A much viewed YouTube clip shows Steve McClaren, the former England manager, talking English but in a Dutch accent while managing Dutch side FC Twente.
People who interact with a person with a different accent subconsciously mimic their twang because they want to “empathise” with their conversation partner, psychologists claim. American researchers have found human brains imitate the speech patterns of other people, even complete strangers, without meaning to.
They say a humans want to “bond” with others, even when a voice cannot be heard or, somewhat embarrassingly, even if another person is a foreigner.
Scientists from the University of California, Riverside, found the subconscious copying of an accent comes from an inbuilt urge of the brain to “empathise and affiliate”.
Their findings, reported in the journal Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, concluded this happens when we cannot hear what is being said but are simply lip-reading.
“Humans are incessant imitators,” said Prof Lawrence Rosenblum, a psychologist who led the study:
“We intentionally imitate subtle aspects of each other’s mannerisms, postures and facial expressions.
“We also imitate each other’s speech patterns, including inflections, talking speed and speaking time.”
He added: “Sometimes we even take on the foreign accent of the person to whom we are talking, leading to embarrassing consequences.”
His team led a lip-reading experiment among a group of volunteers, who all had good hearing but no formal lip-reading experience.
They asked them to watch various people mouthing a selection of 80 simple words from tennis to cabbage without sound.
The volunteers were then given a choice of two words, one right and one wrong, and asked to repeat back what they thought was the word being said silently.
But they were not asked to imitate or impersonate the talker, rather just repeat the word.
The study concluded that they were more likely to repeat the word in the same accent used by the speaker rather than their own accent.
“Whether we are hearing or lip-reading speech articulations, a talker’s speaking style has subtle influences on our own manner of speaking,” Prof Rosenblum said.
“This unintentional imitation could serve as social glue, helping us to affiliate and empathise with each other.”
Lip-reading experts say it is possible to “see” accents in the lip movements of other people.
Previous studies have found a person can have a subconscious desire to copy gestures or speech patterns of others they are having conversation with.
But sometimes imitating someone else’s accent can lead to embarrassing consequences.