Languages vs. Dialects: Why the Difference Matters in Business

March 1, 2016 Rosetta Stone Enterprise and Education

John McWhorter, language, dialects, language training, businessWe recently published a blog post entitled “Employee Training in 2016“, where we highlighted some major trends currently taking form in organizational learning. Two of those, international training and language learning, deal directly with the use of language and how it develops. We’re exploring some of the current work being done in that field in this entry.

Columbia University linguistics professor and author John McWhorter recently discussed language and dialect in an article for The Atlantic.

Is there a difference?

Understanding any difference between the two can be important for the language learner.

Although McWhorter goes into much more interesting detail, there is this clear difference between the two: writing can represent language, whereas dialects tend to be spoken. But not by choice.

Languages (and dialects) develop over time. Sometimes those developments come slowly. Dialects tend to be tribal, although they are usually consolidated from many more tribal dialects that have since passed. Languages are political, usually created through efforts by a government to standardize dialects throughout their state. Languages are also based in history. People speak English in dozens of places around the world because those places were colonies at some point.

Languages, and their associated dialects, are not only communication tools. They are a window into cultural competency. Understanding more about a language than just its words and grammar can lead you to more effective communication that enhances relationships and improves business.

China: the dialectical haven of the world

Let’s look at an example covered in the article.

Chinese is one of the most popular languages to learn and it comes in many dialects. Most people opt for Mandarin, the official dialect spoken in and around Beijing. But there are seven to ten main dialects to choose from, including Min, used in Taiwan, and Wu, originating in Shanghai. The location of your business might dictate the dialect spoken. People across the country speak Mandarin, but addressing your Taiwanese customers in their chosen dialect can give you a leg up on the competition.

Writing Chinese is much less complicated: the same characters represent each dialect. But an educated Chinese person knows around 4,000 characters, so ease is relative.
The consolidation of Mandarin into the official language of China is a recent development. Until the current regime, China’s dialects were much more important. Mandarin itself is not a political invention, but its importance is.

And these cultural differences can even happen close to home.

In a video attached to the bottom of McWhorter’s article, people from around the United States discuss how they greet people. Specifically, what they say after “hello”. In some places, “How are you doing?” is the norm. In others, particularly those with more transient populations, it’s “Where are you from?” And, perhaps most strikingly, there are quite a few places that ask what church a person belongs to. As the video states, these variations serve one purpose: to help the speaker gain more information about the person they are meeting than a simple “hello” would provide.

Believe it or not, these are dialectical differences and they can reveal a lot about what is important in your current location and the person with whom you are speaking (and vice versa).

Dialectical learning

So how does one go about learning the various dialects of a target language? Can it be done? Or is it more efficient for someone to split the difference (like many people do with Mandarin) and hope the people with whom you are conversing can understand?

You need to decide the importance of a certain dialect. For example, in Mexico, would the people with whom you are doing business understand you if you speak Castilian Spanish, which is what most American language learning has been focused on until recently? If all else fails, pick up the phone and try it. Your colleague will appreciate the effort and can guide you toward some modifications.

Depending on the language, dialects can vary widely from each other. Someone who comes to the US speaking British English will be fine. Mandarin and Cantonese are completely different (when spoken). Figuring this out will take some research and, ideally, the opinion of a native speaker or someone with experience in the location in which you will be working.

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