Just as there are dialects and regional variations to spoken English, students of languages quickly become aware of the many dialects that exist within other languages. As an Arabic student myself, I soon learned there are many different shapes and forms of Arabic; spoken dialects that were far more commonly spoken in daily life than the Modern Standard Arabic I was being taught at University. One of the many hurdles I’ve faced when studying Arabic is how to acquire the vocabulary, phraseology and inflection that was specific to the dialects I was interested in speaking, not just the formal language I was being taught. I’m not alone in this problem, and Arabic is not the only language where students face this issue.
So what should you do if you want to learn a specific dialect, but the resources and classes available to you are oriented to a different one? Here are five tips to help:
1. Learn the professional spoken and written language
Yes, that’s right. Even if the classes and resources that are available to you are not available in the dialect you most want, it is not a waste of time to learn the common or professionally spoken and written dialect. This knowledge will aid you when you are learning your dialect, and it will enable you to at least communicate with native speakers, and give you a base knowledge of vocabulary and grammar from which to compare where one dialect differs from another.
There is a debate on whether or not it is better to learn a regional dialect first, and then the formal or professional dialect, and I will not take sides on that debate — I will only say that in my experience, many of the resources and books that are available for teaching students a regional dialect are supplemental, and would be vastly confusing to someone who did not already have familiarity with the language. Therefore, I do not consider a waste of time (just the opposite!) to put in significant effort in learning the most common or professional dialect.
2. Look in obscure places to find new resources
Though they might not be easy to find, and though it may be harder to find classes that are taught in your target dialect, there are resources out there for those who are looking to learning a regional dialect. It’s finding them that can be the problem!
There are several different ways to find books and recordings meant to teach you your chosen dialect. I would suggest first finding a university that is teaching your language and has a strong study abroad program to the region, and email or talk to the language department or area studies center and ask for resources. Since most professors who will be teaching in that language are native speakers, they will often know about obscure curricula in regional dialects, and they will have access to the niche publishers and organizations that produce them. Some resources are not even available to the general public! It certainly can’t hurt to ask, and many professors will be delighted to help advise you on learning a dialect, or even recommend a tutor, if you are living in the country and region that speaks the dialect you are trying to learn.
It may sound bizarre, but missionary organizations or aid groups are other places that might have excellent recommendations on resources for learning a dialect. Since many of their members are interacting with the public and therefore need to speak a dialect in a specific region, they will often have either created their own curriculum for learning that dialect, or they will know where to find classes, tutors, books, or other resources. All it takes is an email to find out.
3. Watch and listen to local media
Sometimes, the best way to begin learning words in your chosen dialect is by listening and watching media that features that dialect. Movies that are set in the regional where the dialect is spoken, even when its in your target language, are often not the best bet — accents are often toned down in movies, or actors are hired who are not from that specific region. But the news can sometimes be a good source for hearing the dialect, and I have found that talk shows and interviews in particular are excellent for hearing the dialect spoken. Talk radio that is specific to a major city in the region is also a way to begin listening.
Music can also be a great way to pick up a dialect, and especially vocabulary that is specific to a region. Artists from a region will often sing in that particular dialect. Rap, however, is often very specific to the region and you will hear a lot of new words and vocabulary. Personally, it’s not my favorite style of music, but for learning an accent, I would recommend listening to up and coming rap artists — and this is regardless of the language. Rap as a genre is available in a wide variety of languages, and even if it isn’t, it’s still worth it to seek out the music that is produced and sung by artists who speak your target dialect.
4. Find a native speaker to talk to
The three tips above will help you in beginning to learn a dialect, but you will never be able to master it unless you find native speakers to talk to and ask questions. If you live in a region that speaks the dialect you want to learn, this is fairly easy to do — you will be running into native speakers that you can practice with, and many expat groups and language centers are able to recommend native speakers to partner up with.
If you do not live in the area and you want to learn to connect with a native speaker, I recommend emailing a university, again. Oftentimes a language department will host conversation clubs and will have contacts in the community who will know native speakers that might be able to meet with you. If that is not an option, then I suggest looking online. There are several sites that exist to help facilitate language partnerships and meetings via Skype. Look for someone who is a native speaker of your target dialect, and jump onto Skype.
5. Use technology to help fill the gaps
Beyond the sites mentioned above, the internet is a great resource. Use Twitter to find people from the region where your dialect is spoken — many of them will be writing and interacting in that dialect. Jump onto forums or sites specific to that region and see how the members write back and forth to each other. Use Youtube to look up video clips of interviews, shows, and even regular people talking to each other in your target language and dialect. This information is not designed to help you learn a dialect, but it will still assist you, especially if you combine it with the tips above.
There is also a site called forvo.com that is crowdsourcing spoken language with clips of native speakers pronouncing different words. The clips specify which country the speaker is from. It is not precise, but it can help with hearing the pronunciation of the dialect, and if there is more than one recording, then hearing the differences between speakers from different countries and regions.
Finally, my last suggestion is to be a part of the online language learning community, and to follow blogs such as the Lingua File. I myself work from Lango, an iOS app that will help record and crowdsource languages and their dialects, and I have only learned about sites like forvo.com and other resources by being part of the language learning community. Though reading a blog may not directly contribute to learning a dialect, it might point you to new tools that can.
Amy Rinkle is a 25 year old perpetual Arabic student, French speaker, and freelance writer. She is currently affiliated with Lango, an app to learn any language, anywhere, which is fundraising on Kickstarter until January 13th, 2013.