Language is a creative feature of all mankind. The languages of our world are a complex system in which sounds and characters or letters are connected to build words which become units that create a sentence. Our languages are dynamic and ever changing, but the main purpose is always to communicate with each other. Dialects provide an additional challenging element in this complex mixture. Language is our means of expressing our feelings and our thoughts, a unique system of communicating which is unique to our human species. We interviewed Carmen Maria Beck (CMB), the owner of the language school Wortland (https://www.wortland.com/en/) in Munich. She is an expert in language, communication and dialects, who offers us valuable insights.
IW: Communication is not always easy. What are the most common pitfalls?
CMB: Whoever needs to communicate, whether professionally or in their private lives, may well have to deal with dialects and accents which are quite foreign to them. This is one of the first barriers to effective communication. Supposedly, most are able to speak the prevailing language, yet it is a challenge to understand regional accents and to be able to communicate with those in very different regions.
IW: You are saying that communication difficulties do not only originate in speaking with foreigners, but within your own language and your own country?
CMB: Indeed. Dialects and accents can be enchanting and fun, but not always helpful when we are navigating waters outside our home territory.
My father was a teacher who witnessed the difficulties dialects can bring. He took his class from the Schwabian part of Bavaria on a school outing to Munich, a mere 100 km away. A resident of Munich asked where they were from, as not one word the youngsters spoke was comprehensible to him. Were they from Holland or from Switzerland? The Munich resident was astounded to learn that the class lived less than an hour away. If these youngsters looked for a job and were only able to speak their dialect, they would be limited to a small area of some 50 km in which their way of speaking would be understandable. Within their own country and their own language!
IW: This sounds like a situation which many of us have experienced.
CMB: Regional differences in language need not always lead to massive difficulties in understanding. There are many degrees of variation from the primary language of a country, varying from accent to vocabulary to differing sentence structures and idioms. Even minor variations may, however, cause misunderstandings. The bakery server who expects to hear the local dialectical form of “pretzel” may not understand what the customer means when they use their own local expression for the same item. The syllables which are spoken simply do not have the intended meaning to him or her. Accents from completely different languages in other countries are even more challenging. A French speaker may receive quite a surprising bakery item due to the server”s clueless interpretation of his or her pronounced accent. Obviously, it is essential to pay attention to clear standard pronunciation, as well as to be aware of the ways the local dialect differs from the most common form of the language. Those who are unfamiliar with the region are well advised to enquire of the locals as to their form of pronunciation. This can be rewarding, both in getting to know the residents and in learning about their culture.
IW: How can dialect then be brought into alignment with the prevailing language of the country?
CMB: In order to be able to pronounce words properly, it is vital to hear the words properly. Only by hearing the differences is it possible to reproduce the unfamiliar sounds. This, of course, takes practice and awareness. Each situation determines whether a dialect is a sign of cultural identity or a disruption in communication. Ideally, we should be able to adjust our speech to whatever the situation calls for. My own regional way of speaking is suitable for my family members and with those who come from my region. Yet business situations with those from other areas require me to speak clearly in a way they can best understand, with a mere trace of my original dialect. Training in clear communication need not aim to eliminate our regional twang so that we all sound the same. An accent which does not interfere with getting our message across can be charming, distinctive and a natural part of our personality.
IW: How can the professional who wants to be successful in their career best deal with accents and dialects in the various regions they are responsible for?
CMB: Of course, speakers of strong dialect who do not adjust their way of speaking will be restricted in their careers if they plan to do business outside their own region. Research has shown that northern Germans view the slower, more modulated way of speaking of southern Germans as an indication of the slowness of southern German intellect. Correspondingly, southern Germans view the lack of these qualities in the faster northern German speech as a sign of arrogance and dominance. Thus, those who are professionally active in the whole country should take care to use a standard version of the language which will not excite biased reactions to regional differences. Naturally, those who are at ease with their own regional identity and who project confidence and authenticity will be taken seriously by their business partners. Dialect may be a part of who we are, yet it has its limits. Even politicians with strong regional accents have reduced them to a level which is slightly distinctive, but not foreign or disruptive.
IW: What is your advice, drawn from your many years of experience, for those who must speak with, or in front of, others?
CMB: If they want to avoid misunderstandings and avoid making a bad impression, a training in dealing with dialects and regional variations would be important. The skills required to show their language and social competence can be practised and learned. They can learn how to distinguish sounds and how to produce the right sounds to be effective and successful in their communication. Rhetoric and attention to proper speaking is not only necessary for actors, but for anyone who needs to speak clearly and forcefully to persuade others in their profession. It is best to start right away to become familiar with the prevailing language as well as to have a few regional expressions on call for specific situations. Bavarians and Tyrolleans alike love to hear a beloved expression which is meaningful to them. However, if the dialect is misrepresented, it is better to remain in the standard form of the language. Nothing is worse than a bad imitation of the original. The most important thing is to have the confidence to take advantage of professional help. The one language that all people love best is the language they understand best!
Thank you, Carmen Maria Beck, for your insights in the world of languages!