Learning A Language? Why Regional Varieties Don't Matter

The United States is a large country, and I've lived all over the US. I know how people talk in the northeast, and how they talk in the south. I can recognize a Carolinian accent and distinguish it from a Tennesseean accent, and I can hear a single word in your speech that tells me you're from Ohio, or an expression that tells me you're from the Dakotas.

But I can also be wrong about all of that.

I have family members who have never lived outside of Chicago, but who speak as if they were from Kentucky. I have friends who use inherently "British" words in spite of having never left the United States. And I have seen television and popular culture and low-cost airfare make the world a lot smaller for everyone.

Hey, that's regional

A I learn Italian, I've encountered plenty of words and phrases (especially slang) which I am told are specific to a particular city or region, even in spite of the plain reality that I've learned them from people who do not live in or come from those regions. In fact, I've had several people tell me that "many of those expressions" are only used in Rome, even as I learn them from people in Milan.

Of course I experienced the same thing last year, as I had Russians tell me I was using Ukrainian slang, while the Ukrainians told me it was Georgian, and the Uzbekis said it was Siberian. One person says "they only say that in Moscow", and the next person says "I live in Moscow and I've never heard that".

And Spanish was the same way, too. I actually have several books of Spanish slang, which go to great lengths to indicate in which countries and regions a particular expression is used. Yet I hear these things used by people not listed on those regions, while people who are from there don't have a clue what I'm talking about.

The effect of capital cities

When people say "they only say that in Rome/Moscow/Madrid/Mexico City/etc" there's a reason for that: those capital cities are where everything happens. The majority of news comes from the capital, and the majority of film and television comes from the biggest city, which is also usually the capital.

When people come from around the country, or even around the world, to visit Russia, they're not going to Irkutsk. And when they come from around the country or the world to visit Italy, the first place on their minds isn't Puglia, it's Rome. If you're going to France, you're not thinking Montpelier, you're thinking Paris.

All the regional slang from everywhere ends up in these main cities. And more importantly, with so much going on there, most of the new slang originates there. But eventually, it makes its way back to other parts, whether by broadcast or just from people returning home and bringing it with them.

But who cares?

In my opinion, when it comes to how regional a particular phrase is, the bottom line is who cares? If I'm talking to someone from England and they use an obviously English expression, I still don't have any problem understanding them. And more importantly, the fact that they're from England holds no importance over what they've said.

I have made several friends around the world who practice their English with me even as I practice my Russian or Italian or Spanish with them, and I often find that while Spanish and Italian people seem to learn an American style of English, Russians tend to learn a decidedly more British form. If I were to stop them after every sentence and say "you sound British", or "we don't say that here", the conversation would go nowhere. Instead, we just talk. Who cares?

And most importantly, if I'm learning a language, I want to understand that language, regardless of where I am. If I were to avoid learning regional words, I would be great when reading official documents, but I would risk being totally lost when standing there in the country, talking to an actual person.

Sure, if I were to move to Italy, I might pay more attention to learning words that were used in the city where I lived — but that wouldn't be so strange since I'd be surrounded by that regional vocabulary every day. And perhaps if I were to then move to another region, I might become much more interested in the "regionality" of certain expressions.

But I'm an American, living in Chicago, learning to speak Italian in one year. And I expect that most people reading this blog are similar — English-speaking people, living in an English-speaking country, learning a foreign language. So I say don't worry about whether or not a phrase is regional. Who really cares if this phrase is used in this city, or that phrase in that one, when they're all 100% more Italian/German/Russian/French/Thai/whatever than any of the 825 words you just read?

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  • As always, great post. On a somewhat related note, I do correct (and like to be corrected) when I or the other person uses a phrase from our respective cultures wrong in the target language. I'm learning Portuguese, and it was a little off putting when a guy would end an e-mail or AIM with "kisses"! Then, it's ok not to correct someone and say, "We don't say that in English/America". I know, it's not your point but somewhat related.
    Thanks again
    Reminds me of the "bro hug" tweet we talked about last week haha

  • I really like this post. So I was visiting with a friend outside of Barcelona, and she said she and her friend wanted to practice English. I made some kind of joke that went over their heads, so I said, "Just kidding!""My friend doesn't understand you. We don't say that over here.""You don't 'say 'just kidding'? But it's universal!""No, no it's not. It's American. We speak British English here."So I really, really like this post.

  • Oh, definitely. There are some things you want to know... especially those that are embarassing. Heh. :)

  • Oh, by the way... that reminds me of that movie — oh gosh, what's the name of it now — that really popular movie that was just out last year... (pause... wait for them to suggest a few titles...) Oh, I remember now... it was EVERY F'ing FILM YOU'VE EVER WATCHED... all made in America. Just like all your favorite music, and most of your favorite books, and just about every F'ing web site you visit. Yeah. Enjoy your British language. I speak the version of English used by the entire rest of the world.Or... something like that. :) Let me know how that works out.

