Spoiler alert: the language you’re learning probably isn’t the language people are speaking. Thanks to dialect, you might be surprised when you chat with your first native speaker.
If you’re not prepared for it, the surprise can be disconcerting at best, and demoralising at worst. I remember the first time I tried out my fresh, pristine, textbook Norwegian in Bergen. I marched up to the tourist information desk, and enunciated my request for a map with all the precision I could muster. And the answer? Gobbledegook. Nothing like my Norwegian learning CDs back home. Was that really Norwegian? Or was I really that bad at learning languages?
OK, I was naïve back then! But dialect can still pose an issue for anyone hoping to get a functional, everyday knowledge of a foreign language.
When you learn a foreign language from a textbook, you’ll be learning a standardised form. This will be some general, accepted form of the language, often prescribed by an official language body in the country of origin. Some of these organisations have remarkable pedigrees; the Académie Française has been looking after the French language since 1635, for example. Spain’s Real Academia Española has been around since 1713. Sometimes, publishers or private companies will become semi-official language keepers, like Germany’s Duden, or the UK’s Oxford English Dictionary.
These lofty institutes (a full list can be found here) are custodians of the ‘dictionary’ forms of language. Consequently, it’s these forms that we’ll find in textbooks as foreign learners, and for good reason; native speakers use language in such varied ways, it would be impractical to learn every manner of speaking from every region. But out in the field, it’s everyday, spoken, dialectal forms that can add a lot of colour to your language experience.
Norwegian dialects: Extreme sport
If you know Norway, you might well consider people like me slightly masochistic. Norway is an pretty extreme example of dialect diversity. In fact, there is so much linguistic diversity in Norway, that there are two official standard forms: bokmål and nynorsk. The interplay between the two gives rise to the great language controversy that continues to play out across the country today.
However, accessing this diversity is gaining an insight into something very close to Norwegian hearts. I recently happened upon a book in Oslo that I just had to buy. In fact, it’s not just a book. It has a big, whopping MP3 player attached to it. Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) is a compendium of Norwegian dialects to read about and listen to! It’s pretty amazing:
What grabbed me particularly was this line from the introduction:
Vi nordmenn er stolte av dialekten vår.
We Norwegians are proud of our dialect.
Look at that: proud. Dialect isn’t just something that makes learning Norwegian a bit tricky. It’s actually something that makes Norway Norway. A source of national pride. So you might not understand everything straight away. But you can enjoy something that is as much a part of Norway as reindeer and hurtigruten: marvelling at how rich the country’s linguistic landscape is.
One of the greatest thing about this book is its celebration of all dialects. This is something Norway does very well, where other countries can sometimes stigmatise dialect as ‘substandard’. When I compare this to the situation of my native language, British English, I’m a little ashamed; recent studies suggest a continued prejudice towards certain dialect and regional accents. Even qualifying accents with the seemingly innocuous term ‘non-standard’ hides a snootiness that places them outside some prestige ‘norm’. Can’t we all be more like Norway, please?
Dialect for the learner
So, dialect is a key to richness and diversity in your chosen language’s culture. You needn’t view it as an obstacle, but rather an amazing opportunity. The first engagement as a learner should be to acknowledge that dialects exist, and to expect diversity from your very first interactions. There are a couple of things you can do to maximise your enjoyment, though.
Research the linguistic topography through Internet searches. Simply starting with ‘German dialects’ in Google, for example, leads to a wealth of material.
Interrogate your textbooks
Check the intro – does it say which variety of the language you are learning? Does it give information about alternative forms that aren’t included? Welsh, for example, comes in two standards, like Norwegian. Which one are you learning? Be aware.
Aim to soak up as much contemporary language as possible. You don’t need to be in the target language country for this. Mine online TV channels and podcasts for examples of real speech. National broadcasters are good places to start; the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK has a wealth of podcasts available, for example.
Reap the rewards
If you can cope with a relatively obscure rural dialect that differs a great deal from the standard you are learning, then you have something to celebrate! Dialect comprehension shows that you’re starting to gain a very deep, active understanding of the language. Like native speakers, you’re able to hear unfamiliar words and make educated guesses at meaning.
Being able to pick out dialects can give you so much more cultural access to your target language country, too. There’s a delicious satisfaction when you hear a dialect and can place where the person is (probably) from.
Look beyond your standardised textbooks, and be prepared for colour, richness and diversity in your language learning experience. Most of all: enjoy it.