Dialects of the Most Commonly Learned Languages

Languages vary. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot.

As explained in our article What is a Language? What is a Dialect?, all languages vary across multiple spectra. These spectra encompass natural linguistic variation, including regional dialects, social dialects (sociolects), registers, styles, and personal dialects (idiolects).

For social and political purposes, however, such variation is inconvenient, and communication across long distances and across varied groups typically necessitates some agreed-upon “standard language.” This standard acts as a “lingua franca” that all or most inhabitants of a given region, nation, or other geographical area will understand (or learn to understand).

When you decide to learn a language, the language you choose will likely be one of these standard varieties.  In the majority of cases, learning a particular standard will give you access to the greatest quantity of people, media, and learner resources.

It can be a problem, however, when a given language has multiple standard varieties.

For example, the Spanish that is spoken in Spain is not the same as that spoken in Mexico. The Spanish spoken in Mexico is not the same as that spoken in Uruguay. The Spanish spoken in Uruguay is not the same as the Spanish spoken in Puerto Rico. So on, and so forth, for over twenty countries.

Sure, the differences between the standard varieties in these languages isn’t alway so great as to impede communication, but the variation can and do make a difference in how the languages are expressed.

In this article, we will explore the most commonly learned standard varieties of the most commonly learned languages.

How Can Standard Dialects Differ From One Another?

Most standard dialects represent one or more of the following:

  • Spoken Standard: A socially-approved repertoire of words, expressions, registers, and grammatical structures to be used in verbal communication. Spoken Standards generally originate from a specific geographical area.
  • Written Standard: A socially-approved manner of writing, including (but not limited to) spelling, punctuation, grammar, and even the specific writing system to be used.
  • Standard Accent: A socially-approved manner of pronouncing the words in the spoken standard. Standard Accents are often (but not always) lifted from the geographical area in which the spoken standard originated)

Not all standards will vary in the same way. Some (e.g. English) will vary slightly across each category, and remain highly mutually intelligible. Others (e.g. Portuguese, Chinese) will vary in ways that will make mutual understanding more difficult.

Standard Dialects of the Most Commonly Learned Languages

In the article What Are the Most Learned Languages in the World?, we looked at data from language learners worldwide to determine which languages are the most popularly learned.

Here, we will look at ten of those languages (English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, and Swedish) and discuss the standard dialects you will have to choose from if you want to learn those languages.

Not all of these popular languages have more than one commonly learned standard.

However, if your specific target languages does have multiple options, your choice of standard can determine anything from what words you use, to what accent you will have, to even how you read and write your target language.

Standard Dialects of 10 of the Most Learned Languages

Below is the list of the most commonly learned standard dialects of ten of the most popular languages in the world. This list is not meant to be a comprehensive evaluation of different standard dialects. It is only meant to represent your most likely options for standard dialects when learning each of these languages.

1. English

Most Commonly Learned Standard Varieties

  • British English – Standard spoken in the UK, specifically Great Britain. Usually combined with the “Received Pronunciation” prestige accent.
  • Standard American English – Spoken in the United States of America, and used with the “General American Accent”.

Other Major Varieties

  • Standard Canadian English – Spoken in Canada.
  • Standard Scottish English – Spoken in Scotland.
  • Standard Australian English – Spoken in Australia.

2. French

Most Commonly Learned Standard Variety

  • Standard (Metropolitan) French – Spoken in metropolitan (mainland European) France.

Other Major Varieties

  • Quebec French – Spoken in Quebec, Canada.
  • Belgian French – Spoken in Belgium.
  • Swiss French – Spoken in Switzerland.

3. Spanish

Most Commonly Learned Standard Varieties

  • Castilian Spanish – Spoken in Spain, Castilian Spanish originates from the Castile region of the country. It is the Spanish variety most learned and taught in Europe.
  • Mexican Spanish – Spoken in Mexico, the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country. It is the Spanish variety most learned and taught in the US and Canada.

Other Major Varieties

  • Central American Spanish – Spoken in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
  • Caribbean Spanish – Spoken in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Venezuela, and Colombia.
  • Rioplatense Spanish – Spoken in Argentina and Uruguay.
  • Andean-Pacific Spanish – Spoken in Chile, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia,
  • Chilean Spanish – Spoken in Chile.

4. German

Most Commonly Learned Standard Varieties

  • German Standard German – Spoken in Germany.
  • Austrian Standard German – Spoken in Austria.
  • Swiss Standard German – Spoken in Switzerland.

Other Major Varieties

  • Low German – Spoken in northern Germany and the eastern portion of the Netherlands.
  • High German – Spoken in southern Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, along with other, smaller surrounding areas.

5. Italian

Most Commonly Learned Standard Variety

  • Standard Italian – Based on the written dialect of Tuscany, but spoken with the pronunciation of the Romanesco dialect of Rome.

6. Portuguese

Most Commonly Learned Standard Variety

  • Standard Brazilian Portuguese – Spoken in Brazil.
  • Modern Standard European Portuguese – Spoken in Portugal.

7. Russian

Most Commonly Learned Standard Variety

  • Standard Russian – Spoken in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Originated from the high-class dialect of Moscow following the reign of Peter the Great.

8. Japanese

Most Commonly Learned Standard Variety

  • Standard Japanese – Spoken in Japan. Originates from the dialect of the high-class areas of Tokyo in the time after the Meiji Restoration.

9. Chinese

Most Commonly Learned Standard Varieties of Mandarin

  • Standard Mandarin (Putonghua) – Used in Mainland China and based on the Beijing dialect. Uses Simplified Chinese as its writing system.
  • Standard Mandarin (Guoyu) – Used in Taiwan and based on the dialect of Mandarin spoken on the island. Uses Traditional Chinese as its writing system.

Most Commonly Learned Standard Variety of Cantonese

  • Standard Cantonese – Used in the Guangdong region of Mainland China, as well as Hong Kong and Macau. Uses Traditional Chinese as its writing system.

10. Swedish

Most Commonly Learned Standard Varieties

  • Standard Sweden Swedish – Standard Swedish as it is spoken in Swedish, with a Swedish accent.

Other Major Varieties

  • Standard Finland Swedish – Standard Swedish as it is spoken in Finland, with a Finnish accent.

How to Choose a Standard Dialect to Learn

If you’re looking to learn one of the above ten languages, and cannot decide which standard dialect is best to you, please refer to our article, How to Choose Which Variety of a Language to Learn.

Conclusion

When faced with learning a language with multiple standard dialects, choosing a dialect is an important decision you will have to make. Your ultimate choice can influence the resources you use, who you can speak to, what you say when you do speak, and how well you are accepted by certain native speakers.

The above list is provided as a tool to acquaint you with the most popular variations of the most popular languages. Remember,—technically all varieties are available to you to learn, and you can even learn a mixture of several. If your goal is to sound native, however, I recommend that you pick one standard dialect to call your own. This way, you stand the most chance of sounding like an authentic, natural member of the speech community.

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