her intonations.

Speaking to the BBC, Marisa Brook, Assistant Professor in Linguistics at the University of Toronto, said the Duchess of Sussex has “developed a style that sounds very English-aristocratic for interacting with the public” but opined that it might be deliberate on her part.

“She’s developed a style to be used when directly talking with the British public. These are the situations where people might be judging her in public instantly, where it really benefits her to sound British and aristocratic,” explained Dr Brook.

But can the same be said about international students who are studying abroad for a prolonged period? Going abroad means fitting in, not just in how one dresses, but also culturally and in one’s speech.

Naturally, students from different countries come with different accents, and may sometimes experience difficulty in their host country when the locals are unable to understand their accents, forcing them to change how they speak.

Echoing this is Study International senior education journalist Sharuna Segaren, who studied at the University at Buffalo in New York, US between 2008 and 2014.

The Malaysian shared: “After some time in the US and being surrounded by Americans, I started to pick up the accent as well. I often felt I had to talk slower and lose a bit of my Malaysian slang when speaking to the locals, or else they wouldn’t be able to understand me.”

Upon returning to Malaysia, she gradually lost the accent she picked up and returned to speaking like a Malaysian local again.

Australian Emma Connolly, who was studying in the UK, gradually noticed how she had developed a British accent in her five years in Manchester.

“‘I’ll say things like ‘innit?’ without noticing,’” she said to the ABC.

Connolly shared that her UK friends think she sounds Australian, but her family have told her that she sounds English. However, when her family or other Australians are around, “I quickly go back into speaking more Australian. I can feel myself speaking more ‘twangy’.”

The changing of accents – something that can’t be helped?

In the same report, Monash University linguistics lecturer Howard Manns told ABC “that our adoption of the native tongue was believed to be based on a subconscious need to ‘find our tribe’”, adding that we adapt to the accent of our immediate social group, which evolves over time.

Dr Manns, an American who lives in Australia, said: “I sound North American to you but when I go home my family finds that there’s something wrong, there’s something not quite right about my accent, and that’s how subtle this whole accent assimilation is.”

Meanwhile, dialect coach Pamela Vanderway, speaking to The Guardian on Markle, said a change in accent is unavoidable when you start living in a new country, adding that “Accents are one of the ways human beings identify as being part of a group”.

So, to students who are about to study abroad and are worried about their accents changing – don’t sweat it as a sign of being inauthentic to your true self! Instead, look at it as something you do – sometimes unconsciously – to merely adapt to your new environment.

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