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:

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.”

About Dr Alex Baratta

About Babbel

Babbel develops and operates an ecosystem of interconnected online language learning experiences and is driven by the purpose of creating mutual understanding through language. This means building products that help people connect and communicate across cultures. The Babbel App, Babbel Live, Babbel Podcasts and Babbel for Business products focus on using a new language in the real world, in real situations, with real people. And it works: Studies by linguists from institutions such as Michigan State University, Yale University and the City University of New York demonstrated the efficacy of Babbel’s language learning methods.

The key is a blend of humanity and technology. Babbel offers more than 60,000 lessons across 15 languages, hand-crafted by nearly 200 didactics experts, with user behaviors continuously analysed to shape and tweak the learner experience. This results in constantly adapting, interactive content with live classes, games, podcasts and videos that make understanding a new language easy, from Spanish to Indonesian.

Because Babbel is for everyone, its team is as diverse as its content. From its headquarters in Berlin and its U.S. office in New York, 1000 people from more than 80 nationalities represent the backgrounds, characteristics and perspectives that make all humans unique. Babbel sold over 15 million subscriptions by creating a true connection with users.

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