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 Language of Naming

In many cultures around the world, the process of naming a child is an important and sometimes grand affair. Parents and other family members take great care in selecting a name for their child, because they hope and feel that it will reflect in the child’s life. When learning a language, it is inevitable that you will encounter such carefully-picked names, and part of appreciating the language can take the form of learning about these names. However, because I can’t possibly cover all the naming traditions in the world, I will go over the three I am most familiar with.

For some cultures, the picking of a name is a deeply religious affair, and must align exactly with what a priest/astrologer tells the parents. For example, many Hindu parents hold a naming ceremony for their children. As you can imagine, there is a slight logistic problem: many hospitals do not release children until there is a name on the birth certificate. It is for this reason that the names of many Hindus as they appear on official paperwork may not be the full name given to them during the ceremony, especially considering that it takes a great deal of paperwork and time to get one’s name changed. But back to the ceremony. Leaving aside the ritual, the actual naming or namkarna of the child varies from region to region. In South India, names are often long, adhering to longstanding traditions, and are given according to various criteria, such as the day/time of birth, the area of birth, star alignments, and the lineages of the parents. North Indians don’t have long names as often, in my experience, anyway. It is important to understand that people in South India may use different names in the workplace, at home, and with friends for any number of reasons. Furthermore, in South India, it is not common for people to actually have last names, and for official paperwork, people will, for all intents and purposes, make up last names.

In China, as this video by Off the Great Wall explains, surnames are a relatively recent introduction into Chinese society. (Warning: Apologies for any discrepancies/misunderstandings; I’m only writing what I’ve read and heard.) The very concept of a surname was originally reserved for the emperor and his family, and later on, the nobility. It was only after the unification of the states that surnames began to extend beyond the upper classes. People often took on the last name of the ruler of their region, or took on last names based on the names of the area itself. Given, or first names, are a different matter. First names are given based on qualities that parents believe are good, but it is considered bad practice to name children after relatives and famous people. Siblings may have radicals or whole characters in their names that are related, such as a brother and sister having the characters for “sun,” and, “moon” in their names, respectively. (Note: this does not hold true for all Chinese people, as some may have their own traditions, and fortune-telling is prevalent among some families, but I couldn’t find much on other traditions.)

Across Europe, the process of naming children is a relatively simple affair compared to those in Asia. In Europe, where Christianity is prevalent, it is very common to name children after people in the Bible, save for people like Methusaleh or Judas. However, due to the pagan roots of Europe, many names of Celtic, Roman, and Gothic origin continue to be given today. In Western Europe, children are frequently named after grandparents or other relatives (which may or may not be departed), either through first or middle names. Spain, along with the Latin American countries, has a very rigid naming tradition in which the first names of grandparents and last names of parents are incorporated into a child’s name.

I hope you found this article interesting, and inspire you to learn about your own name, which should tell you more about where you come from as well! Feel free to share this with your friends on Facebook and Tumblr!

My Article From Italki: “How You Can Speed Up Your Language Learning”

Here’s the article that I wrote for Italki, and in case you’re interested, you can check out my teacher profile here: Merry Christmas to you all!

Many language learners have a great deal of difficulty trying to memorize hundreds upon hundreds of vocabulary words from the lists in their textbooks. Teaching experts call this stage of learning rote. This means that the information is remembered, word for word, and the very definition is burned into your brain. However, this information, while retained, is not understood. The goal of learning a language is to understand words and what a person is trying to say. The stage of learning that the ideal language learner should aspire to is called application. Application suggests that you comprehend and correlate acquired knowledge with new material, draws conclusions, and synthesizes information independently.

To apply this to language learning, we need to show that languages can be correlated. If you look at the linguistic map below, you can see the gradations of Romance languages throughout Europe. Ibero-Romance languages (in green), such as Portuguese and Spanish, have certain characteristics that distinguish them from other Romance languages. However, Catalan, spoken in northeastern Spain, is a Gallo-Romance language. It shares many features with Spanish, as well as with Occitan (a language spoken in southwestern France, near the border with Spain) and French. Here, we see green fade into the blue areas in France, signifying the correlation between languages in that area. And we see this in the languages themselves, too. 

In Spanish, the word for “language” is la lengua, in Catalan it’s la llengua, and in French, it’s la langue. Ignoring the fact that they sound alike (because, as we’ll see, that is not a reliable guide) Even more curious is that all three also happen to mean “tongue.” And to top it off, they’re all feminine nouns! So, with these clues in mind, we can reasonably conclude that these words are cognates, words of common origin and of similar meaning.

