Language Dialects

If only Tarzan-speak qualified as a dialect, I'd be home free by now.

A topic that I see come up frequently in language learning circles is a back and forth about language dialects.  It’s a topic that has stronger application to some languages than others, as languages aren’t exactly created equal in terms of how far they vary between its spoken form and the literary language, or between different regions.

In some cases, you have languages that are pretty close to uniform, like Icelandic or Hebrew, where not everyone speaks exactly the same, but practically all speakers are 100% mutually intelligible with each other and they just differ a small amount in their choice of vocabulary and pronunciation.   In other cases, you have languages like Arabic, where the literary form is practically never spoken, and regional variations can have such a wide gap that they are often totally unintelligible between each other.  Most languages lie somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, and a common thing that comes up with language learners is the question of which version of the language they should learn.

Of course, there really isn’t a universal answer to the question.  It’s impossible to generalize with all languages, because what might be good advice for one language (learn literary English, accent and dialect variations are extremely unimportant) might be the polar opposite of good advice for another language (learn the dialect of Arabic that interests you the most/has the most direct utility for you, pay enough attention to the literary form to where you can read newspapers).  But even beyond that, there isn’t even a universal answer for individual languages, either.

What might be good advice for one person could be misguided advice for another.  Suggesting that a French student focus their efforts on learning Literary French and not working on pronunciation that much beyond a generalized “platonic accent” might be the perfect suggestion for someone who lives in Europe and makes regular trips to France.  But on the other hand, if they are an American student who makes regular trips to Quebec, they would likely be better served by focusing on Canadian French from the get-go, tailoring their pronunciation practice and conversational vocabulary to best match up with the variety of the language they’re going to have the most exposure to.

And that tends to be the message that gets passed around online when the subject comes up, some variation of ‘learn the form of the language that’s the most useful to you.’  The thing with it, though, is that I’m not sure that advice is actually valuable.

Okay, in a very, very limited use-case, I think it’s the best advice to give: if you’re traveling to a country and want to pick up the bare-bones basics of a language to use as a tourist there, you absolutely should only be looking at the regional variation for the country you’re going to.  Additionally, in the case of extreme variation like in a language like Arabic where choosing between dialects is almost like choosing between Romance languages, it’s likely a necessity to pick a variation.  But outside of situations like those, I think the concept of tailoring learning strictly to one dialect is thinking about things backwards.

Let’s say an American English speaker is having a conversation with someone from Australia.  The two speakers are going to be able to understand each other perfectly.  They would speak in different accents, and would likely use different words for the same things, or to express the same ideas, and a very slim number of those different word choices might be something that the other has never heard before (likely only in the direction of the Australian speaking to the American).  But those gaps could be easily explained or cleared up through context.  It would be extremely unlikely for them to not be able to understand each other fully.

Likewise, that same American could have a conversation to the same level of understanding with an advanced second language English speaker.  There again might be accent differences and word choice variations, and this time the need to clear up odd bits of vocabulary would probably be going in the opposite direction with the second language speaker unsure on the word choices the American is using (something Americans are famously jerks about, but regardless), but on the whole the conversations would go very similarly.

Now, take that American and move him to Australia, then have him talk with that same Australian again after a year.  Now, he’s an American, so he’s probably kept hold of his accent with white knuckles, but he’d have gotten much more used to how Australians talk over the year he’s been there.  He might still use his American names for things, but if there’s a point of confusion, he’d easily know exactly what Australian word to use to clear up that confusion in a conversation.  He’s also probably picked up slang that he uses in conversation regularly with the people around him.  Maybe not with other Americans, but with Australians, because it gets his point across the simplest.

And that’s an American who likely views his version of the language as a point of cultural pride and identity, something he’s at least reluctant if not totally unwilling to try and change.  Meanwhile, that second language English speaker, a year later, who has been working on blending in with the language around him, cleaning up the word choices that strike people as odd in favor of the things that people around him are saying, and trying to minimize his accent, isn’t clinging to his original version of English with a sense of personal identity.  There might be a point of pride with his accent that he likes as a connection to his identity and native language, but the word choices and command of English itself are not something he’s clinging to, he’s trying to have as strong of a command of the language as he can.

In contrast, imagine an intermediate second language English speaker in London who knows to call a shopping cart a ‘shopping trolley’ and an elevator of ‘lift.’  Is he going to be able to have anywhere near as full a conversation as the advanced speaker, or be able to easily work around awkward vocabulary differences if he happened to run into an American?

Like all of the advice on dialects, this can’t be considered universal, it depends a lot on how mutually intelligible different dialects are.  It’s all well and good to learn Literary English and pick up the local lingo when you’re around Americans, Brits, or Australians, but if you’re around Jamaicans who are speaking on the dialect continuum between Jamaican Standard English and Jamaican Patois, there’s going to be a much more extreme learning curve without specific study.  I myself have largely limited my pronunciation and listening focus away from European Spanish, because it’s just not as common or useful in this part of the world.  But at the end of the day, I still think worrying about dialect focus is backwards, and it’s much better to learn the whole language to as robust a level as possible and pick up the dialectical features after the fact from cultural exposure.  Regional variation is like salt and pepper for a language, bringing out the best of its flavors, but nobody wants to eat plain old salt and pepper without the steak.

All righty, let’s look at this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 4/02

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Imágenes en Acción, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 4/03

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of El Segador, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 4/04

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of El Segador, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 4/05

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of El Segador, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 4/06

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of El Segador, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 4/07

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of El Segador, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 4/08

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/5 of Brujas de Viaje, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 140 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 1 and 2/5 books read, 1260 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 21 hours 0 minutes

A much better result compared to last week, though obviously pretty uninteresting in terms of content.  Reading, reading, and more reading.  I finished up Imágenes en Acción, which had a pretty satisfying ending, then read El Segador and started in on Brujas de Viaje.  I really liked El Segador a lot, which in some ways felt like a retry on the ideas in Mort, this time around with better execution and more interesting pathos.  Brujas de Viaje has a promising start, I really liked the witches characters back when they were introduced and I’m happy to read more of them.

I’ve been plodding ahead with the new material on Duolingo, which thus far hasn’t introduced anything even close to ‘new,’ but continues to be a reasonable way to pass a tiny amount of time per day.  Next week I’m going to cross my 1-year active streak anniversary on the site, which is cool.

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for in a chat place for Spanish, unfortunately.  I’d really like to get set up to be chatting in Spanish, but I still have my issues with public venues to keep in mind.  Next week’s blog is gonna be one where it’s written originally in Spanish, and it might end up lighting a fire under my ass to find a place, if I have a similar positive experience to writing it as I did the first one.  I dunno, I am still looking.

Next week I’ll also be touching base with my listening comprehension again, probably Sunday or Monday, and I have pretty guarded expectations.  The first month-long reading experiment gave me fantastic results, but afterwards has been a bit of a different story.  I switched to twice a month check-ins on it, and didn’t have much new to say on the first check-in, and after the second, marking another month of focused reading, I didn’t notice that much of an improvement, either.  I think maybe I just broke through the “easy” aspect of understanding spoken Spanish and had a lot to show for it, but now that it’s a matter of leveling up the really complex stuff, it’s just going to be slower going overall.  We’ll see how it all goes, I suppose.

Well, that’ll do for this one.  TTFN.

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