Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.
French accents are romantic. German accents are harsh. Irish accents are musical. When you hear the word “accent,” you might think about the way that non-native speakers sound - but accents are so much more complex than that.
Accents, and the complementary concept dialects, reveal complex nuances about a place and the people who live there. So what are the differences between accents and dialects? And how can taking advantage of both help you sound more like a native speaker?
Accents versus Dialects
On the surface, technical terms like “dialect” and “accent” (and the seemingly minute details that separate them) may sound like abstract linguistic concepts. If you just want to learn a language for a specific purpose - for a job, for example, or to haggle during a trip - then why should you know how to distinguish one from the other?
The differences between the two concepts are actually quite simple: An accent fits inside of a dialect. Knowing how they fit can give you a leg-up on learning your target language. It can help you determine which dialects and accents to focus on, and help you pick up the linguistic quirks of locals in order to sound more like a native speaker and less like a textbook.
What is a dialect?
A dialect is a version of a language that is spoken by a certain group of people, a group that is usually classified by social or geographic boundaries.
For example, in the United States, the English spoken in a bustling city in the Northeast will differ from the English spoken in a quiet town a few states further south. In the same way, the harsh, clipped German spoken in Berlin, Germany feels worlds away from the rolling cadences of Bavarian Swabia.
These differences are classified into dialects. A dialect accounts for all of the ways that a language is used in a certain region, including vocabulary, grammar, syntax and pronunciation (accent).
In the American Northeast, carbonated beverages are called “pop,” while in the Southeast they’re called “soda,” and folks in the Southeast say “y’all” while those in the North say “you guys.” The South is also known for talking slower and connecting their words with consonant-dropping élision that is similar to French.
Looking at Germany, the word for “I” (“ich”) is pronounced “ick” in Berlin, while in Swabia the “ch” may be dropped altogether, becoming “i.” In Berlin, to make a word sound cute, you would tag “chen” or “lein” to the end, while in Swabia, you would employ “le.”
Then what is an accent?
An accent is the way that a certain group of people pronounces words and phrases. As we pointed out above, an accent is just a smaller factor in a larger dialect. But whereas “dialect” includes certain patterns of grammar and vocabulary, “accent” only reflects how a group of people manifest their pronunciation.
“Foreign” accents aren’t the only accent.
When some people think about accents, they assume it only refers to the way that someone speaks a language that isn’t their mother tongue. When you call to mind a “French” accent, for example, you might imagine it the way it is stereotypically presented in English, peppered with “ze” and plenty of “how you say?” You might not stop to consider the varieties of dialects within the French language itself, and that all types of French speakers - from the fast-talking Parisians of the North to the more musical Marseillais of the South - introduce their own distinct patterns into the language.
It can sometimes be difficult to recognize your own accent. Sure, you might be painfully aware of it when trying to learn a new language, as you find yourself bumping up against unfamiliar sounds whose mispronunciation gives you away as a non-native. But when it comes to your native language, especially if you’re surrounded by people who speak the exact same way that you do, you might not reflect on the fact that you have an accent too. You employ specific ways of pronouncing things - on top of that, you employ specific ways of patterning grammar and employing vocabulary that probably reflect where you were raised. You speak a dialect.
So how can knowing all of this help you with your language-learning goals?
It can help you determine which dialects and accents to focus your language studies on.
When you’re first learning a language, all dialects might seem inconsequential--or at least, that’s what many traditional textbooks would have you believe. If you want to learn Italian, you will probably search for “standard Italian” instead of attempting to hunt down learning materials specific to a certain region.
But sometimes, depending on the language, you should.
Certain dialects can make all the difference in the world. So when you begin learning a language, first consider where you’d like to live and with whom you’d interact on a daily basis.
This is because the differences in dialects can be stark. Swiss German and Hochdeutsch diverge so much in accent and syntax that even native Germans have trouble understanding someone from across the border. Rural Austrian dialects of German, meanwhile, can be completely unintelligible to non-Austrians--and sometimes even to people who live next door and speak similar dialects, as is the case in Tirol.
In Arabic, meanwhile, the distinctions between countries’ dialects would be better classified as separate languages. “Modern Standard Arabic” is rarely spoken, although it is often taught as the base Arabic from which all other forms derive. Moroccan Arabic carries heavy French and Spanish influences, the Emirati dialect contains lots of crossover with Farsi and Urdu, and the Lebanese dialect often mixes French and English due to high rates of trilingualism within the country.
So before you decide which form of a language to learn, decide where to go! And pick learning materials accordingly.
Knowing a dialect can help you sound more like a native speaker.
Even if the “standard” version of a language and the dialect of a certain region are similar, it is still helpful to familiarize yourself with the patterns of a certain area.
Let’s look at Berliner German again. Across most of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, thanks to the standardization of “Hochdeutsch” (High German), people will understand you if you speak textbook German. They’ll also laugh at you.
In order to sound a bit more native, consider mixing in a few local quirks. For example, in Berlin, the slang word “wa” can be tossed onto the end of sentences to mean “isn’t it?” or “isn’t that true?” Adding this small touch will make you sound like you know your way around your Kiez.
Rocket Language’s lessons are a good place to start.
The “Language and Culture” sections of Rocket Languages are an excellent place to learn about the accents, dialects and cultural practices associated with your target language. If you’re ready to sound like a native speaker, then check out our courses and start your free trial today.