Accent and Dialect: Do You Get to Be Choosy?

As many people know, there are frequently regional varieties and accents of almost every language, even within languages spread over fairly small areas. This presents an interesting problem for non-native speakers and new learners of any given language. For certain languages, the accents aren’t sufficiently different from the standard or most commonly spoken variety. However, for others, such as those spoken in different countries, particularly ones that are far apart, the accents and dialects can be distinct, and to a degree, somewhat unintelligible. So, what do you learn? Is one more “right” than the other? Do we non-natives even have the right to choose? I discussed this in a previous post, but recently I’ve been rethinking this idea.

In order to consider this problem properly, let’s look at a few different languages where dialects and accents are reasonably present. What I mean by that is that the language in question has regional varieties and pronunciation variations that are fairly apparent to natives of the language. These dialects may even constitute social barriers. The languages I’m going to discuss are Spanish, Japanese, and Arabic.

First, let’s consider Spanish. The Spanish language is spoken in many countries, most notably in the majority of nations in South and Central America, Spain, and the United States. The varieties of Spanish in each country are generally viewed as fairly distinct. For example, Cuban Spanish, is very different from the Spanish spoken in Spain. The principal difference is the use of ceceo, a rule of pronunciation of the letters s, c, and z. However, Cuban Spanish has its own peculiarities. Take the word pescado (seafood/fish). In Castilian Spanish, the variety spoken in Spain, it is pronounced as written, but in Cuban Spanish, it is widely pronounced as pe-ca-o. This can be seen as an almost intolerable difference, to the point that you might have to devote separate studying to understanding spoken Cuban Spanish. However, this is an extreme example. Mexican Spanish, though spoken with its own accent, is not incomprehensible to the average foreign learner of Spanish, and in fact is used as the de facto “natural example” in most classrooms in the United States. (I say “natural example” to denote a variety used most often in the classroom for practical purposes.) The point is that most varieties of Spanish have their regional differences, mostly in the way of slang and regionally exclusive concepts (such as food, items in daily use, etc.), but are, overall, fairly mutually intelligible. Now, this brings us to the main problem: do learners of Spanish get to choose what variety they learn or speak? Usually, classrooms teach a version of Spanish that is politically correct, without much slang or regionalisms. Personally, I don’t view this as a huge problem, because, in the beginning, it gives a learner a decent foundation to work up from. But, in the long run, if one continues to use this approach, the end result is an overly newscaster-y sounding Spanish that everyone understands but nobody really uses in everyday conversation. I believe the solution to this problem is that students learn the “politically correct” version to a point, perhaps to the lower intermediate level (B1), and then specialize or at least become familiar with the regional dialect of one country. For example, I would say I understand most varieties of Spanish, but I personally speak and am most comfortable using Castilian Spanish. But it is not a terrible thing if you can’t do so, since the “standard form” of Spanish is readily understood and can be switched to by most, if not all speakers of the language. However, not all languages are the same, since Japanese and Arabic present different problems.

Japanese is spoken only within Japan, but the effect of regional differences is widely recognized. The Japanese spoken in Tokyo is the standard, but if one goes to the Kansai region and Hokkaido region, one will notice a marked difference in pronunciation and use of the copula (the verb “to be”) and even conjugation of verbs. This poses a particular problem for learners of Japanese, because even if one never leaves Tokyo, there are people from all over living there. It’s very similar to New York City, where I’m living right now, and I have met all sorts of different Spanish speakers. Sure, these speakers might speak the standard Japanese when they’re talking to you, but if you go to their hometown, or you end up working in Osaka as an English teacher or something, it would be in your best interest to learn how locals speak. Just because standard Tokyo Japanese is the most commonly spoken version and it’s convenient to learn only that, doesn’t mean that it’s the only one you’ll ever hear. A responsibility of non-native speakers of different languages, I think, is to understand as many people as one can. It is pretentious and even offensive to say “I don’t like the way Kansai-ben sounds, so I’m only going to speak Tokyo-ben” (-ben is a Japanese prefix referring to the dialect of a region). This is different from Spanish, because you can avoid going to Cuba, and have no contact with the Spanish spoken there. Japan is much smaller, and it is significantly less likely that you can worm your way out of going to a specific region of Japan, if you are sent there. Think about it: it is less likely that you’ll be sent to an entirely different country versus a different region within a country. Therefore, it is easier to not have to learn all the different varieties of Spanish, but in Japanese, it would be a good idea to at least understand, if not speak, a localized variety of the language.

