A is for Accommodation

6 01 2013

You may well have seen this YouTube clip a month or so ago: British footballer Joey Barton is interviewed in France not long after having debuted for the Marseille football club.  Much commented upon – and mocked – was his thick French accent, despite his being a native speaker of English and speaking little or no French. The Daily Mail, for example, described it as ‘an embarrassing display’ and ‘a comedy French accent’. Judge for yourself…

What Barton of course was doing (although neither he nor the Daily Mail named it as such) was accommodating his accent to that of his audience. Accommodation, as Robin Walker (2010: 97) reminds us, is ‘the ability to adjust your speech and aspects of spoken communication so that they become more (or less) like that of your interlocutors’.  David Crystal (2003: 6) adds that, ‘among the reasons why people converge towards the speech pattern of their listener are the desires to identify more closely with the listener, to win social approval, or simply to increase the communicative efficiency of the interaction’.

Winning social approval may well have motivated Barton, a newcomer to the region, to assume a French accent. But more important still was the need to be intelligible: in his defence he had said that ‘it is very difficult to do a press conference in Scouse for a room full of French journalists. The alternative is to speak like a ‘Allo Allo!’ character’.

Whatever the reason, Barton’s much-publicized accommodation is a good, if extreme, example of what most of us tend to do naturally and instinctively, and not just at the level of accent.  Jenny Jenkins (2000: 169) identifies a wide range of linguistic and prosodic features that are subject to convergence between speakers, ‘such as speech rate, pauses, utterance length, pronunciation and… non-vocal features such as smiling and gaze’.

Basic English 1 two figures01And, as Richardson et al., (2008: 75) note, ‘conversational partners do not limit their behavioural coordination to speech. They spontaneously move in synchrony with each other’s speech rhythms’, a finding which is likened to the ‘synchrony, swing, and coordination’ displayed by members of a jazz band. The researchers tracked the posture and gaze position of conversants to show that this coordination is not simply a byproduct of the interaction, but the physical embodiment of the speakers’ cognitive alignment – ‘an intimate temporal coupling between conversants’ (p. 88) or, (in T.S.Eliot’s words) ‘the whole consort dancing together’.

Arguably, accommodation occurs not only at the paralinguistic level, but at the linguistic one too. As we speak, for example, we are continuously monitoring our interlocutor’s degree of understanding, and adjusting our message accordingly. This is especially obvious in the way we talk to children and non-native speakers, forms of talk called  ‘caretaker talk’ and ‘foreigner talk’, respectively. Both varieties are characterized by considerable simplification, although there are significant differences. Caretaker talk is often pitched higher and is slower than talk used with adults, but, while simpler, is nearly always grammatically well-formed. Foreigner talk, on the other hand, tolerates greater use of non-grammatical, pidgin-like forms, as in ‘me wait you here’, or ‘you like drink much, no?’

Various theories have been proposed as to how speakers modify their talk like this. One is that they ‘regress’ to an early stage in their own language development. Another is that they negotiate a mutually-intelligible degree of communication. A third (and this is really a form of accommodation) is that they simply match their language to that of their interlocutor, imitating its simplifications, including its lack of grammatical accuracy. Rod Ellis (1994: 265), however, thinks that this explanation is unlikely, as ‘it is probably asking too much of learners’ interlocutors to measure simultaneously the learners’ phonology, lexicon, syntax, and discourse with sufficient accuracy to adjust their own language output’.

However, this was written before the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’, and their key role in enabling imitative behavior.  As Iacoboni (2008: 91-92) observes, ‘the fact that the major language area of the human brain is also a critical area for imitation and contains mirror neurons offers a new view of language and cognition in general’.  According to Iacobini, it is because of these mirror neurons that ‘during conversations we imitate each other’s expressions, even each other’s syntactic constructions… If one person engaged in a dialogue uses the word “sofa” rather than the word “couch,” the other person engaged in the dialogue will do the same’ (op. cit. 97-98).

It seems, then, that as humans we are hard-wired to imitate one another.

Basic English 1 two figures02So, what are the implications for language teaching? In the interests both of intelligibility and establishing ‘comity’, Joey Barton’s adaptive accent strategy may be the way to go. For learners of English, whose interlocutors may not themselves be native speakers, this may mean learning to adapt to other non-native speaker accents. As Jenkins (2007: 238) argues, ‘in international communication, the ability to accommodate  to interlocutors with other first languages than one’s own… is a far more important skill than the ability to imitate the English of a native speaker.’

So, in the interests of mutual intelligibility, rather than teaching pronunciation per se, maybe we should be teaching accommodation skills. The question, of course, is how?


Crystal, D. (2003) A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (5th edition) Oxford: Blackwell.

Ellis, R. (1994) The Study of Second language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Iacoboni, M. (2008) Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2007) English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Basic English 1 two figures03Richardson, D.C., Dale, R., & Shockley, K., (2008) ‘Synchrony and swaying in conversation: coordination, temporal dynamics, and communication,’ in Wachsmuth, I., Lenzen, M., & Knoblich, G. (eds) Embodied Communication in Humans and Machines, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walker, R. (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Ogden, C.K. (ed.) (n.d.) The Basic Way to English, London: Evans Brothers.