  • It's a bit strange if you think about it...Over the last couple of hundred years distinct different Englishes have developed - British, American, Australian and so on. So naturally one can expect that within the next, say, thousand years they'll become languages on their own with distinct vocabulary, spelling etc. differences. At least that's what's been happening to languages if we look back in history.Yet, during the last 10 - 15 years, especially thanks to modern culture (films, music) and media (Net, books etc) it seems that English is actually becoming more universal - as you said British phrases used in the US and vice versa, and so on. I've even heard of Irish kids developing American pronunciation from watching TV extensively, so...... maybe in a hundred years there'll be no such thing anymore as "they say it only in Rome"?Fast forward ten thousand years - and who knows if there'll be one universal language on our planet? I mean - with people travelling more and more, emigrating etc, there's never been such racial and cultural mix on Earth as these days!

  • People need difference. We have a basic genetic requirement for signals which indicate membership in a group, tribe, etc. Language is a very good example of that.The more language "normalizes" worldwide, the more regionals slang and accents and idioms will be invented to intentionally confuse it. Just compare the speech of a Londoner to that of someone from south England... it's as if they were from two different countries.

  • Ha! The first thing that popped into my head when I read this was something that happened about two weeks ago. The French foreign exchange student in my class told me this story about how he didn't have an eraser so he asked someone sitting next to him if they had a rubber. The class started busting out laughing and no one would tell him what a rubber meant in America except me. And I never even know the English called an eraser a rubber until then so sometimes variations in different areas does matter, but I understand what you are saying. Great blog!Tyler

  • Yeah, but that's not really the same as saying "they only say that in Britain". That's just a case where a word can mean a lot of things. "Rubbers" can also be rainboots. And thongs can be "flip-flops", but if you say it to a young American, they'll think of a g-string — and not the one on a guitar. Oh, gosh, I can do this all day.

  • Well, actually you're right. There'll be always differences in people's language depending on location, occupation etc., etc., so it's impossible for the whole word to live in such a close society where everyone's activities, lifestyles etc are so similar that one language would suffice. In fact it looks more like an utopian dictatorship planet then...

  • I see it a lot here in the US. People grow up in the same city, perhaps even the same neighborhood, yet they speak very differently. Sometimes it's about fitting into a racial grouop, sometimes it's about fitting into an economic group, sometimes athletes have a different vocabulary, and "goth" kids have a different vocabulary, and gangsters *always* have a different vocabulary. Sometimes it's hard to imagine that person grew up just a few streets away from you.

  • Great post, Randy. Sociolinguistics was one of my favorite subjects back in university, and it was always fascinating (albeit saddening) to see how people apply labels and value judgements based on one's dialect, accent and word choice, and even go so far to tell you that you say things "wrong" just because it is not the way THEY say it in THEIR dialect.You know, the more countries I visit and the more languages I learn, the more and more I have come to equate capital-city-dialect-centrism with racial prejudice.Interestingly, both forms of bigotry are perpetuated by mass media, and yet, mass media is just the tool to overcome the ridiculous, antiquated, tribal, knee-jerk correlations between skin color, religion, dialect, accent, etc. and one's social standing. I am now working in the media and telecom industries, and hope to use my career for just this purpose.

  • Thanks!

  • Fun post! I agree with everything you wrote, that the bottom line is communicating effectively. So what if you say "lorry" and I say "truck." As long as we both get the gist of what the other is saying, that's what really matters. The only thing I would add is to be aware of any words or phrases which might be offensive, inappropriate or lead to awkward (but humorous) misunderstandings among native speakers of the same language.For example, "pissed" and "fag" have very different meanings in British English vs American English. Classic example in Spanish is "coger" which means "to take or to grab" in Spain but it means "to fuck" in Latin America.I'm not saying people have to learn all the regional differences, but just be aware that a few might be worthwhile to know to avoid future embarrassment.

  • "For example, "pissed" and "fag" have very different meanings in British English vs American English. Classic example in Spanish is "coger" which means "to take or to grab" in Spain but it means "to fuck" in Latin America."Even with that, we know the differences and don't let it bother us. We have mass media that now travels around the world in seconds to thank for that.Hell, decades ago we were watching Monty Python. How do you think we learn the differences? Spanish is no different. Castillian Spanish has been exported to the Americas for decades and everyone knows the differences.

  • True, and I see regional slang spreading more and more thanks to the internet (primarily) and travel becoming more popular: Americans have started saying "Bloody", Brits have started saying "cool" and "awesome", and it seems everyone who learns English becomes quite fond of the phrase "motherfucker!", which is a decidedly VERY American word, the propagation of which I suspect is attributable almost entirely to Samuel L. Jackson :Dhttps://www.youtube.com/watc...Cheers,

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