Now, we come to the curious case of Arabic, which I have discussed several times before. Unlike some other languages of the world, Arabic’s regional varieties differ greatly, to the point that some are not mutually intelligible. According to some speakers of Arabic that I have met, this is mostly in the way of slang, but formal sources say that even the written and common, non-slang instances of the language vary. The Egyptian and Levantine versions of the sentence “I read the book” can differ greatly in pronunciation, syntax, and even sentence order, for example. When it comes to learner, they must make a choice, I believe. Modern Standard Arabic is used only in formal, pan-Arab announcements and news broadcasts, and learners should decide from there, what variety of Arabic they will learn and use more often. If you’re going to be spending most of your time in Syria or Lebanon, you should learn Levantine Arabic, and even within that, there are national and sub-national variations in the language. Likewise, if you’re working in Morocco, Moroccan Arabic is your best bet. Arabic is a language that forces you to pick a dialect, since you can’t really get away with speaking only the standard form.

The overall conclusion is that the more unintelligible two given varieties of the same language are (though you should definitely compare all of them), the more likely it is that you’ll need to become familiar with one in detail. In a way, learners do have the right, and depending on the way you look at it, and even the responsibility to choose a dialect or accent to emulate.

I hope you found this piece informative and interesting! Feel free to leave any comments and please share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

5 Activities for Foreign Language Teachers

Having been a language student for six years and a language teacher for two years, I have seen both sides of the language learning experience. Even though I haven’t been teaching that long and I don’t exactly have credentials, I think I have an idea or two of what helps language students. Sometimes it just isn’t enough to give grammar drills and give lessons on new concepts every day. You need to change it up a little and give them a way to exercise the concepts they’ve learned. So, in this post, I’m going to elaborate on five classroom activities that I’ve come across and personally created, all of which are included in my book, Scoprendo l’italiano!: An Accessible Guide to Learning Italian. Please note that these assignments can be edited as needed to suit different needs.

1. Personal Discussion Project – For Intermediate Classes and Beyond

The students will work together in groups of three or four. Every group will create their own PowerPoint or Keynote Presentation. The instructor will choose one topic, and each group will base their presentation on that topic. This project can also be made smaller and assigned to individual students.

Classes, School, and Academic Goals

Each student will discuss the reasons they take certain classes and what university they plan to go to and why. Then, they should discuss their plans for study at a university, and what job they plan to take from there.

Foods and Cooking

The students will pick a semi-difficult recipe, talk about it with the class, about its significance, what certain terms mean if new vocabulary from outside the text is learned.

Literature and Reading

Each student picks a novel, and they will discuss them with the class. Summarize the plot, and pick two symbols and explain their meanings (This topic should be expected to take some time).

Culture and Family Traditions

The students will talk about their cultural values, where they come from, and important family traditions. They should explain why those traditions are important.

Talents and Skills

Each student will pick a talent or skill they consider significant to them. They will then discuss how they came to do those things, and why they like doing it so much.

This project should be graded upon accent authenticity, focus on the given topic, how well the project is presented, and if vocabulary and grammar are used properly. For advanced classes, this should be presented in the target language. The instructor may choose to require additional criteria.

