As with the uptick in Christmas lights and trees all over Lagos, I’ve also noticed a rise in the number of Nigerian IJGB- short for ‘I Just Got Back’. These are Nigerians who’ve recently returned to the country after some period abroad. A defining characteristics of the IJGB is the exquisite foreign accent (popularly known as foneh in Nigeria) that makes you wonder if you just walked into a Harry Potter movie. Assuredly, you’ve wondered how such accents affect human behavior, what makes accents so interesting and the economics behind foneh accents and fake imitations….No? So, just me. Alright, nonetheless, let’s delve into it.
What’s The Big Deal with Accents?
Like your name, your accent is a form of identity that not only tells where you’re from, but also tells where you’ve been. It’s kinda like your passport. Consequently, your accent can significantly influence a listener’s perception of you. A study by Stephan Heblich, Alfred Lameli, and Gerhard Riener on the effect of perceived regional accents on individual economic behavior finds that accents can encourage clichés and stereotypes that affect individual behavior. (Quite true, you’ve all mocked the stereotypical Igbo accent at some point in time.)
It doesn’t end there. The study also finds that the perception of an out-group accent leads not only to social discrimination but also influences economic decisions. People are more likely to be cooperative when they have similar accent. This is thanks to the own-accent bias. People positively judge those with the same accent as themselves compared to those with a different accent.
So An Accent Is Simply Another Attribute You Get Judged By?
There’s actually more. The second part of their conclusion is quite revealing. They suggest that this economic behavior is not necessarily attributable to the perception of a regional accent per se, but rather to the social rating of linguistic distance and the in-group/out-group perception it evokes. What this means is that an accent really isn’t the big deal, the social rating of the accent is.
People are biased towards accents they find attractive or socially high. Don’t believe this? Watch the average American fawn when an Englishman speaks. Nigerians are no exception to this bias. We tend to judge those with certain foreign accents more favorably than those with typical ‘Nigerian’ accent. Let’s call this bias the foreign accent bias.
What’s The Big Deal With Having A Foreign Accent?
Linguists sometimes refer to this phenomenon as the accent prestige theory: the belief that certain types of accents, because of their historical associations with high society, are more prestigious than others. According to this theory, we attach social judgments to people’s accents. Perhaps due to the disparity between academic standards in the Western world and developing countries like Nigeria, a foreign accent is seen as ‘smarter, more competent or more intelligent’.
Or perhaps, its intrinsically economic in nature. In a country of millions, where thousands visit foreign embassies with slim hopes of procuring a visa to ‘travel abroad’, traveling becomes a big deal. Much like a luxury good, the scarcer and more expensive the product, the more likely one who possesses it is likely to show off with it. The same applies to going abroad. Given that traveling is an expensive ordeal, some might need to show off such a product, and well…what works better than faking an accent? It’s no surprise when people spend a year, a month or a week in Ukraine or Sudan and come back with an American accent. In some instances, the foreign accent syndrome can be contagious. There are stories of chaps coming back from a brief travel, and other family members miraculously acquiring an accent. Highly infectious stuff, and unlike Ebola, this requires no physical contact.
This opens up an interesting perspective for the speaker: the use of regional accents can be strategically employed to persuade or manipulate a communication partner. We use accents as a way of judging competence, soundness and in some instances, moral uprightness. Research shows that these judgments can influence something as superficial as how physically attractive we find someone or something more substantial like hiring practices. Anyone who understands this can manipulate it to his or her advantage. Make sure to turn that accent up a notch when you’re in a job interview, giving a presentation or chatting up a lady. Oh and especially when you’re on the radio – you’re not allowed to speak on the radio without an almost indecipherable accent.
So This ‘Foneh’ Thing Really Works?
Yes, but as the study also points out, accents may be misleading and thus not economically effective. Economically, an accent is quite ineffective as a signal given that anyone can simply imitate it (to varying levels of accuracy, of course). Such ease of replication floods the market with both genuine and fake accents. For a listener, distinguishing between which is real or not becomes a hassle that doesn’t justify the cost, consequently making the use of one’s foneh accent ineffective. In Nigeria, having a foreign accent is akin to carrying a Louis Vuitton bag – everyone has one, and even if it’s real, everyone thinks it’s fake.
If you’re not convinced, here’s a numeric way of explaining why faking an accent really isn’t worth it. And before someone points it out in the comments, humans are complex beings and we act differently in different context. Hence, it’s no surprise that we should sound different based on context. But when we talk about accents, we’re referring to those obviously fake radio types.
Looking at the table, one listening to you talk would know if you’re faking an accent or not. When it’s clear that you’re faking an accent, the penalty is higher than when it’s clear that you’re not – hence, -3 compared to 2. And when the listener cannot differentiate, the benefit accused from a fake or real accent stays the same. Hence 2 and 2. Accumulating both of these scenarios shows that in the long run, a real accent can be quite beneficial, but faking an accent only has a negative outcome.
So perhaps, this table is a simple numeric way of telling people to just relax and talk in clear understandable accents. It really does not have to be an IJGB or foneh accent for people to find you competent or intelligent. As you attend that Christmas party, remember to simply be yourself and speak clearly – a foreign accent isn’t worth choking on Christmas rice.