Largest-ever study into how people speak reveals the British accent as the most popular abroad
Babbel, the world’s highest-grossing language-learning app, has, in collaboration with Dr Alex Baratta, Lecturer in Language, Linguistics & Communications at the University of Manchester, commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct the largest-ever global study into perceptions of accents and ‘accent anxiety’.
The research, which was undertaken throughout November and December 2019, consisted of interviews with 7,500 respondents in the UK, USA, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, and Canada (both English- and French-speaking). Respondents were asked for their opinions on the impact of the native accents of foreign speakers when attempting their language (i.e. French people were asked for their opinion on Britons speaking French in a British accent).
Key findings include:
British is the most likeable accent globally, with 45% of respondents stating they enjoy hearing their native language spoken with a British accent. First nested list itemPoland is the only country where a British accent isn’t the most popular accent - in Poland, the American accent is most popular.
British people are second only to Americans in being worried about the perception of their accent abroad, with 49% of Britons stating they feel anxious about their accent when speaking in a foreign language. 38% of Britons express a desire to shed their accent when speaking a foreign language, and 46% of Britons believe that their accent can be associated with negative stereotypes when in a foreign country.
When rated by other countries, British accents are most likely to be described as “sophisticated” (32%), “stylish” (30%) and “professional” (29%). Americans and Canadians are most likely to find a British accent “sexy” (24% and 19% respectively), whilst French speakers think that the British accent as “cute”. In turn, Britons rate French accents as the “sexiest” (37%), although they feel that an Italian accent is the most “passionate” (42%). Spanish accents are considered to be the most “friendly” (39%), and American accents are rated as most “funny” (14%).
38% of respondents globally state that they have felt anxious about their accent when speaking a foreign language. Conversely, Germans (23%) and French (24%) are the least anxious about their accent when speaking a foreign language.
Female respondents (42%) and younger respondents (47%) are more likely to have experienced accent anxiety than the global average (38%). Men (34%) and older people (31%) still feel anxious, but to a lesser extent.
Britons and Americans are more likely than any other nationalities to overcome anxiety about speaking in foreign languages by learning common phrases by heart.
Poles are most likely to feel that they hold back from speaking due to perceived negativity connected to their accent (73% of Polish people state that their accent holds them back from speaking). This is compared with 69% of people globally.
According to the 7,500 people polled across eight different countries, the following attributes are most commonly associated with certain accents:
- Most friendly - Spanish (39%)
- Most unfriendly - Russian (18%)
- Most straight-forward - German (29%)
- Most assertive - German (33%)
- Most uneducated - American (16%)
- Most funny - American (14%)
- Most professional - German (26%)
- Most harsh - German and Russian (38%)
- Most stylish - French and Italian (30%)
- Most intelligent - Swedish (24%)
- Most trustworthy - Swedish (15%)
- Most passionate - Italian (42%)
- Most intriguing - French (19%)
- Most sexy - French (37%)
- Most sophisticated - French (30%)
Jennifer Dorman, Instructional Designer in Didactics at Babbel, comments: “Concern about not being understood is a universal experience. We commissioned this research to explore how, when, and where anxiety around one’s accent in a foreign language is prevalent, and how it manifests itself. At Babbel, we encourage anyone and everyone to be brave and attempt to talk to others, even when your delivery is not quite perfect. Whether your accent is British and likeable, German and professional, French and sexy, Swedish and intelligent, or Spanish and friendly, people are always receptive and appreciative when you make the effort to engage with them in their own language, wherever you are in the world.”
Dr Alex Baratta, a lecturer in Language, Linguistics & Communications at the University of Manchester, comments: “Accents pertain to the use of specific sounds employed in specific contexts. That’s it from a purely linguistic perspective. From a sociolinguistic perspective, however, we go beyond a mere descriptive account of sounds and discuss, for example, attitudes to accents. It is here that accent prejudice and preference comes into play, involving snap judgements made in terms of ‘his accent sounds sexy’, ‘she sounds common’, ‘they sound working-class’ and so on and so on. From a purely linguistic point of view, no accent is inherently one thing or another - neither good, nor bad. In terms of societal attitudes, however, such judgements, and stereotyping, persist. It’s important to remember though that accent is a proxy for larger categories, such as race and class, and so to ascribe judgement to one’s accent can mean ascribing judgement to race. The results of Babbel’s study suggest that individuals, keen to fit in and/or avoid negative judgement from others, modify their accents to versions which might be seen as less ‘broad’, for example, and with this, reflective of potentially less negativity from the listener. This is nothing new perhaps and we could argue that we modify our accent as we modify our clothing - in order to fit a given context and this is simply an objective response. However, accent is more personal than clothing, as well as comparatively more fixed, and so an attack on our accent is an attack on more than just sounds.”
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