So, you may be wondering, “What does this all mean?” Well, it’s the key to accelerating your learning! You may not realize it, but when you start learning a language, your brain instantly tries to link it to ideas and concepts you already know, to be able to store it more easily. The first mistake that some people make is assuming that they have to start completely from scratch in order to learn a new language. But that cheats you out of an incredibly easy way to learn! Your brain recognizes that two words may mean the same thing, but are from different languages. This separates the two words in your long-term storage, especially if they sound different. I myself used my knowledge of Spanish to expedite my Italian learning, and that helped immensely in getting all the vocabulary down.

In my guides to Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan, which you can download at, I make frequent mention of parallels between Spanish, Italian, French, and other languages to help speed up learning. This is very helpful in the analytical part of my teaching method. By helping my students correlate things they already know, the information is retained in the long-term, and it makes language learning easier and more fun. Learning a language should not be a drag and endless trudging through vocabulary lists.

If you know Portuguese, and you’re learning Italian, exploit it. Not only are words similar, languages often have very similar structures. For example, in Portuguese, the imperfect subjunctive of the verb ser looks incredibly similar to those of the Italian verb essere. Take the phrase, “As if it were a dream.” Como se fosse um sonho (Portuguese) and Come se fosse un sogno (Italian) sound nearly identical.

I know you might be thinking that if you try to correlate words all the time and find cognates, you’ll start mixing up languages altogether. But there are a couple of things that you can use to to work against this. First, is that your brain, as mentioned before, instantly recognizes the similarities as well as the differences. All that’s left for you to do is to practice the vocabulary in context. Second, is practicing languages at different times. The temporal separation helps your brain process the languages separately, and keep them from mixing with each other. Study Italian at night, and Spanish in the daytime.

I hope that this was helpful in providing a strategy for learning a language! Remember: many languages are related, so you should exploit any links that your target language has to one that you already know.


Romance Languages in Europe in 20 C. AD. 2009. Wikimedia Commons. By Fert. Web. 16 Nov. 2014. <>.

Romance languages in Europe in 20 c. AD by Koryakov Yuri Serg!o, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“Romance languages in Europe in 20 c. AD” links to:

CC BY-SA 3.0 links to:

How to Effectively Memorize Vocabulary With Quizlet

One of the biggest problems with using a tool such as Quizlet to memorize vocabulary is the fact that everything goes to your passive memory, not your active memory. In other words, you learn to recognize words in your target language, but not remember them.

Continue reading How to Effectively Memorize Vocabulary With Quizlet

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.

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 9

Here are the words for Day 9!

Italiano – Parola del Giorno: la tarantella

A Southern Italian dance, usually in 6/8, accompanied by tambourines, and said to be inspired by behaviors and movements resulting from the bite of a spider in summer. It’s sort of related to the word tarantola, which actually means tarantula, even though spider is ragno.

Español – Palabra del Día: (el) flamenco

This word is quite varied in meaning, as it can refer to the dance from southern Spain, a flamingo, the Flemish language, or a Fleming (a person from Flanders). It can also mean Flemish (as an adjective),  [cocky, insolent, defiant, or impertinent in colloquial slang], and ironically, also charming.

Kannada – I Dinada Padaa: torna

A door ornament hung on the doorframe of many Hindu households, usually in the form of leaves on a thread or line. The leaves are often decorated with the image of a god or some other religious symbol.

Secondary Languages

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how everyone says, “Hey, you should learn Arabic or Chinese!” when they’re talking about what language is best to learn. While it’s all well and good to learn those languages, but what about the poor little secondary languages, the ones that no one knows about because they’re not as useful? Simply put, these languages are learned almost exclusively for fun or other more specific reasons. In this post, I’m going to talk about which are the most useful secondary languages to learn.

1. Tamil

Tamil, the Dravidian language of South India and native to Tamil Nadu, holds official status in India, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. Tamil is widely considered useful in South India, because it’s the language a lot of people are likely to know, in addition to their mother tongues and/or state language. You might argue Telugu or Kannada (the latter being my mother tongue) is more useful, but Tamil is more prevalent in South India than either. Tamil has an extensive classical literature and history as well.

