Like most straight guys who have heard Penélope Cruz speak, I’m a sap for foreign accents. In the past few months, I’ve gone on dates with girls from France, Norway, and Australia. There were a handful of things that I found attractive about these girls, but their accents may have topped the list.
Research in the field of linguistics shows that our perception of accents has more to do with social and cultural associations than the way foreign accents actually sound. For example, in the United States, because of our country’s colonial history, Americans tend to associate the typical British accent with high social status. And when looking for a romantic partner, status has value.
“There’s a perception that British English is smarter and maybe that has to do with our idea of British people being smarter regardless of language,” says Emily Nguyen, a Ph.D. candidate doing research in linguistics at New York University.
If British accents convey status, do French and Italian accents make us think of romance? “Most likely. There is some association about France and Paris or Italy as being kind of romantic places,” Nguyen says. “Maybe a French or Italian accent kind of acquires the same feelings or thoughts and perceptions.”
There are studies to back this up. Sociolinguists have used what’s called a “matched-guise test,” in which listeners blindly rate accents based on certain qualities. Think of it like The Dating Game. The results have shown that some accents sound appealing and intelligent, while others sound less so.
“Asian accents are said to be less attractive, that is, less positively evaluated on a number of levels,” says Carina Bauman, also a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics at NYU. “In the United States, accents that are linked to brown skin or linked to third world countries are considered unattractive.”
Meanwhile, my French friend Margot tells me, “German or Spanish accents, I cannot stand them.” It’s all about perception, and for members of the EU it’s all about the different associations they have with our most romantic places.
Attraction to foreign accents isn’t just an American thing. “I am a complete sucker for certain accents,” says my Australian friend, Amber. She’s into French, Italian, Brazilian, Argentinian, and Scottish accents. The appeal has to do with seeming exotic or worldly, she says, and she likes the way the words sound. “It’s inherently sexy to have someone say sentences in your native tongue in a slightly different and more poetic way than you would say them.”
So what’s it like to have an attractive accent?
“When random fellas do flirt with me, I feel like it’s often the whole foreign thing, and not just the accent,” Amber says. “Sometimes I find this really annoying and sometimes – usually depending on their attractiveness and how charming they are – I am happy to flirt based on nothing more than my nationality.”
Another friend, Olivia, enjoys the attention her British accent gets. “It turns heads and makes people think you’re smarter,” she says.
Margot, my French amie, says American guys like her accent because it makes her seem adorably naïve. “They think it’s cute, they think it’s different. It’s a little bit clumsy,” she says. “If I exaggerate it a little, people are going to be even more eager to talk to me.”
Many Americans – myself included – probably consider the French accent to be the most romantic. It conjures up images of the Eiffel Tower and macarons and cafés near the Seine. But for Europeans, Margot says, the Italian accent holds that title. “The Italian accent is sexier because it has a singing aspect,” she says. “Italian people are kind of laid back, very romantic, and a bit crazy.” Sure enough, Pepé Le Pew, the Looney Tunes skunk who lives in Paris and searches for love, appears on TV with a French accent everywhere but in France. There, Pepé sounds Italian.
It seems that attraction to foreign accents has more to do with the listener than the speaker. For me, the appeal is that they remind me of things, like traveling abroad and supermodels. Like all that expensive world travel and very selective supermodels they remind me of, an accent seems to elevate its speaker to an unattainable level – and we all want what we can’t have.