Dialectblog.com: On language variation

Just the other day I found one of the coolest blogs on the web: dialectblog.com. Of course you do have to like English language variation for this, but I think it’s pretty neat. Not only does it list American, British and Irish accents and their features, but the author also delves into language variation phenomenon, such as the disappearance of the New York accent or whether the accents in period TV series are actually spot on. I find it a fascinating website, not in the first place because language variation is something that I’m interested in.

The funny thing about language is that it changes all the time. Not only that, but language variation is a basic feature of language production. Language can be linked to geographic locations, personal and social identities and even to time. It’s these features that make you speak the way you do and it’s the ability of language to deal with this variety that makes it possible in the first place.

I wrote this massive blogpost back when I first started blogging on language & identity and language variation is one topic I’m very passionate about. I’m a non-native speaker of English with an American accent teaching in an environment that is ruled by British English standards. It’s a good thing than that I can at least explain all the differences, because back in the day of my Bachelor’s degree I went through 2,5 years of British accent training.

In teaching English I think it is important to bare in mind that there is not one English. Just like there is not one type of Dutch. Language is a strange thing in that sense which doesn’t let itself get captured very easily. But just ask yourself: isn’t it fascinating that we each speak our own language that is pretty much unique to us as individuals? A person’s accent can give you instant information on where that person grew up, where they are from, what their occupation is or even how they view themselves. It’s not WHAT you’re saying that matters in this, it’s HOW! So next time you say something, better think twice ;-).

Do you speak a certain variety of a language? If so, which language do you speak and can you name the variety? In Dutch I speak Standard Dutch with a nice sauce of Southern influences mixed in with it. I will never get rid of that Southern soft ‘G’! In English I tend to speak General American or Standard American English. How about you?

8 responses to “Dialectblog.com: On language variation”

  1. I think you’re very understandable. I thought that one guy I talked to on the phone when I was last in Brum was much more difficult to understand. I think you speak Standard British English with some local features at most. Sort of like my Dutch.

    As for my British accent: I could do one if I have to and if I can prepare the text in advance, but I don’t speak it as in: I can just switch between British & American. American is what comes natural to me, British takes and needs work. It’s been a while since I last tried it. I sometimes do it in class when students tell me I wouldn’t be able to teach them anything about British English because I speak American. They are us ually impressed as I will read the same sentence in both accents. I know what features to look for though and what I need to do to change it, so with a bit of effort I could make it work.

    • So it’s basically down to you understanding the features of the languages that makes it easier for you to speak British English than most Dutch people would you say?

      I know I complain about my struggles with German but having studied English on many levels – and at my own leisure I can only imagine how complex it must be for someone to learn when it’s not their first language.

  2. Yes, when you know what features make the accent so to speak and when you know how to use them then you could technically do any accent/ language/ pronunciation in the world. It’s just sounds and each accent gives different qualities to different sounds. For instance, medial t in SBE is pronounced as a t (as in water, better etc.) Americans tend to turn it into a d like sound, which is actually more of a tap than a real d, but when you’re British and live in East End London you ‘skip’ the t and replace it with what linguists call a ‘glottal stop’ turning better into be-uh and water into wah-uh. Hope that made sense!

    And learning ANY language that is not your first can be a struggle. Luckily for Dutch/ German/ English this is still in the same language family, but when things move further away from home, and especially when a language is NOT part of the language family your native tongue falls into, it’s even more of a challenge. One thing that definitely helps is early exposure. I still think that my mom’s furious attempts to keep me entertained after refusing to take afternoon naps when I was 2 are my reason for speaking and knowing English the way I do. She had me watch Postman Pat and other BBC shows since that was the only thing that was on in the mid 80s. So really: exposure is the key. Learning a language is a matter of doing it and exposing yourself to as much of it as you can. That is why you often don’t truly learn to speak any language until you go to a country where the language is spoken and you have no other choice.

    • It made sense yes.

      We get 0 exposure to other languages in the UK – TV programmes, maybe a program in the middle of the night – an educational one. That’s about it.
      If you are lucky, your school might have a trip to the country whose language you are learning.
      And we don’t start learning a second language until high school at 12 years old … which is WAY behind some countries.
      That’s 3 years of basics, no tv programmes, no exposure and then 2 years doing your GCSE’s on that language.

