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What Every Language Learner should Know about Dialects


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!السلام علیکم  Welcome back, language learners, to Adventures in Language!
In our last article, we talked about the fact that hearing your target language spoken out and about in “the wild” can sound a lot different from how you learned it. One of the reasons for that had everything to do with dialects. To recap, dialects are simply different ways of speaking a language -- and every dialect has a particular way of using pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Take English, for example. British English has quite a different pronunciation from American English. And even within American English, speakers of some dialects call soft drinks ‘pop’ while others call them ‘soda.’

Long story short, some dialects can be pretty similar to each other while others can be wildly different. So, what does this have to do with how you approach learning your target language? Quite a lot, actually! It all boils down to what we call the Dialect Dilemma, a catch-all term for all the questions and confusions that go along with navigating dialectal differences in your language learning process. Some of the most common questions are: 

  • How different are the different dialects in my target language?

  • Should I stick to learning just one? 

  • Will exposure to multiple dialects confuse me? 

After reading this article, you’ll be able to confidently navigate those Dialect Dilemma questions and be on your way to achieving your fluency goals! Well, sans plus tarder, let’s get to it! Here are the 4 things that you need to understand when it comes to navigating the Dialect Dilemma.

  1. Mutual intelligibility matters

  2. Your communicative goals matter

  3. You can speak a “hybrid” dialect

  4. Dialectal diversity can facilitate learning

Now, let’s break those down...

#1 Mutual intelligibility matters

If you’ve ever asked yourself “How different are the different dialects in my target language?” then you were inquiring about what linguists would call mutual intelligibility. If two language varieties have high mutual intelligibility, that means speakers of both groups can readily understand one another. For example, the Spanish spoken in Ecuador and Perú have high mutual intelligibility, so if you learned Spanish from an Ecuadorian speaker, you’re going to be able to get around speaking Spanish in Peru, too. On the flip side, if two dialects are said to have low mutual intelligibility, that means they’re not similar enough to be easily understood. Take Morrocan and Levantine Arabic, for example. These are two dialects of Arabic that have such low mutual intelligibility that learning one would mean you probably couldn’t get by in the other. It’s almost fair to think of them as different languages (and some linguists do!). Main takeaway: when navigating the dialect dilemma, it’s smart to do a little research into mutual intelligibility so you know you’re spending your time wisely. That leads us to…

#2 Your communicative goals matter

At the end of the day, it really comes down to one question: who do you want to be able to communicate with? If your communicative goals are broad and general, then it’s probably best for you to focus on the most widely understood dialects of a language, and pick up dialect features as they become useful. However, if your communicative goals are targeted (say, being able to communicate with your in-laws), then a target dialect learning approach could make a lot of sense. For those of you in the Mango fam, you’ve probably already picked up on the fact that the Mango app is structured to help you navigate dialectal diversity. For example, if you want to learn Spanish, you have the choice to learn Latin American Spanish or Castilian Spanish (from Spain), each course featuring voices from the target dialect. If you want to train your ear specifically for one dialect, you have that option. Click here to learn more about the 70+ courses offered within the Mango app!


#3 You can speak a “hybrid” dialect

A lot of language learners make the mistake of thinking that in order to sound fluent in a language, they need to have one “pure” accent or dialect when they speak. Here’s the deal - unless you’re training to be an international spy with a very specific backstory, having a hybrid dialect is totally fine -- and actually quite normal! Really all that matters is being able to communicate and be understood - so if you’re doing that, you’re succeeding! Long story short, dialectal diversity is a beautiful thing - embrace it, lean into it, enjoy it.


#4 Dialectal diversity can facilitate learning

Does exposure to different dialects add a level of complexity to your language learning? Yes. But can it also help you learn the language more effectively? Also yes! When you’re a beginner in the language, you might want to pick and stick to one dialect. Doing so certainly simplifies your input, which can be good for maintaining your motivation. But once you’ve gotten your feet wet, variation in your input (in the form of dialectal diversity) can actually help you learn more efficiently. If you’d like us to write an article that breaks down the research on this from educational psychology - let us know! In the meantime, check out the suggested readings listed at the end of this article.


Last thing...

Remember - it’s all about your goals! How you approach dialectal diversity in your target language should be closely tied to your communicative goals as a language learner. To that end, if you haven’t recently checked in on your language learning goals, we highly recommend you do so. If you’d like an easy step-by-step walk-through to help you do that, check out our FREE Setting Good Goals worksheet. It’s the best 5 minutes you’ll ever spend on your language learning.


To recap!

The 4 ways to successfully navigate the Dialect Dilemma are:

  1. Research the mutual intelligibility of the dialects in your target language

  2. Be clear about your communicative goals in the language

  3. Realize that you can speak a “hybrid” dialect

  4. Understand that exposure to different dialects can help you learn more efficiently

Well, language learners - thanks for reading! 
That’s all for this time on “Adventures in Language.” رب راکھا۔ We look forward to seeing you back here for our next article!

Join the Mango fam!

Wondering what languages were used in this article? 

  • English | (recording language)

  • Punjabi (Pakistani) | السلام علیکم means hello (lit. 'peace be upon you.’)  رب راکھا۔ (rab raakhaa) means goodbye (lit. god savior)

  • French | Sans plus tarder means ‘Well, without further ado’

  • Interested in learning English, Punjabi, French, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to learn more!

Want to know more about the role of dialectal diversity in language learning?

  • Ringer‐Hilfinger, K. (2012). Learner acquisition of dialect variation in a study abroad context: The case of the Spanish [θ]. Foreign Language Annals, 45(3), 430-446.

  • Walker, A. (2019). The role of dialect experience in topic-based shifts in speech production. Language Variation and Change, 31(2), 135-163.

  • Williams, G. P., Panayotov, N., & Kempe, V. (2020). How does dialect exposure affect learning to read and spell? An artificial orthography study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

  • Cheng, C. C. (1996). Quantifying dialect mutual intelligibility. In New horizons in Chinese linguistics (pp. 269-292). Springer, Dordrecht.

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Emily Rae Sabo
Written by Emily Rae Sabo

A travel-hungry content creator with a Linguistics PhD in bilingual language processing, Emily has studied 7 languages and loves getting to use them to connect with people around the world. When she’s not creating content for the Mango community, you can find her dancing, yoga-ing, or performing some good ole’ fashioned standup comedy.

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