NPR recently published a fascinating article entitled Unfamiliar Accents Turn Off Humans And Songbirds. If you were to read this title, wouldn’t you assume that meant unfamiliar accents are a ‘turn off’ to people and birds? That’s what I assumed…and it led me to read further.
As we know, a ‘turn-off’ is an idiomatic expression that means to repulse or repel. This article, however, was certainly not talking about a supposedly abhorrent nature of unfamiliar accents. For as we know, depending on our experiences and perspectives, accents can either be a ‘turn-off’ or a ‘turn-on’. Think of a French accent and all kinds of ooh-la-la come to mind!
The article was highlighting a phenomenon that neurologists from Scotland recently discovered when examining brain activity in people exposed to unfamiliar accents. Their findings? Activity in the temporal region of the brain (the region that process voice discrimination) ‘turns off’, or at least greatly diminishes. But does this suggest that accents are a turn-off? Hardly! It simply notes that sounds which don’t occur in one’s native language are processed as an ‘accent’ and not given as much relevance.
In the world of cognitive linguistics, this phenomenon is known as NLNC (Native Language Neural Commitment). It means that as we identify the speech patterns of our native language, our brains create neural pathways that recognize, respond, and commit to the pronunciation patterns of our first language. Over time, other speech sounds are seen as “accented” speech.
Interestingly, researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Duke University have discovered that songbirds, like people, have regional ‘accents’ and tend to respond to songs in a familiar accent. Swamp sparrows from Pennsylvania sound markedly different than swamp sparrows from New York. Does this mean that one bird’s accent is ‘right’ and the other is ‘wrong’? Of course not!
As far as people and our accents are concerned, heavy accents that create language barriers may prevent effective communication. But accents that don’t impede communication are an important part of our identity. If, as seems to be the case, birds of a feather sing together….it might do us some good to remember we need sopranos, tenors and everything in between to create perfect harmony.