When choosing a language, you may not only have to focus on what language you would like to learn, but what variety of that language (known as a “dialect”) you wish to acquire.
While all languages vary over distance, time, and social strata, most languages have a “standard” variety. This is the specific dialect of the language used for political, educational, and commercial purposes within a certain country or region. Often, but not always, this standard variety has a geographic “center”, whose inhabitants grow up speaking or using that standard, with minimal influence from non-standard varieties.
Choosing a language is relatively easy when the language of choice has only one standard dialect, as with Italian, Japanese, or Russian. The task, however, becomes more difficult when you want to learn a language with multiple standards, like English, French, Chinese, and Portuguese—among others.
Why Choose a Single Dialect?
There are many reasons to choose a single standard dialect of your target language to learn. These arise both from how languages vary internally, and how certain language varieties are perceived by native speakers at large:
- Consistent Vocabulary, Grammar, Pronunciation, etc. – Dialects of the same language can vary structurally in a large number of ways. Some may use different words, rely on different grammatical structures, or even have different accents and overall pronunciation. Choosing to study a specific dialect from the beginning will make sure your language use is consistent to one form of the language, rather than causing you to speak in a hodge-podge of disparate varieties.
- Greater Sense of Belonging – Dialects are connected to their region. You will likely “fit in” better amongst people whose dialect you speak.
- Certain Language Varieties Can’t Communicate with Others – Some dialects of a single language cannot communicate with other dialects. You might want to learn Chinese, but be dismayed to find that Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese (also known as Yue Chinese) are not mutually intelligible.
- Quantity and Quality of Language Learning Resources – Learner resources for individual dialects of a language can vary greatly in quantity or quality. Brazilian Portuguese resources, for example, seem to greatly outnumber those specifically dedicated to European Portuguese. And still, European Portuguese resources exist in far greater numbers than those developed for Mozambican or Angolan Portuguese, by comparison.
How to Determine if Your Target Language Has Multiple Standard Dialects?
The quickest way to determine if your target language has multiple standard varieties or dialects is to conduct a Google search.
Simply type in the name of your target language, followed by the word “dialects”. When you’re done, press Enter.
Once your search is complete, below the search bar you’ll notice a handy feature known as an “Answer Box.” For most languages, this box will give you an accurate list of the major dialects of your target language, without having to click on any links. If you want to learn more about a specific dialect, click on one of the boxes (e.g. “Rioplatense Spanish” above), and a new Google search will launch based upon that term.
Below the “Answer Box”, the first results for the above search should be from Wikipedia (typically a page titled “(Target Language” Dialects, “Target Language” Varieties, or something similar). Click through to that page.
Once you’ve reached Wikipedia, hit Ctrl + F (on PC) or Command + F (on Mac) and do a browser search for the words “Standard” or “Official”. This will help you find the area in the text that discusses standard or official dialects. Once found, you should have a reliable list of standard dialects, any of which you can potentially choose to learn. As a general rule, even if a language has multiple standard dialects (Spanish has twenty, for example), it will be the most widely spoken of those that will be the easiest to learn and find resources for.
3 Ways to Choose Which Dialect to Learn
Choose the Variety That Interests You Most
This is the method of dialect choice that should overrule the rest, though it has the potential to be the most difficult to follow. Simply decide which dialect has the most appeal to you, and learn that. In theory, you can learn any dialect of any language you like, as long as you can get enough active use and passive exposure. Of course, more popular dialects are the easiest to do this with, but if you want to eschew learning Standard Italian for Sicilian, for example, you can. It will just take more time, effort, and energy to get the resources and exposure you will need to learn the language properly.
Choose the Variety That Is Most Geographically Relevant to You
Even if there is one standard variety of your target language that dominates the rest on a global scale, you may still find that it makes the most sense to learn the variety that is spoken in an area that is geographically closest to you. In particular, if you’re in a country with a less-often-learned (but still standard) dialect as an official language, you will stand a greater chance of finding learner resources for that variety there.
Choose the Variety That Has the Most Available Resources
This is the easiest option, and is largely independent of your interest or where you live. Certain languages, particularly those among the most widely-learned in the world, will have a specific standard form that is much more commonly studied than the rest of them. A greater supply of learners generally means a greater supply of resources, so finding materials to help you learn these dialects should be much easier than any other dialects.For example, If you want to learn French anywhere in the world, you will find that the largest number of French resources are based around Standard French, spoken in France.
Languages are not single, uniform entities. They change and vary over time and space, according to who you are speaking to and under what circumstances you are doing so. This natural variation means that for learners, it is often not enough to say something like “I want to learn French” or “I want to learn Spanish”. They must also determine which of several standard forms of the language they will focus on learning.
Depending on your choice, you will have an easier or more difficult time getting the practice you need to reach fluency in beyond, but I strongly encourage you to find the variety that is most appealing to you, and do your best to stick to it, throughout your learning.