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 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.