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!

The Sentimentality of a Polyglot

I’m sure I’ve waxed eloquent on how different languages communicate identities and the values and the beliefs of various communities. But this is really only relevant to the people who grew up speaking the language. Polyglots like Benny Lewis and Luca Lampiarello frequently talk about how different languages allow them to interact and understand other people. While I can’t speak for every polyglot, I believe there is a certain amount of self-discovery in becoming a polyglot.  Languages are reflections of the same human experience, seen from different angles. As a human, I share many experiences with people across the globe. Our mother tongues differ, which makes certain things more apparent or important to us. But if one learns other languages, one is greatly more aware of things we do that seemed normal once, and are odd to others.In this post, I’m going to talk about what the languages I speak reveal about myself, rather than what they reveal about communities and cultures to me. Note: I’m not going to talk about Kannada and English, since I grew up speaking them.

Spanish

Spanish was my third language, and I began learning it in middle school. This was purely as a matter of course, rather than me wanting to learn it, as we had to learn a foreign language as a part of our education. It was really only in my fourth year of study that I really began to appreciate the language, as we began to examine more genuine texts in the language. There were things in the text that were deeply foreign to me, and that inspired me to learn more about them. I wanted to know what Spanish speakers thought, and how they saw the world. Learning Spanish provided an opportunity for me to take a step outside of myself, and see the world differently for the first time.

Italian

I must admit that I learned Italian on a whim. I thought the language was beautiful, that the country of Italy was fascinating. Italian was similar to Spanish, but I wanted to speak this rhythmic and melodic language, which felt very different from the more dramatic Spanish. Italian was carefree and light, qualities that I personally lacked at the time. I was a very serious and severe sort of person, and Italian was the polar opposite of what I was. Italian allowed me to open up and become less stiff as a person. It was through the Italian language that I really embarked on the journey to becoming a polyglot.

Hindi

Despite having grown up around mostly North Indian family friends who spoke Hindi, and watching Bollywood, Hindi did not appeal to me initially. I saw no use in learning it, as anyone who spoke Hindi almost invariably spoke English as well. I only began to appreciate Hindi after I began listening to more music in Hindi and in Urdu. My father explained verses to me, and I thought the poetry about God and love was beautiful. Such poetry allowed me to appreciate my heritage more, because Urdu was the language of our poetry, and Hindi was our national language. It inspired a pride in my background, as I had been once apathetic and unappreciative of what my culture had to offer.

Korean

In a rather comical way, I started learning Korean because I was reading about the language on my phone in the middle of Biology, during the break between lectures. The language was interesting, because unlike Spanish, Italian, or Hindi, the Korean language’s dynamics were much more deeply rooted in a system of familial and social hierarchy. While not an unfamiliar construct, it was a system that I did not observe in my own home. My own culture and language placed an emphasis on respect for superiors and elders, but because I spoke mostly English at home, it often did not manifest itself. Even now, as I’m learning more Korean, it has made me aware of my deep lack of manners and respect for my parents. Korean led me to correct my ways in treating my elders and understand them differently. Oddly enough, it was a foreign language that allowed me to connect with people at home, rather than abroad.

Catalan

Catalan was my first step into the world of the minority. People found it exceedingly strange that I chose to learn a language of the small nation of Spain, spoken in an even smaller province called Catalonia. I had read much about Catalan nationalism in Spain, and I was interested to learn the language of these people. In doing so, I saw articles that openly criticized Spain, and fostered a respect for the opinion of the minority. It seemed awful that one’s own language was being silenced, effectively blocking out one’s heritage at the same time. It made me realize that I wanted to help the minority gain equal respect from others, no matter who it was.

Portuguese

The most recent addition to my languages, Portuguese piqued my interest because it was spoken by two underrated (perhaps “under-discussed” is a better word) countries in the world: Brazil and Portugal. Nobody really talked about either country, or the language. In the same vein as my reasons for learning Catalan, I wanted to learn Portuguese because it was off the beaten track. It was not common, and to make it even stranger, I chose the European variety of Portuguese, which very few, if any, were likely to speak in the US. European Portuguese, much like myself, is a rather sentimental language. Fado, the national music of Portugal, is a very tragic and melancholy form, deeply involved in the misfortunes of life. Portuguese is the vessel of my own sentimentality and emotional beliefs.

I hope you found this piece about myself interesting. Please go ahead and share this on Tumblr and Facebook and wherever else. Feel free to comment and share your own experiences in learning languages.

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.

Foreign Language Word of the Day: Day 10

Day 10!

Italiano – Parola del Giorno: il cavatappi

A corkscrew or bottle screw.

Español – Palabra del Día: sefardí/sefardita

A noun or an adjective that refers to Spanish Jews, also called Sephardic Jews, most of whom were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, though there are still small communities today. Sephardic Jews traditionally spoke a variant of Spanish called Judaeo-Spanish, also called Ladino. The language is endangered right now, as it is archaic in some aspects, and most Sephardic Jews would speak Castilian Spanish anyway.

Kannada – I Dinada Padaa: mangalarthi

The sacred fire held on a plate or holder during Hindu religious ceremonies. The fire is passed around to give the blessing of God to worshippers, who put their hands over the fire and either touch their forehead or run their hands over their head.

Foreign Language Word of the Day: Day 1

Starting today, I’m going to try and post one word of the day for each language that I can speak, aside from English. So, here are the words for Day 1!

Italiano – Parola del Giorno: ringraziare

to thank (somebody) for (something) – transitive verb

Español – Palabra del Día: soltar (o -> ue)

to let go/drop/loose (transitive)

Note: This is the verb used in the Castilian Spanish version of, “Let It Go!”

Kannada – I Dinada Padaa: haaradu

to fly/spill