2. Novel Report – For Advanced/AP Students

Students will read novels in the target language, and must be at least two-hundred pages in length. A four paragraph essay will be submitted by each student in the target language, discussing theme, plot, and symbolism. A well-constructed thesis should be included. Grade based on use of vocabulary, understanding of grammar and syntax, and comprehension of the book. If assigned to intermediate classes, the use of a dual-language dictionary is highly suggested. If the instructor so desires, shorter books, books originally written in English, or other familiar stories can be assigned, and a shorter essay can be written instead.

3. Writing Poetry – For Upper Beginners and Beyond

Students will write poems in Italian, in order to foster an understanding of Italian poetic language. The students will turn in three one-page poems. Classes of all levels are advised to consult a dual-language dictionary and also poetry in the target language.

Students will then select one of their poems, read it aloud, and then discuss it with the class. For languages in which there are more than simply present, past, and future tenses, in which tense is distinguished differently, with forms such as the aorist, conditional, non-past, or non-future, the students should discuss the relevance and effect of using certain tenses in the poetry. The discussion should be lead by the author of the poem, who will ask questions, and other students should participate.

4. Learning History – All Levels

Consult an article about cities, monuments, traditions, or other things in the nation(s) where the language is spoken. The article should be in the target language. Discuss it with the class in English or in the target language for classes with sufficient knowledge to understand. Afterward, have the students discuss it with each other in the target language. It is recommended that instructor repeat this exercise several times, each time about different topics.

This exercise allows students to use authentic materials to exercise their knowledge and obtain new knowledge from such a source. This gives them an idea of how natives read, understand, and use the written language.

5. Timeline Project

This project will have the students present a timeline made from cardstock, or cardboard, with pictures or photos to represent events they did in the past, and/or those they will do in the future. They will present a script, which is to be followed by an instructor or listener, in order to check that the student has memorized it. Grade based on pronunciation, accent authenticity, fluency, and poise when speaking in front of a group. For advanced classes, permit the audience (including the instructor) to ask questions, which the presenter should answer in the target language.

I hope this helps some of you, and don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr! Feel free to leave comments and suggestions!

A Video on Spanish Accents

I found a video from 2009 on dialectical and regional differences in Spanish that can be quite helpful for people who are at the level where they’re looking at what accent to emulate. Even if you’re not, it’s kind of interesting anyway. The user is Professor Jason, and he has a series of other Spanish educational videos, if you’re interested. Start at 5:54, because the first part is just kind of a disclaimer and brief explanation of the video.

2 Key Differences Between Brazilian and European Portuguese

A lot of people think that they can get away with just learning Brazilian Portuguese, and assume that it’s really similar to the European version. It is, to an extent. In written contexts, that is. But, what’s more important is the speaking part, where you find out that they sound completely different. For whatever reason, Brazilian and European Portuguese sound much more different from each other than their Spanish counterparts. But I digress. Now, let’s get down to the 3 most important differences (aside from idioms and phrasing):

1. Pronunciation. Brazilian Portuguese is mostly straightforward, but nasals (-ão, –am, etc.) are very pronounced and the letters d and t become the j before weak vowels, such as i and e. The letter e is frequently pronounced as, “ee” at the end of words. Also, terminal r‘s tend to become breathy h‘s, so a word like cantar may be pronounced as, “cantah.”

European Portuguese, on the other hand, is spoken mostly as it is written, except for the fact that it likes to throw out vowels, and replace terminal s‘ with the sh sound. The word, “sabes,” (you know) might be pronounced as sabsh. The letter e is pronounced as the uh sound at the end of words or in syllables, similar to the ö in German, or dropped from the end entirely. The European accent is often referred to as, boca fechada, or, “closed mouth,” because of the way Portuguese people speak, which can often make it hard to understand for learners. However, I find it, personally, easier to understand, because it ends up sounding more like Spanish than Brazilian Portuguese does.

