The Daily Telegraph
What’s wrong with dropping your accent to get on in life?
Thank God for the left frontal lobe. Researchers from UCL and Yale have found that when we talk with people from a different socioeconomic background, there’s an increased flow of oxygenated blood to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with speech and language.
In other words, we’re being prompted by our own brains to talk posh or go down a gear in terms of accent to fit in with the people around us. Well, good for the left lobe, is what I say; it’s helped me get on.
Usually, people who change their accents get short shrift; modulating your diction seems somehow insincere – a form of class betrayal every time you open your mouth. The posh boy who talks Estuary – and, yes, I am thinking of Prince Harry here – seems to be pretending to be less privileged than he is.
People who try to ditch their regional accents and turns of phrase when they’re in the company of the privately educated are even more tragic. In both cases, all it takes is a friend from school who knows how you sounded when you were eight to cut you down to size.
Recently, there was a BBC Radio 4 programme about the plight of black Britons who felt obliged to change their speech patterns and accents to fit in to white society; linguistic racism was the gist of it. But there must have been umpteen listeners who traded up their accent to fit in who could have told them it’s the same for everyone.
I am with the offenders here. When I finished my education in Ireland at 17 and came to England to do A-levels, I was acutely aware that an Irish accent would make me stand out. I wanted to fit in, so I made it my business to channel George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and actually practised
Received Pronunciation on a tape recorder.
It started off as way of deflecting bullying; it ended up with me changing my diction midway across the Irish Sea. I’ve now got a more or less English accent, I think, but when I am back where I came from, I revert to something like my old way of talking.
Nowadays, a regional accent is an asset; the BBC is awash with people who don’t speak BBC English. Received Pronunciation – the term is now redundant – says white privilege. In fact, Etonians like Prince Harry who flatten their vowels are probably trying hard not to get beaten up; it’s the self preservation instinct kicking in from the left frontal lobe. He doesn’t have to try the same thing in California; he’s probably surrounded by people telling him his accent is cute. Even the Queen sounds different compared with when she was young; she wouldn’t get away now with the vowels she had then. And, obviously, what you say matters, as well as how you say it.
Changing your diction to match your aspirations is a useful means of social mobility. The broadcaster Joan Bakewell wanted to get on at university and later at the BBC; she dropped her Stockport accent and never looked back.
How our instinct for conformity through speech became embedded in our left frontal lobes doesn’t really matter. It bears out the truth of Shaw’s dictum: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.”
One way round that problem is to change the way you talk. And right now you’re more likely to talk like a social influencer than George Bernard Shaw. read more at telegraph.co.uk/opinion