The Daily Telegraph

What’s wrong with drop­ping your ac­cent to get on in life?

- me­lanie mcdon­agh

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

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