August 26, 2009, Updated September 13, 2012

If Spanish is your second language in America, chances are you’ll speak with a better accent if you have more empathy for Latin Americans, suggests a new Israeli study.

Researchers from the University of Haifa found that when a person has more empathy and political ties to another group, that group’s language is adopted with a lighter accent.

The study was carried out by Haifa U’s Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim and Dr. Mark Leikin of the Department of Learning Disabilities and Prof. Zohar Eviatar from the Department of Psychology, and was recently published in the International Journal of Bilingualism. The study could have profound implications on the way English is taught to new immigrants in America, and the way second languages like Spanish, French and German are brought into schools.

Looking at a number of students from the University of Haifa, the researchers divided the subjects into three groups: there were 20 native Hebrew speakers, 20 Arabic speakers from Israel who learned Hebrew by age 7 or 8, and 20 Russian immigrants who learned Hebrew only after 13. The socioeconomic backgrounds of all the students were the same.

Asked to read aloud a section from a report in Hebrew, the students then had to describe an image that was shown to them in Hebrew. These two clips were recorded and then edited into 2-minute pieces. The subjects also filled out a questionnaire developed to measure their empathy levels.

Blame it on Zohan

Then, the study took clips from 20 native Hebrew speakers who listened to the accents on the recorded clips, and rated the heaviness of the Hebrew accent. Each participant from the first stage was scored by the weight of their accents and their levels of empathy.

The researchers found that native Arab speakers who learn Hebrew in Israel as a second language, have the same level of accent as new immigrants from Russia. The study showed that native Israelis viewed the accent levels of Arabs and Russians as similar, but among Russian speakers they found a direct link between empathy and the thickness of one’s accent.

Among the Arabic speakers, no positive or negative link between level of empathy and heaviness of accent could be seen.

The researchers’ attempt to account for this finding, they hypothesize, is that in the group of Arabic speakers, new factors come into the equation — something called a ‘language ego’ and it’s related to the group’s sociopolitical position in Israel. “We believe that the pattern among Arabic speakers demonstrates their sentiment toward the Hebrew-speaking majority group, and the former consider their accent as something that distinguishes them from the majority,” the researchers sum up.

Questions on the native tongue

What this means for language acquisition studies: “Our research shows that both personal and sociopolitical aspects have an influence on accent in speaking a second language, and teachers giving instruction in languages as second languages, especially among minority groups, must relate to the social and political connection when teaching,” the researchers explain.

The study also sheds light on the factors that cause accents and why some people can learn a new language like a native, and others retain their heavy accents even years later. Researchers explain that our brain’s language system limits, in some, the creation of language pronunciations in a non-native tongue.

Another explanation, they give, comes through the socio-lingual field: socio-affective elements come into play and affect the accent. The accent, in effect, becomes an image label for the speaker when in the presence of a majority group.

Clearly this new study opens up some interesting questions in any tongue, and Israel, they add, was the best place for exploring the accent and language question: “Israel is a perfect lab location for testing the topic of second languages, because of the complex composition of its population,” the researchers say.

“This population is made up of immigrants who learn Hebrew at an advanced age; an ethnic minority of Arabs, some of whom learn Hebrew from an early age, and others who learn the language as mature adults; and a majority group of native Hebrew speakers.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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