For our purposes, the term accommodation in SLA discussions comes from Howard Giles’ accommodation theory, which describes how individuals shape their speech patterns due to social factors. Giles et al. writes, “Much research has accrued…which demonstrates that an individual’s speech patterns…are in part dependent on the person to whom he is talking, the topic of the discourse and the setting in which it takes place” (177). In that context, accommodation can refer to the linguistic practice of altering one’s language patterns to resemble someone else’s. This is the convergence aspect of accommodation. However, accommodation theory also describes linguistic divergence when speakers purposely create distance between themselves and others by deviating from their usual language patterns (Ellis 39).
The following situations illustrate these two aspects of convergence and divergence:
Situation 1: Imagine you visit your sister, who is married to your super cool brother-in-law. You find yourself suddenly imitating his cadence and pitch. You even make similar word choices because his is the prestige idiolect in that situation and you hope to make some of his “coolness” yours by talking like him.
Situation 2: Suppose, instead, your brother-in-law is a disreputable sort of person. You already sort of talk like him, so you try to change your speech simply to show everyone how very unlike your brother-in-law you are. Does he mumble? Speak clearly. Does he nasally? Speak from deep in your gut. Does he use slang? Use standard forms.
Accommodation theory can help us understand the influence that a learner’s social network has on language acquisition and learning. Rod Ellis writes, “It has been suggested that…when the social conditions are such that learners are motivated to converge on native-speaker norms…high levels of proficiency ensue, but when conditions encourage learners to maintain their own social in-group less learning takes place” (39). While there are some factors that limit this idea (fossilization, for example), it is still worth noting. An instructor, frustrated that learners are not making more progress, might benefit from considering the language spoken within the learner’s social network and take steps to account for any interference by adjusting activities or assignments.
Ellis, Rod. Second Language Acquisition. Oxford, 1997.
Giles, Howard. “Towards a Theory of Interpersonal Accommodation through Language: Some Canadian Data.” Language in Society. vol.2, no. 2, 1973, pp. 177-92.
Morton, A. “Accommodation Theory.” Prezi, 27 Ap. 2014, https://prezi.com/21ks4kmm_x7o/accommodation-theory/.