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.

Shipwrecks in Scotland (from freeimages.com). Perhaps Doric was spoken aboard these vessels?

Doric Scots: Treasure Trove of Nordic Gems

As language learners, we often focus on cultures that are far-flung. With our eyes and ears fixed on the far away, any richness around us can end up playing second fiddle. But occasionally, when you take a moment to pause, you realise the beautiful relevance of the local to your learning. So it is with Doric Scots and my journey with learning Icelandic and Norwegian.

Doric Scots

Doric is the dialect of Scots that is typical of Northeast Scotland, particularly Aberdeen and the surrounding fishing towns and villages. It boasts a very particular vocabulary of its own, which differs a fair bit from the Scots heard elsewhere in the country.

Although based in Edinburgh when I’m here, I’m lucky to be surrounded by friends and family who speak this colourful, unique and linguistically intriguing variety as their home tongue.

Scandi-Scots

The most curious thing is its substantial overlap in vocabulary with North Germanic languages. As a student of Norwegian and Icelandic, it is constantly throwing up nice surprises. Now and again friends will use a word that is unfamiliar in English. However, there is often more than a slight chance that it has a cognate somewhere in Scandinavia.

It’s certainly true that some of this North Germanic vocabulary is well attested throughout Scotland. Bairn (child) and kirk (church) are two that even south-of-the-border anglophones will recognise.

That said, Doric adds a whole raft of other northern terms like thole (bear, stand) and muckle (much, lots) that give the dialect a special Nordic twist.

Routes and roots

How they ended up in Doric, but lost to the rest of English (and even Scots), is unclear. Perhaps they were brought here by Viking invaders who assimilated into the local culture man hundreds of years ago. Maybe they travelled here by more peaceful routes via visiting sailors, fisherman and traders. There again, maybe they were more widespread, longer ago – perhaps standard English used to have these terms, and has since lost them.

Not knowing for certain lends these special words a delicious mystery. Words are stories, histories, and trying to fathom their beginnings is a unique delight of etymology.

It’s also worth pointing out, along the way, that there once lived a full-blooded, bona fide North Germanic language on Scottish soil: Norn, a language close to Faroese and Icelandic, which flourished until relatively recent times on the northern isles. Little surprise, then, that the language group still has such a presence in some modern-day varieties of Scots.

Memory tricks

But beyond the delightful surprises, could these similarities have a more practical purpose?

Spotting links between the local and the far away object of study can be a huge support when it comes to memorising vocabulary. It assists in creating memory hooks – multiple points of reference that pin a new word into the neural net of your brain. Rather than a single pair of points – English and Icelandic – you can now create a memory that is fixed by a third point, the Doric translation. Noting that gráta (to weep) corresponds to Doric / Scots greet holds that entry much faster in memory.

Examples

Now, I am a backseat etymologist. The list below is not based on extensive research of mine, but of frequent questioning of ever-patient friends and extensive excursions on Wiktionary. As such, here is a list of some touchpoints I’ve spotted between Doric, general Scots and North Germanic languages. It is far from complete or exhaustive, but shows some nice crossovers between Doric, Icelandic and Norwegian.

I have checked these entries with handy Doric-speaking friends, as well as the brief but brilliant Doric word list here. My conclusions proceed from superficial observations (and lots of fun trying to spot patterns), so please let me know in the comments if you know a different etymology, or reason for the overlap.

Doric / Scots terms with Nordic analogues

  • bairn : child
    🇮🇸🇳🇴barn
  • bide : wait / stay
    🇮🇸bíða (‘stay’ in Doric Scots – archaic English sense of ‘wait’ matches Icelandic bída)
  • breeks : trousers
    🇮🇸buxur 🇳🇴bukse – a word the rest of English has all but lost (although you can still hear britches / breeches in old cowboy films!)
  • claes : clothes
    🇮🇸klæði (cloth – the more usual Icelandic term for clothes is föt) 🇳🇴klær
  • ee / een : eye / eyes
    The plural in -n is remarkably similar to the Norwegian øyne (eyes)
  • fit / far : what / where
    The interesting thing here is not that the words have cognates in Doric – after all, the Standard English what / where come from the same route. What is interesting is that the Doric retains an initial fricative sound, just like the Nordic counterparts 🇮🇸hvað / hvar 🇳🇴hva / hvor
  • ging : go
    🇮🇸ganga (walk) – the Doric retains the Germanic -ng- that the shortened Standard English root has lost
  • greet : cry, weep
    🇮🇸gráta 🇳🇴gråte
  • het : hot
    Still close phonetically to the Standard English hot, although the different vowel echoes the Icelandic heitt
  • hoast : cough
    🇮🇸hósta 🇳🇴 husta (and also, husten in German!)
  • mate : food
    🇮🇸matur 🇳🇴mat
  • muckle : much
    🇮🇸mikill
  • oxter : armpit
    🇮🇸öxl (although this means ‘shoulder’ in Icelandic!)
  • quine : woman
    🇮🇸kona  🇳🇴kvinne – also note that Standard English has a cognate in the word queen
  • smit : infect
    🇮🇸smita 🇳🇴smitte (and of course, the Standard English word smitten in a more figurative sense)
  • thole : bear, stand
    🇮🇸þola
  • tint : lost
    🇮🇸týnt (it is not clear whether Doric only retains the past participle, or also an equivalent to the infinitive týna – to lose – too)
  • tow : rope
    🇳🇴tau
  • teem : empty
    🇮🇸tómur 🇳🇴tom

Much as we can do this with Doric Scots and Nordic languages, you can scout English for other traces of history that can help your learning adventure. Greek, Latin and more have made their mark in similar ways. As well as memory aids, the payoff is a deeper, richer understanding of the language you call your own mother tongue.

Often, learning a foreign language can teach you much about the lesser-spotted intricacies of your own – particularly the twists and turns of its pathways through social geography and history.

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialect deviants? Celebrating linguistic diversity

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.

Golden standard

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:

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

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.

Celebrate diversity

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.

Prepare yourself

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.

Expose yourself!

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.