2. Grammar. This is relatively minor fix, because this actually doesn’t impair your understanding too much. Brazilians, for the present progressive, use estar + the gerund (-ando, -endo), whereas Europeans use estar a + infinitive. The only other real difference is that Brazilians almost never use the simple future tense (which is to say, a future tense that’s one word), using (conjugated form of ir) + infinitive except in formal writing, whereas Europeans use it more often, and use the Brazilian form only for actions that are in the near future. Europeans also still use the tu form to distinguish between informal and formal address. Brazilians only use você form.

That’s what I’ve got for today. Hopefully, Shinobhi will be posting relatively soon! Please leave any comments that you might have.

1 Big Thing You Get to Choose As a Language Learner

When learning another language, especially when you’re getting to that upper level of competency, you come to realize (or perhaps you already know) that there other ways of speaking, or dialects. Each dialect has its own accent, vocabulary, and particular way of saying things. Now, there’s also the standardized version of that language, which is often called, “Standard (insert language here)”. This is the version that is most often taught to non-native learners of the language.

Despite this, I feel that you have a right to pick and choose what you learn and use in learning a language. A lot of Spanish learners, in my experience, feel obligated to only use what they’ve been taught in class. As a learner of a language, you have a certain privilege, or at least opportunity that native speakers may not have.

But the reality is that you can choose what dialect or accent to emulate. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time in a particular region where the target language is spoken, I don’t see why not. Sometimes it may be even necessary, as is the case with the varieties of Arabic: Modern Standard Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, etc.

In the case where there is a standard, but there are still very distinct dialects, such as in Italian, this is where learners have the dilemma. Students of Italian are typically taught only Standard Italian, which resembles Florentine Italian the most, and as you go out from Rome, Florence, and the other cities in Central Italy, the language is less and less intelligible to the untrained ear. The Sicilian and Milanese varieties sound very different. In such a case, depending on where you are, you should familiarize yourself with what that dialect sounds like, or even try to switch between dialects (if you’re willing to learn the dialects well enough).

The point of learning a language to fluency (in my opinion) is to emulate native speakers. Because there are a great many native speakers, there are also a great many dialects. Therefore, it is up to the learner (after getting down the fundamentals of course) to pick what kind of speaker they want to emulate.

The Stigma Against Europe in America

When I started learning Portuguese, I was surprised at how the Brazilian and European (also known as continental) versions are so different. However, I realized this wasn’t completely out of the question, considering that Latin American and European (also known as Castilian) Spanish are also somewhat different (though not to the degree that Brazilian and European Portuguese are). Old World powers that, back in the day, colonized abroad successfully, also transported their languages to these places as well. Words from indigenous languages, and words for things specific to the contexts in the New World came into being. The four most successful powers were Britain, Spain, France, and Portugal (poor little Italy didn’t have its act together yet). You might actually notice that the entirety of political North America is former colonial territory. Many of the colonies of these countries gained their independence from their European motherlands, except for France, which effectively had to give up Canada to Britain after the French and Indian War.

Given all this, the colonial versions of the languages of these countries had their own circumstances to develop within. In modern day America, where people from all over the world immigrate to, many people learn Spanish, Portuguese, and French. I realized this only much later, but people in America typically learn the colonial version of these languages. America had a particularly nasty relationship with Britain, and its relations with France were a bit strained, to say the least. Perhaps it’s only natural, then, that in America, many people have cultivated a distaste for European things (aside from wine that is).

Most people in America will learn Brazilian Portuguese, because people forget about Portugal entirely (Portugal kind of disappears after the colonial era in most history books), and also most Portuguese-speaking immigrants are likely to be Brazilian. Similarly, French speakers in America are likely to be French Canadian, and most Spanish speakers are likely to be from Latin America. Sure, you could argue that it’s just a matter of convenience, but I think there’s more to it than that. Canadians, Brazilians, and Latin Americans are well aware that there exist European counterparts to their languages, in a similar way to how Americans are aware of British English.