      I honestly learnt more about Dutch when you guys were here – not that I understood exactly what you were saying but after a day, I would start to get the gist of some things you were saying in Dutch. So I totally realised then that my schooling was rubbish compared to exposure.

      • When I go to London I also ‘hear’ more SBE than I do SAE when I hear English in my head if that makes sense lol.

        But yeah, exposure is best!

  3. I never chose consciously actually. I had some heavy exposure through television (none of Dutch TV is dubbed, but subtitled) and as a teenager I already acquired an American accent through that. When I got to uni I HAD to do British because I had no valid reason for speaking American English other than tv. American English is often still deemed as ‘bad’ English or American and NOT English at all by many people here in The Netherlands. In my junior year I spent 5 months in the US as an exchange student and that’s when I officially made the switch. However, during the 2,5 years of accent training I would sound American when speaking fluently and only when I was given a speaking assignment would I bring out the British. So it’s always been more dominant for me to begin with.

    As for getting more exposure to Dutch, that is actually not that difficult. If you go to uitzendinggemist.nl you can watch Dutch television programmes and model yourself after that. If your friend can help you out that would be best. It is crucial to model yourself after someone who is like you, rather than what you should be like, if you know what I mean. Another thing that can help are Disney movies. No kidding. If you get a Dutch DVD you’ll be able to watch the movie in Dutch with English subtitles or vice versa! It’s the only thing that’s out there though as movies are only in Dutch when a) it’s a Dutch movie of b) when it’s for kids. There simply aren’t that many Dutch movies out there that I know have been subtitled, mostly they are dubbed for the English market. So your best bet is Disney. Just get your friend to send you a DVD. You’ll need a region free DVD player though!

    Also: read! Nu.nl is a Dutch news site with short texts that are kept fairly simple. And of course the occasional book doesn’t hurt. Start simply though with books that children use when they start to read their first real books. Some great ones were written by a lady named Annie M.G. Schmidt. If you read her stories about Jip & Janneke (which are read as bed time stories over here) you will not only be reading Dutch, but you’ll also get some insights into traditional Dutch culture. The stories are about a boy (Jip) and a girl (Janneke) and they are 5 year-olds who live next door to one another. And they have all these ‘adventures’ such as their first swimming class, getting sick, etc. The stories were written in the 50s and are well known for their Dutchness. The stories are short (2-3 pages) and not too difficult. Another one of her books that I always enjoyed is Pluk van de Petteflet. Just look it up!

    • Thanks for the great tips.

      I’d already discovered bvn.nl, targeted to expats, and they have some Internet-streamable programs available. I’m about this close (picture my pinched fingers) to just dropping the $200 and getting the hardware I need to watch the entire satellite feed live. (Not many of the shows are actually available via streaming.) I understand so little spoken Dutch at this point, however, I’ve been putting it off for now. But I wonder if it’s a chicken and egg problem; I need to hear more to get better? I honestly just don’t know.

      The Disney movies are a great tip, and I was already thinking along the lines of region-free DVD players, etc. I don’t pirate stuff, but I’m certainly not above cracking a DVD and “ripping” it to MP4 so I can play it on my computer, Apple TV, etc. After testing a British DVD (my stepdad is a Brit), I found it works great, so I need only order the DVDs from bol.com to get started. I’ll go put some Disney goodies in my shopping cart. 😉

      Finally, thanks also for the book tips. I’ll make that part of my bol.com shopping today. You may have seen it on my blog, but I’m loving the “Het Leven van een Loser” series. I have the English books (“Wimpy Kid”), and while still a bit of a stretch for me (targeted to ~10 year olds), they’ve been a lot of fun. I also have a copy of Pietje Bell I’ve not dug into yet. But Jip & Janneke need to join the library too.

      Heel erg bedankt!

  4. Oh you know what you can also try: audio books! That way you can expose yourself to more spoken Dutch and if you’d buy the ACTUAL book you could read along. You could then underline all the words you don’t understand or things that strike you and take note of it in a note book. You could then ask your friends (or me ;-)) to explain it to you or look it up in one of your resources.

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