Chapter 14: Tackling dialects: Which version of Spanish are you speaking?

A Tennessee Yankee in the Royal Air Force

I remember seeing a TV news magazine segment about a fighter pilot from the Tennessee Air National Guard who, for some reason or another, had been dispatched to fly for a time with the British Royal Air Force. When the interviewer asked one of the RAF pilots to identify the most challenging aspect of the arrangement, the Englishman smiled wryly and replied, “the language barrier.”

Although the British pilot was speaking in jest, the differences between various regional versions of English can be significant. Perhaps the most extreme illustration is found in the 1998 Scottish film, My Name is Joe. The actors in My Name is Joe all speak English, but the movie is fully subtitled due to the presence of heavy Scottish accents and regionalisms.

English is not the only language that varies by region. Languages such as Spanish, Arabic, French, and Chinese, which are spoken by far-flung populations, differ considerably according to the particular locale. In most cases, there is an agreed upon “standard” which is taught by educational institutions, and used to create instructional materials. For European languages, the acknowledged standard is almost universally the language as it is spoken in its European country of origin. (The one exception is English; American English is now generally preferred by foreign students over British English—though some European readers might disagree with me about this.)

Speaking Spanish Outside of Spain

A first experience with a dialect can be intimidating. Beginners are often nonplussed when a Spanish speaker from Guadalajara or Havana doesn’t sound like the Spanish recordings in her university’s language lab.

Spanish has been spoken in the Americas for about five hundred years—ample time to allow significant divergences from the language of Spain. The variations between the Spanish currently spoken in Spain and the Spanish spoken in Latin America are significant. If you have only been exposed to the European standard, your ears will need some time to adjust. Moreover, the Spanish-speaking area within the Americas is vast—so Mexico City residents do not use the language exactly like the inhabitants of Buenos Aires.

When “Standard” Speakers are a Small Minority

Portugal—another former imperial power—carried its language to the Americas and Africa. If not for Portugal’s colonial past, the language would today be one of the numerically less significant languages of Europe. There are only about 10 million residents in the tiny Iberian nation; but there are more than 186 Portuguese speakers living in Brazil. Add to that about 20 million Mozambicans, and millions of Portuguese speakers in other African nations. Today, only a fraction of the world’s Portuguese speakers actually hold a passport from the country of the language’s origin. Therefore, it is a tiny minority of Portuguese speakers who actually speak “standard” Portuguese. (The same could be said of Spanish; the population of Spanish-speaking America is many times larger than that of Spain.)

From a statistical perspective, Brazilian Portuguese is the most significant dialect of the language. If you first learn European, or Continental, Portuguese, you will have to acclimate yourself to some minor differences in Brazilian pronunciation and vocabulary. (On the bright side, a number of courses in “Brazilian Portuguese” are now available, so you may be able to acquaint yourself with it before you land in Brazil.)

I adjusted to Brazilian Portuguese during an extended stay near São Paulo after studying Continental Portuguese for several years in the United States. In my experience, the relatively uniform Brazilian Portuguese is much easier to adjust to than the multiple American dialects of Spanish. (Although there are courses in “Latin American Spanish”, the variations in speech within Latin America usually force the authors of these courses to favor one of the various dialects within this region.)

More Sundry Dialects

France is universally regarded as the seat of French-speaking culture. French is also spoken in several other European countries, in Africa, and in the Canadian province of Quebec. The Canadian version of French seems to be particularly daunting for French students who are fresh from the classroom. I have seen dictionaries of Canadian French, but I haven’t yet seen any full-length courses based upon the Quebec dialect. 

Chinese dialects used to be a major obstacle to learning any universally serviceable form of spoken Chinese. Now the dialects are merely a manageable impediment. The Mandarin dialect has been embraced throughout China and Taiwan, but regional differences in usage and pronunciation persist. Having learned the Beijing dialect, it took me a number of years to get used to speakers from Taiwan, Shanghai, and other areas.

The dialect issue is not limited to global languages like French, Spanish and Portuguese. Even Japan—a country about the size of California—is home to numerous regional language variations. “Standard” Japanese is more or less the Tokyo dialect, but differences that emerged before the age of mass communications still exist. Residents of the Kansai region—the area around the cities of Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto—speak a distinctive version of Japanese which affects the way greetings, pronunciation, and verb endings are rendered in daily communications. (If you want to hear a bit of Kansai Japanese, rent Black Rain, a 1989 American film about two New York City policemen who get mixed up in a conflict in the Japanese underworld.) In my years as a Japanese language interpreter, I was also challenged by the unique dialects of Kyushu (Southern Japan), Okinawa, and Hokkaido.

Dialects Bark Worse than they Bite

Now that I have sufficiently alarmed you over dialects, I have some good news: once you have the standard version of a language under your belt, you can usually adjust to a regional dialect with minimal difficulty. Unique English dialects—such as those of Wales, Ireland or Australia might cause confusion to the uninitiated ears of an Ohio resident. But no Ohioan has ever required an interpreter when navigating the streets of Melbourne or Dublin. Similarly, dialect confusion in a foreign language disappears with repeated exposure. While there are exceptions (recall the aforementioned Scottish movie that required subtitles) these exceptions are few and far between.

The caveat, of course, is that you must learn the standard version of the language well. Deciphering a dialect is normally a straightforward matter of untangling the standard language from the incremental modifications that have been applied within a particular region.  Master the language of the Paris salons, and you will be ready for the rough-and-tumble watering holes of rural Quebec soon enough.

Should you go one step further, and actually try to speak in a regional dialect? Opinions will vary on this one, but my vote is—no. A dialect is, by definition, the nonstandard characteristic speech of a particular region. The standard language, by contrast, is universal across multiple regions. In this light, a foreigner who affects the regional speech of a dialect is kind of like a New Yorker who puts a gun rack in the back window of his BMW when driving through rural Kentucky. It is somehow just not convincing.

Once again, it is helpful to consider the matter from the opposite perspective: try to recall the last time you heard a nonnative speaker of English say, “howdy,” “jolly good,” or “right away, Bubba.”

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