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Salience, audience design and accommodation

'Salience', 'audience design' and 'accommodation' are commonly explored in sociolinguistic research. Watch Professor Paul Kerswill explain more.
If you are currently learning about English Language or Linguistics at school or college, you might have touched on the ideas of salience, audience design and accommodation. Broadly-speaking, salience is when a linguistic feature (like a speech sound or the order that words are arranged in) is noticeable to others. You’ve probably had moments yourself when listening to a voice, where you thought that the speaker was obviously from a particular place. The chances are, that you were picking up on salient linguistic features which gave you clues to where the person is from. Possibly even other information too, like what languages they speak or what their upbringing was like.
In sociolinguistic research, this idea of salience is crucial to the investigation of accents, attitudes and identity. This is because, it is often these more obvious linguistic features which are used by speakers to express their identity, or are used by listeners to identify people as belonging to a certain group. The salience of linguistic features can also be important when it comes to how we go about communicating with others. For example, if you’ve just been approached in the street by someone who speaks English as a foreign language who would like directions to the nearest bank, it’s quite possible that they might not be familiar with your accent or some of the words you normally use.
In situations like these, it’s useful to think about which aspects of your speech you could change to help the person you’re talking to understand you better. This ties into what we call ‘audience design.’ This is where the person or people that you’re talking to influence how you speak. So, when talking to someone who you think might have trouble understanding you, you might decide to speak more slowly or enunciate certain sounds, like aitch at the beginning of a word or the t in a word like water. What might also happen is that your speech becomes more similar to the person that you’re talking to.
This rather famously happened to the former-footballer Joey Barton during a press conference in France - when he was mocked for seemingly adopting a ‘French’ accent in place of his more usual Merseyside accent. This is a great example of what is known as accommodation. This often happens in situations where the speakers like one another, or where a speaker wants to come across as cooperative. Now let’s take a moment to reflect on how these ideas of salience, audience design, and accommodation might relate to language attitudes. For example, can you think of any advantages or disadvantages to accommodating to someone else’s speech? We’ll discuss our thoughts in the next step.

‘Salience’, ‘audience design’ and ‘accommodation’ are commonly explored in sociolinguistic research.

Watch Professor Paul Kerswill explain more in this short video. Is there anything which particularly strikes you in what he says?

When you’re ready, share your opinions in the discussion below!

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An Introduction to Sociolinguistics: Accents, Attitudes and Identity

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