But I’m certain that there is some stigma against the European versions. You can see it everywhere, particularly in the media. Europeans, no matter where they’re from, are frequently depicted as pompous, heavily accented, and/or flamboyant. In English, to make someone sound like they’re very proper or uptight, we put on a British accent, for God’s sake!

Up until around my third year of Spanish, I knew virtually nothing about Spain or its particular brand of Spanish. People are often advised to learn the colonial variant because it’s easier to understand, which to a degree, is true. Speakers of Brazilian Portuguese tend to be very distinct when they speak Portuguese, whereas their European counterparts chop off the ends of words, and speak with what is called boca fechada, or “closed mouth.” The seseo, or ceceo (which is the Spanish word for the way you distinguish s, c, and z), of Spain, is often considered an impediment to comprehension when learning. This is because it is not discussed until the latter years of learning.

I have a friend with whom I practice Spanish, and I do try to use the Castilian accent, because I don’t get to hear or use it otherwise (I use the Latin American pronunciation in class, because that’s what’s expected). He doesn’t really mind, but he has said that he thinks that the Castilian accent sounds pretentious. I don’t really see how it’s pretentious, considering that everyone in Spain speaks that way. I’m also learning the European version of Portuguese as well, because it resembles Spanish more, and also because my particular book teaches the European form.

I’m further convinced by the conversations I’ve had with Latin American Spanish speakers and Brazilians that there is a distinctly American aversion to the European versions. Brazilians say that it’s kind of amusing to hear the European version in a conversation, but that’s mostly because they don’t hear it every day. Latin Americans don’t really care one way or another. Overall, they don’t really mind the European version of their language, even if it might be a little harder to understand. This could be because they are taught in school that this other version exists, and that it’s not worse or better than their own. Not that Americans are taught that their English is better than that of the British. In fact, when I was in elementary school, they didn’t even tell us that there was this other way of speaking English, and we only heard about it through TV and other media.

The point here is that in America, language classes should address the predominant forms of a language, especially when it comes to word choice, pronunciation, or even grammar. Language is inherently global, so it’s only fair that you learn about (though not necessarily learn entirely) the other versions. For example, I would say that it’s appropriate for a class to cover Brazilian and European Portuguese, but not for Swiss and Peninsular Italian. The latter two are not different enough to warrant extensive coverage on both, especially considering how close they are. Similarly, you cover Hindi and Urdu distinctly in the same class, but not two very similar varieties of Russian. You might say that Latin American Spanish and European Spanish aren’t different enough, because a Spaniard and Peruvian can understand each something like 90% of the time. But they are, considering pronunciation, word choice, and expressions (and the fact that two different versions of Disney and other movies exist for Latin America and Spain).

I hope you enjoyed reading this post, and I hope to get more out soon! Please leave some comments if you have any! Please note, that my statements about what Latin Americans and Brazilians say about their European counterparts are from personal experience. I’m only saying these things based on what I know, have read, and learned.

What is Fluency?

Whenever people set out to learn to a foreign language, there are those who aspire to become fluent, practically native speakers of the language. But really, what is fluency defined as, anyway? Here are some criteria I’ve thought of that I think accurately describe fluency in a foreign language.

1) Transition into speaking is fluid and natural. This effectively means that you can answer and ask questions in a foreign language without really thinking about it, and that speaking comes second nature to you.

2) Full command over the language. This means that you can hold complex and lengthy discussions about a topic, whether it’s particularly deep or not, and completely and accurately understand it.

3) Becoming one with the language and culture. In truth, part of speaking a foreign language is becoming intimately familiar with its native speakers and their culture. In this aspect, you observe all the social conventions when speaking, and understand them when they come into play. Some say that this embodies becoming essentially another person when speaking the target language.

4) Accent and comfort in speaking are absolutely impeccable. If you’re going to speak a foreign language, you better be able to imitate the accent. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but that you do it. This also means that you are totally and utterly in sync with speaking the language like a native speaker. If you sound as though you’re straining to say things, then you probably need more practice.