Good at Phonetics? It May be Genetics!

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Any dialect coach will tell you that not everyone has a knack for picking up accents. Some people take to this kind of work immediately, while others struggle to recognize the most basic differences between accents. It’s a sad reality.

I have attributed this to external factors: where one grows up, media exposure, or one’s family. Regarding myself, I assumed my own phonetics obsession was due my parents (he is from the Upper Midwest, she from the American South), my hometown (in between several dialect areas), and my television habits (we only got PBS growing up, hence I watched a lot of BBC programming).

But then there’s this new study, which suggests that accent and phonetic proficiency may be genetic. Some people have brains that are capable of hearing phonetic differences between different speakers, while others are “deaf” in this regard. Quote the relevant article in Syfy News:

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers compared the brain structures of seventeen phoneticians against sixteen healthy control volunteers and showed clear differences in the structure of key areas of the brain.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, though. Thinking back, there is a bit of circumstantial evidence in my own life suggesting a correlation between genetics and phonetics.

My aunt, for example. She is an anthropologist who spent years immersed in the culture of the Tamils of Sri Lanka. I read a bit of her book a few years back, and remember finding something startling within the first few chapters. There was a detailed “pronunciation guide” for the Tamil language that looked remarkably similar to pronunciation guides I had made for English dialects. It looked, in short, like something I would create in my free time.

Then there’s my father, who works in the field of early childhood education. I only recently realized that phonetic analysis is an important part of his field. Indeed, he is one of the only people I know who has said, “Oh yeah, I’ve used that in the past,” when I’ve mentioned the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Beyond that, I’ve found there to be a slight preoccupation with accents and dialects among many members of my family. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I recall my grandmother discussing British accents with me when I was ten years old.

Strangely, though, part of me wishes phonetic proficiency wasn’t something innate. I truly hope we are all capable of learning languages and dialects, and recognizing different ways of speaking. I still hold on to that dream.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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7 Responses to Good at Phonetics? It May be Genetics!

  1. 'enry 'iggins says:

    If you think about it though we all must have had this ability at one time in our lives. The evidence for this is that all of my friends and I have perfect American accents. That means we must have all had this ability when we were young. I’m not sure what happens after that. I’ve heard different theories. By the way, I’m not the real Henry Higgins. I just thought I should mention that :)

  2. danielle says:

    ooh!

    a small point I feel I really do need to jump in and make:

    MRI analysis of brain activity != genetics.

    My training in Cognitive Science wasn’t too advanced and was a few years ago, so if a neurologist would like to jump in and correct me on anything then go ahead, but…

    Your brain adapts to what you do with it. Children are great at learning things because (as well as having a lot of free time) their brains are still all new and malleable. This is called ‘cognitive plasticity’. As you get older, you lose this. It becomes more difficult to, for example, learn new languages. It will be more difficult to hear distinctions between phonemes (that you don’t usually need to make a distinction between), and to produce them. Not impossible, just more difficult.

    People’s brains use roughly the same areas for the same sorts of task processing. For example, motor coordination (moving your limbs), or language. You might have heard about this from the evidence provided by brain damage and its specific effects – for example, aphasias. However, in less dramatic cases, the brain still has the ability to adapt to needs. (see Time article that was the first thing that came up when I googled ‘brain rewiring itself’, but looks pretty enlightening)

    So, in comparing practicing phoneticians to controls, it’s not too surprising that there are some differences. You might also expect some differences in the brain structure of Olympic discus-throwers when compared to controls in a motor coordination task.

    Genetic pre-disposition can’t be ruled out, but this would need to be studied by, for example, comparing babies brains first, then looking at their capacities later in life, though it has been shown that babies are already listening to language in the womb, so either you take babies from exactly the same surrounding, or, if you want to look at ‘genetics’, you look at the DNA.

    In any case, this lends weight to your intuitions about environment (having parents with different accents, you would have been exposed to a greater range of phonemes). I’m not sure about your aunt. Do you mean that because you’re genetically related you produced similar-looking guides?

  3. danielle says:

    hello.

    I’d like to apologise. I can’t believe I wrote and posted a whole comment without looking at the actual article you’d linked to.

    pretty much everything I said was already addressed in the article, so…

    I hope it was of some interest, anyway.

    and,

    I’ll join you in agreeing that that’s an interesting study.

    • trawicks says:

      No problem, Danielle. I’ve had quite a few moments myself of not noticing a link until after I’ve read an article!

      It is an interesting study, although I am still a teensy bit skeptical about the genetic component, because I’m skeptical of attempts to show that any ability is genetic. It’s a line of inquiry that has a pretty bad history, to say the least.

  4. Darrensmooth says:

    For whatever reason I have always had a thing for accents, I was originally from England moved to Canada at age 2 got the Canadian accent, moved back to England at 4, got the English accent (Midlands). Moved back to Canada at age 13, got the accent again. I can immitate accents I also can notice things in accents that most don’t.

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