Jeff Siegel on Second Dialect Acquisition

“I was born in the USA (Chicago) but have lived in Australia for more than twenty years. I’m an Ausstralian citizen, my wife and kids are Australian, I barrack for Australia in the Olympics (even over the USA), and I’ve developed an Australian outlook and sense of humour (at least I hope so!). Neverthelesss, when I’m introduced to someone new, as soon as I open my mouth I get the question “What part of the states are you from?” But when  I go back to see my family in Chicago, people tell me I”ve developed a British accent.  So I haven’t been able to acquire  Australian English but my original way of talking has changed recognizably.”  (p. 3)

– Jeff Siegel, Second Dialect Acquisition

Most people are familiar with the field of second language acquisition, where someone learns a second language or L2 (or L3, L4, etc…).  But what about Second Dialect Acquisition?

The distinction between dialects and languages is an interesting one. What makes a language a language and a dialect a dialect?  If two languages are mutually intelligible then is it possible they are dialects of the same language?

The case of Danish and Norwegian is a good example of two languages that are mutually intelligible but are considered as two separate languages. Or what about Cantonese and Mandarin which many consider to be dialects of the same language, Chinese, but which are mutually unintelligible?

For me, as someone who has spent a bit of time learning Brazilian Portuguese, while living in Brazil I could understand the Spanish (mostly from visiting Argentinians and Paraguayans) I heard around me fairly well.  But when I tried to speak Portuguese to Spanish speakers, it didn’t seem to work so well in the reverse direction.  Why is this?

Jeff Siegel, in his recent book on Second Dialect Acquisition, discusses these issues and much more in an attempt to lay out a clear foundation for doing research on how people learn another dialect.

Is learning another dialect more difficult than learning another language? What are the linguistic features that distinguish different dialects? What is the relationship between standard and regional varieties of a language, and to what degree are these difference based on actual linguistic differences or politics, values, and attitudes that people hold towards different varieties of a language?

Also, for me, living in Hawai‘i but having grown up on the West Coast of the U.S., it was interesting to read about Siegel’s thoughts on Hawai‘i Creole (Pidgin) as someone who sees himself as ‘non-local.’ The intertwining of language and identity becomes apparent:

“I also lived for several years in Hawai‘i, but never tried to speak the local variety people call “Pidgin” because I got the feeling that it is used only by those born and bred in the islands.  While in Hawai‘i , I observed that speakers of this local variety often had problems with the standard English used in the schools.”

Hawai‘i Creole is an interesting case because most people using it in Hawai‘i tend to view it as a dialect of English, whereas linguists distinguish it as a separate language (although on a continuum).  Siegel mentions this point in his introduction, shining light on the sometimes fuzzy boundaries in defining ‘languages’ and ‘dialects.’

“While most linguists (myself included) would say that such creoles and their lexifiers are separate languages, a large proportion of their speakers view tham as different varieties of the same language – the creole often thought to be a degenerate or “broken’ version of the standardized form of the lexifier.”

The last point he makes on standard varieties is worth pointing out as well.  How does a standard variety become a standard variety?  What are the underlying ideological positions that reinforce ideas of standard/non-standard? And for those involved in education, what does this mean for students who speak a non-standard variety? Especially in an educational system and society that places prestige on a particular dialect that has managed to establish itself as the standard as a result of a variety of sociohistorical factors?

Keeping some of these questions in mind, I came across an interesting video by Benny, an Irish polyglot learning French in Quebec, discussing the differences in accent between French in France and French in Quebec with a Quebecoise (in French with English subtitles). It’s interesting to hear them draw associations between dialect and characteristics of personality, attitudes and beliefs.

Also, the linguist Michael Silverstein recently gave a talk on dialects in the U.S. He does a good job of explaining a lot of the questions I raised in this post:

I took the featured image for this post on a recent boat trip to Makapu’u.  You can see the moon rising!


7 responses to “Jeff Siegel on Second Dialect Acquisition

  1. Thanks for a really interesting post! I too have been interested in the question of non-mutual interlingual intelligibility (i.e., why the difference in apparent intelligibility for Portuguese and Spanish speakers attempting to understand each other). I thought I’d engage in a little shameless self-promotion and say that Stephanie Lindemann and I have a recent paper out looking at the issue within a SLA context (in the journal Language Learning, here’s a link if you’re interested: Anyway, it seems as though there are at least two possible explanations. One is the influence of print literacy, namely that because the way we understand language is eventually influenced by our learning to decipher print that a closer adherence to one-to-one correspondences between graphemes and phonemes is helpful in these interlingual cases. In addition, the other issue is most certainly attitudinal or ideological in the sense that power relationships seem to predict the direction of the ‘understanding’.

    • Hi Nic, thanks for your comment and sharing your thoughts on this. I think I saw your article when it came out in Language Learning but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Definitely looking forward to taking a look at it a bit more in depth, but just from reading the abstract and a bit of the article, you definitely raise some interesting points (and a really great review of the lit too!) The two explanations you mention in your comment seem to be very intuitive, and thinking back to my own experiences learning Portuguese in Brazil, I remember wondering what the influence of print literacy on non-mutual interlingual intelligibility in Spanish and Portuguese might be, but I hadn’t really thought to see if it had been investigated until now! And I think the ‘attitudinal or ideological’ influence of the listener you highlight in your article is good to see and definitely gives more individually oriented approaches to this kind of research a push in the right direction, seeing language use and learning more as a jointly achieved activity. Looking forward to checking out your blog as well, I’ll add it to the links page!

  2. Anedoctally, many of my fellow Brazilians have related similar experiences with Spanish speakers (i.e. it being easier for us to understand them than the other way around).

  3. Pingback: Speech perception in first and second language learning | Leaky Grammar·

  4. Pingback: Pidgin and the Legacy of Sugar in Hawai‘i | Leaky Grammar·

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