Accent and dialect (like Doric Scots) lend colour to language- and learning opportunities to linguists. (Image from freeimages.com)

The Accent Challenge : Develop 3D Listening in your Foreign Languages

Of all the characteristic features of regions, few lend as much colour and hue as local accent. And, fresh from a weekend in North East Scotland, I’ve had another chance to ponder this as I soak up the distinct Doric dialect.

In many ways, my continued adventures with Doric Scots remind me of my experiences as a language learner ‘in the wild’. There are few things more challenging and frustrating – yet more galvanising for your language skills – than exposure to a range of accents and dialects.

Experience with accent and dialect is extremely useful to the language learner. But that doesn’t make them an easy ride!

Baptism by fire

As a languages undergraduate at university, I must have been a stickler for punishment. So fascinated was I by dialects, that I threw myself directly into their path. I sought out every opportunity to experience all the regional colours of German.

Naturally, it surprised nobody when I picked Austria for my year abroad.

If ever there was a baptism by fire, it was those first two weeks in Austria. Did I think I could speak German? Well, two weeks of standing baffled at supermarket counters, train stations and other accent-stippled social situations took me down a peg or two. It was like a whole other language!

But, slowly, things fell into place. I gained an awareness of how German words change in Austrian mouths. I layered my German vocabulary with an extra dimension, a geometry of sound changes with a real regularity as well as a perceived unpredictability to my initial, untrained ear. Gradually, that unpredictability turned into familiarity, and Austrian German was a stranger no more.

My German listening skills were all the better for it. If you can work out how Austrian sounds map onto Hochdeutsch, you have the skills to develop a comprehension of other accents and dialects, too. German pronunciation ceases to be a single equivalent sound for a written word. It leaps from the page and exists in multiple forms and dimensions.

Accent training gave me this 3D awareness of the phonology of German.

The lesson of accent

First and foremost, accent has this important lesson for linguists: expect the unpredictable, but learn to seek the order within it.

No foreign language course can prepare you for all variants of a language. Eventually, unless you limit yourself to purely written material, you will come up against real world variation. But accent teaches us to expect this unpredictable element (and remind us that preparing for it is a vital skill).

What’s more, once you learn to spot the patterns in a new configuration of your foreign language, you develop a much closer relationship with it. It is no longer flat and grayscale, but full colour multidimensional. Like a bird’s eye view, ease with accent comprehension gives you multiple perspectives over the languages you learn.

We can see an analogue to this in category learning. We might learn what a cat is from a single image of a cat, for example. However, over time, we learn to associate cat with a slightly more general set of characteristics that can vary from animal to animal (breed, colour, tailed or tailless, etc.).

In the same way, an unfamiliar accent helps you to learn that the category of sound X can vary (vowel quality, length and so on), although it still counts as sound X. German Katze might sound like Kotze in Austria, but it’s still that same old cat.

Fighting through frustration

At first, the road to mastering this skill of 3D perception can be incredibly frustrating. We spend many hours on our favourite subject, learning vocabulary, phrases, grammar. When we are faced with real life, unfettered language, we feel that we should understand, thanks to all those hours of study. But when unfamiliar accent renders that a tricky task, the “but I should know this!” feeling can be a tough experience.

But fear not. There are a couple of solid ways to gain exposure to regional variation before it gets to that face-to-face test.

Podcasts from places

Thanks to the media explosion, you can easily find podcasts from any place these days. The accessibility of podcast platforms for smaller (sometimes completely independent or individual) content creators means that variety has never been so ubiquitous.

If you are studying the standard language of a particular region, then seek out content from other locations. For German, check out podcast offerings from the Austrian broadcaster ORF, for instance. Likewise, Iberian Spanish learners might check out multiple programmes from Latin America (and vice versa), with France-Canada providing another dichotomy for French learners.

Teachers far and wide

The notion of foreign language teachers who speak regional variants is not an uncontroversial one. I know learners who insist on their teachers being bona fide ‘standard’ speakers of the language (whatever ‘standard language’ might mean!). And, undoubtedly, a sound knowledge of what is regarded as standard and ‘correct’ language is important in an instructor.

But teacher-speakers of a regional variant will have both a knowledge of the dominant version of a tongue, as well as an everyday command of their spoken variant. The best of both worlds!

Personally, I’ve purposefully sought out and learnt with teachers of Norwegian whose everyday language is heavily marked by regional differences. As experienced teachers, they are both aware of standard Bokmål, and able to temper their accent if comprehension requires. This kind of purposeful exposure to Norwegian variety was invaluable preparation for the dizzying patchwork of dialects in Norway.

Plain speaking

You might fear that this fervour for accents and dialects might have a negative effect on your own speaking. After all, developing your own voice in a foreign language is taxing enough. Won’t all that variation just confuse the brain?

From experience, I know it is perfectly possible to dabble in dialect whilst maintaining a pretty standard pronunciation yourself. In Austria, my own German accent was not drastically affected in the long term. After all, I’d spent some years learning vanilla Hochdeutsch in school, college and university, and returned to those environments after my year in the wilderness. Plain old German German remained my default mode!

Conversely, you might choose to adopt some of those regional characteristics under certain circumstances. As people can be proud of where they come from, we linguists can be proud of where we polished our skills. Often, I’ll prefer to say schauen instead of sehen in German, just to put that stamp of Austrianness onto my sentences.

Accent and regional variation do represent a challenge to the learner. But with some preparation, you can reap the benefits from charging at this hurdle. 3D listening in a foreign language is an excellent superpower to have as a linguist, after all.

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