Changing Accents & The Chameleon Effect

Shakira and fellow Colombian singer, Carlos Vives, May 2016
Shakira and fellow Colombian singer, Carlos Vives, May 2016

I saw recently on the news that famous Colombian Shakira was getting some flack for “forgetting her roots.” It turns out, Colombian fans overheard Shakira on the set of a music video speaking with a Spanish accent, rather than her native accent from Barranquilla, Colombia.

Here’s video of the interaction that had some people jumping to judgement.

At 35 seconds into the video you hear Shakira say, “¿Pueden ayudar, por favor?” and apparently some detected the accent there.

This isn’t a new accusation for Shakira, as years ago she was also accused of using an Argentinian accent.

So what’s the deal? Has Shakira forgotten her roots? Does she feel the Argentinian and Spanish accents are superior to her native Colombian accent? Is she being pretentious?

Not at all! What some people don’t realize is that being around people with an accent different than your own can have this effect on some people. It isn’t a coincidence that during the time Shakira seemed to have a bit of an Argentinian accent she was dating Argentine Antonio de la Rúa, and as everyone knows, she now shares her life in Barcelona with Spanish football star, Gerard Piqué.

What Shakira is experiencing is called “mirroring” or the “Chameleon Effect.”

Research has shown that humans unintentionally mirror each other, imitating gestures, body language, and accent. This is a way we subconsciously try to get people to like us, to build rapport, and to seem less threatening. Essentially we’re saying to the other person, I’m similar to you, I belong. You can see this taking place between humans as early as infancy. Ever seen a baby imitating facial expressions?

It’s also been found that people who are more empathetic tend to be more prone to the Chameleon Effect, so is it any wonder Shakira has this “problem”? Look at all the charity work she does, from her own Pies Descalzos Foundation which helps children living in poverty, to her benefit concerts which have served as fundraisers for numerous initiatives, and her role as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador – Shakira is definitely one empathetic individual.

If that’s not enough to change the minds of the skeptical, I’ll add my own personal anecdote. Yes, I have also experienced the Chameleon Effect. I still remember the year we went to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. Carlos and I had been married probably about five years at that point. I was speaking to my father and he looked at me kind of funny. When I finished talking he said, “You’re speaking with an accent.” That was the first time I become self-conscious of it, but he was right, I had picked up some of Carlos’s accent in English which made me sound vaguely like it wasn’t my own native language. To this day I catch myself sometimes, but who knows how often it happens because I’m just not even aware of it.

Has this ever happened to you? What is your own experience with the Chameleon Effect?


  1. It happened to my son. He had been studying in Barcelona, Spain, for a year. When he came home he definitely was speaking English with a slight Spanish accent!

  2. I think is unfair how people judge Shakira because of her accent. She has traveled and lived all over the world! is expected she changed how she speaks. I don’t know if I have change my accent, but sometimes I found myself talking with words that we as Mexicans don’t use and sometimes you speak with a melodic tone (did I say it right?) depending on the people you spend your time with. Like for me, I can see myself catching words and tones from Puerto Ricans and Colombians, but I’m más Mexicana que el nopal. What is hard for me is to keep my Spanish, it’s a struggle! I can also see how my girls talk after our vacation from México is a little different, because they catch up not only their Spanish but also the tone people use in our home country.

    • I agree, Blanca. Shakira travels so much and is around people from all over the world – it’s natural she would pick up other accents.

      It’s also normal what you’re experiencing, too. Carlos sometimes forgets words in Spanish, and when we went back to El Salvador, people told him he lost his Salvadoran accent. His Spanish is now more neutral, which makes sense because he watches a lot of news in Spanish and doesn’t have the opportunity to interact with native Spanish speakers in person as much. News anchors/reporters use a neutral accent, so maybe that’s what he’s picked up. (Or maybe my accent in Spanish has influenced him, just like his accent in English has influenced me!)

      That’s neat about your daughters picking up the tone after they vacation in Mexico.

  3. I am Cuban, and I grew up in Miami. When I moved to Tallahassee to go to FSU, people said I had an accent. After being here a couple of years- people in Miami would make fun of my “Southern” accent. It does not take me long to regain my Miami accent when I visit – and it takes a couple of days for it to go away when I come home. I married a Tallahassee native and 26 years later… well, people are surprised when I start speaking in Spanish… yes, you pick up the accent of the folks around you.

  4. Tracy, Hola! Here in #Colombia there was a lot of fuss in the news around Shakira *finally* returning to Barranquilla and the coast. It’s funny you would mention the Chameleon effect. My friends say my accent has gone from “bad Méxican” to “bad Colombian,” but I refuse to stop speaking Spanish. What a sweet post! Still following your awesome blog :) Abrazos, KD

  5. Even when I call a friend from New Mexico, I find myself slipping into the rhythm and cadence of a New Mexican accent.

  6. This has happened to me, and I was not aware. I lived in Barcelona for almost 2 years and being Colombian (Latina) there is a big difference between words and forms of talking (between Spaniard Spanish & Latin Spanish) I changed up many words I would normally use and even caught myself saying certain words/phrases with a “Spanish” accent. I also have a lot of international friends and being a New Yorker, I have a natural thick accent and tend to speak quickly. Well I can switch and control my accent so that others can understand me better, even the speed! It’s very interesting, when I’m around New Yorkers naturally I speak with my native accent but I’ve noticed that unconsciously it changes when speaking to a non-native speaker. As for Spanish, I have my Colombian accent back LOL but that Spanish accent catches on quickly, so I completely understand mi paisana Shakira!

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