Have you ever had a debate with a friend like the one in the above cartoon? Maybe you’ve even had a debate with friends who call ‘sneakers’ tennis shoes, or call a ‘water fountain’ a bubbler. Even within the United States, regional dialects can differ immensely, mostly in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation. You can probably think of at least five examples of “accents” found in the U.S. just off the top of your head!
So what do you know about language diversity? When linguists discuss diversity or variation in languages, this can include many different factors, including age, gender, social class, occupation, and sexual orientation. ALL are factors that can influence the “flavor” of a language that a person speaks. However, the type of language variation that is most commonly known is regional variation. Most people talk about regional variation in terms of dialects.
Anyone interested in language-learning should know that almost all languages contain dialects that range from almost identical to practically unintelligible. This means that even if person A and person B are both speaking the same language, sometimes they are unable to understand each other just because of a difference in dialect. The most striking example of this is seen in Arabic, a highly-powerful language spoken by 422 million people around the world. Even though people speak this language in a number of different countries, a dialect difference often makes it extremely difficult to understand a speaker of Arabic from another country. There are nine main dialect groups of Arabic, each one with slight differences in grammatical structure, pronunciation, and vocabulary.
As English-speakers, we can understand this, to a certain extent. We in the United States tend to use different words than our British counterparts – for example, the ‘elevator’ in England is the lift, the ‘trunk’ is the boot, and so on. We can usually understand a British accent in TV and movies, but if we actually travel to the U.K., we might encounter some accents so thick that we’d not even recognize them as English at first!
If you’re learning a second language, you should always be aware of the fact that what you’re learning may only be one version of the language. For example, you may be learning Spanish from Spain, while there are a host of dialects within Latin America to consider. Or if you’re learning French from France, you’ll find that Switzerland, Belgium, Quebec, and the Ivory Coast all have different French dialects as well. When traveling to one of these countries, you may be discouraged at first when you can’t understand what’s being said. The worst reaction to this is to develop a sense of superiority. While some dialects are more or less “different” from what you’ve learned, none of them are more or less “correct.” If you have trouble understanding someone’s dialect, try asking them to speak slower and let them know that you are not used to their dialect. Since they are the expert of their own native tongue, you should always be willing to learn!