2. Catalán

This language was and still is used along Spain’s eastern coast. The language is highly based off of Latin, though it has Iberian influences. Catalán is most famous for being spoken in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. It is the second most prevalent language in Spain after Castilian Spanish, and most speakers of Catalán also speak Castilian Spanish.

3. Romansh

This is one language that most people have never heard of, even among some of my fellow language geek friends. Romansh is a language spoken in Switzerland,  in a sizable portion of the country that borders Italy and Austria. If you ever decide to business in or visit that part of Switzerland, it might be handy, simply as a courtesy to the people there. Romansh holds official status in the canton of Grisons, so a lot of things will be written in Romansh.

4. Kurdish

Kurdish is a language spoken by the Kurds in parts of several countries in the Middle East. They are both an ethnic and linguistic minority, but have official status in Iraq. It would be handy to know, because the Kurds actually have semi-autonomy concessions within the Middle East. For some time now, the Kurds have been pushing for a sovereign Kurdish state.

Again, these are simply secondary languages, most of whose speakers probably speak the majority language(s) of the country in which they reside. Learning these languages is almost purely as courtesy to them, for fun, or perhaps something else if you so desire.

Language Barriers

I’ve often been asked about why I think foreign language education is important. While I could certainly come up with quite a few reasons, I think one of the more prominent ones is when you encounter language barriers. This can be in person, over the internet, or in signs and other written situations. Human experience is defined by what we take in and what we understand, and so we should aim to understand as much as we can. Besides, you are bound to end up in a situation where you need to use foreign language, because the other person can’t understand you or you need some vital information that’s on a sign written in an another language. Whether it’s business negotiations, diplomacy, or simply communicating as a tourist, learning a foreign language is a huge asset. Overcoming the language barrier is the first step. In this post, I’m going to talk about the places where language barriers the least and most prevalent. I won’t be discussing the rural areas of certain countries, because that’s simply a given.

1) China, Japan and Korea: Greatest Language Barrier

Surprisingly, even though these countries have rapidly progressed in their political structures and economies, the practice of using English, or for that matter any other language, is not very widespread. The education system does require English-language instruction in these nations, but many people prefer to speak their native language due to not feeling confident in their ability to speak English and as a simple matter of preference. English instruction in these nations, from what I’ve heard, is very traditional. In other words, people in China, Japan, and Korea are as inclined to use English as much as people in the United States are inclined to use French.

2) The Nations of Scandinavia and Germany/Austria/The Netherlands: The Weakest Language Barrier

When it comes to going abroad in Europe, Scandinavia is the best when it comes using English with foreigners. With top-notch education systems (which is not to say Japan and Korea don’t have good ones), students in Scandinavian countries, generally speaking, come out of schooling speaking decent if not perfect English. The same goes for Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. This can probably be accounted for by the fact that German and the Scandinavian languages have a common history with English.  Surprisingly, France, Spain, and Italy are not as well-versed in English, shown in statistics. This is probably because Iberian/Arabic influences (Spanish), Gallic influence (French), and Italic influences (Italian) have caused the parent language (Latin, specifically Vulgar Latin) to diverge more significantly, and therefore farther from English, which borrows more from Germanic, Greek, and classical Latin roots.

3) India: The Weakest Language Barrier in Asia

Unlike the East Asian countries, such as China, Korea, Japan, or Vietnam, India has come to use English extensively. Signs are  written in English, sometimes not even as a translation of the state language. The education system mandates the learning of English from first grade all the way to twelfth grade. In addition, people must take yet another foreign language to graduate from college. Most people in India speak English and are perfectly willing to communicate in English, although they will use their own language at other times. Gotta keep your secrets, you know?

4) Latin America: The Biggest Language Barrier in the Americas

Ironically, even though Spain is pretty good about its people knowing English (although certainly not as much as other European countries), getting around without knowing Spanish (or Portuguese in Brazil) is hard in Latin America. Many Latin American countries are in the Low Proficiency bracket on the EF English Proficiency Index. So I highly suggest hitting the books on Spanish if you go to Latin America without knowing any first.

5) The Middle East: The Biggest Language Barrier

For some, this may not come as a surprise. The EF English Proficiency Index shows that several Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, and Egypt are in the Low or Very Low Proficiency brackets. Saudi Arabia and Iraq are at the very bottom of the list in the Very Low Proficiency bracket. This is why it is all the more imperative that people learn to speak Arabic and/or Farsi.

So, that’s my say on this topic. I’ll probably have something again this week, so I hope you look forward to it.