Bronwen G. Evans -firstname.lastname@example.org
Dept. of Phonetics and Linguistics
University College London
London, NW1 2HE, UK
Popular version of paper 2aSC11
Presented Tuesday morning, May 17, 2005
Joint ASA/CAA Meeting, Vancouver, BC
When speakers of different accents come into contact with each other (e.g., in large cities such as London) they often avoid words or sounds that are strongly local to their original area in order to fit in and to make communication easier. This study investigated if young adults changed their spoken accent when attending university away from home. In Britain, it is usual for students to attend university in an area different to the one in which they have been raised. Consequently, students come into contact with speakers of a wide variety of different accents (e.g., students from the North of England come into contact with speakers of Southern English accents), and they become part of a multidialectal community. We were interested in whether students from the North of England would change their accent away from a regional one associated with their hometowns, to a more general, "educated" one - Standard Southern British English (SSBE) - in order to fit in with their university community. We were also interested in whether any changes in production would affect speech perception.
A group of 27 subjects was recruited from Ashby de la Zouch, a small town in the Midlands, U.K., near to Birmingham and Nottingham. Unlike a university community, Ashby is not a multidialectal environment where other accents are regularly used; the majority of the population is drawn from the local area, and in particular, it is highly unusual to find speakers of SSBE. Thus, the students had no previous direct experience of living in a multidialectal environment where SSBE was spoken.
The local accent used in Ashby is a Northern English accent, and differs from SSBE in two ways. Words like bath and grass are produced with a short rather than a long vowel. Words like cud and could are produced with the same vowel so that they rhyme, whereas in SSBE these words are produced with two different vowels. You can hear these differences by clicking on the sound examples below.
SSBE bath, Northern bath
SSBE cud, Northern cud
SSBE could, Northern could
Subjects were tested before beginning university, 3 months later, and on completion of their first year of study. At each time, they recorded a set of words and a short reading passage, and completed two perceptual experiments. In these perceptual experiments, they chose best exemplars (i.e., a vowel that sounded good to them) for test words embedded in carrier sentences produced in Northern English and SSBE, and identified words embedded in noise in both of these accents. At the end of the last testing session, subjects were also interviewed about their attitudes to regional accents.
Subjects changed their accent after spending a year at university: at the end of their first year their accent was judged to be more similar to SSBE than before. You can hear these changes by listening to the sound examples below. Listen in particular to the vowels underlined in the words "Just,", "others,""coming," "undaunted," and "come." The speaker has changed the way in which he produces this vowel after experience of being at university: after a year of study these vowels sound more centralized and are more like those used in SSBE.
before university, after 1 year
However, there was a lot of individual variation in the results: some subjects were judged to sound more like SSBE speakers both before university and after their first year of study, whereas others were judged to have a particularly strong local accent at both times. You can hear these differences by listening to the sound examples below. Again, listen carefully to the vowels in the words "Just," "others," "coming," "undaunted," and "come." The male speaker has a strong regional accent before beginning university and hardly changes his accent after a year, whereas the female speaker sounds much more southern.
male speaker before university, male speaker after one year, female speaker after one year
The changes in production seemed to be linked to sociolinguistic factors: students who changed their accent had friendship groups that were predominantly made up of SSBE speakers, and reported that they felt it was important for them to be identified as a member of this community. It is possible that sociolinguistic factors might also be able to explain why the students who changed their accent only changed certain aspects of their pronunciation. Acoustic analyses of each speaker's vowel production showed that students changed their production of the vowel in words like luck and cud but not in words like bath. It is possible that they retained their native pronunciation in words like "bath" in order to continue to identify themselves with their native community, but that they changed their production of the vowel in words like "luck" and "cud" in order to identify themselves with their new, university-based community.
There was some evidence for a link between production and perception. Subjects who produced vowels in words like "luck" and "cud" that were judged to sound more similar to SSBE both before and after their first year at university chose best exemplars of these vowels that were more like those SSBE speakers produce when they were listening to SSBE speech. Likewise, subjects who were judged to have a more "regional" accent overall preferred more Northern vowels that better matched their local accent when listening to SSBE speech. Word recognition was similarly affected. Subjects who produced more SSBE-sounding vowels before and after university had higher word identification scores for SSBE speech than those who were judged to have a more local accent overall.
1. Students changed their spoken accent after experience of attending university - a significantly late stage in their language development.
2. The changes in production appeared to be linked to sociolinguistic factors: students who were highly motivated to fit in and identify themselves with a university community changed more than those who were not.
3. There was some evidence for a link between production and perception: students chose similar vowels to the ones that they produced, and those that had a more southern accent were better at recognizing SSBE in noise.