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Being bidialectal

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Written by Stan Carey

We learn language socially, from the people around us. Most of this learning happens in early life, so the people near us then – especially our family or carers – are the strongest influence on the form of language we come to use: our dialect.

Nowadays people move around much more than they used to, not least because of developments in transportation. It’s common for people to spend years someplace far from where they grew up, and this can affect their dialect. We all know people – maybe you’re one of them – who go abroad and develop a new accent and new modes of expression, blending their original one and the one they’re later immersed in. It varies, of course; some people are more resistant to this influence. But mixed accents are now ubiquitous.



A related phenomenon is when we learn a new dialect in parallel with our native one, for use in certain situations. Through formal education, many of us learn a standard or prestige variety of a language for use in public or formal contexts. Shifting from one variety to another – going from a work meeting to an informal chat, for example – is known as code-switching.

The fact that different dialects are appropriate in different spheres of life means that people generally become bidialectal or multidialectal. Though these adjectives may be unfamiliar, it’s the same idea as bilingual and multilingual, but with different dialects of the same language.

We may also see the personal loss of a speech variety. Author Zadie Smith writes about this in her essay ‘Speaking in Tongues’, which appears in her book Changing My Mind (subscribers can read it at the NYRB website). In college at Cambridge, UK, Smith acquired a ‘new way of talking’:

And for a while, that’s how it was: at home, during the holidays, I spoke with my old voice, and in the old voice seemed to feel and speak things that I couldn’t express in college, and vice versa. I felt a sort of flexibility at the wonder of the thing, like being alive twice.

Over time, as her social environment became narrower and more homogeneous, her ‘double voice’ became unitary, and she felt the loss keenly:

This voice I picked up along the way is no longer an exotic garment I put on like a college gown whenever I choose – now it is my only voice, whether I want it or not. I regret it; I should have kept both voices alive in my mouth. They were both a part of me. But how the culture warns against it!

The relationship that people have with their accents and dialects, and the way these can shift over time, is unique and complicated, but patterns recur: some are lost over time, like Smith’s ‘old voice’; some change or diverge through time spent in different places.

People who work and speak in public life, such as broadcasters and politicians, often reduce the regional features of their dialect, whether deliberately or not. This process is normal too but is sometimes viewed with suspicion. ‘Voices are meant to be unchanging and singular,’ writes Smith. ‘There’s no quicker way to insult an expat Scotsman in London than to tell him he’s lost his accent.’

About the author

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Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

2 Comments

  • I’m a native speaker of the Arabic language and I have been living abroad for over 2 years now. back in my country, for whatever reason, I have rejected the new trends of my culture to the extend of feeling like a stranger in my country. I only listened to or watched English,Japanese, and German content for over 15 years and still on; which felt more familiar to me than my own country’s culture production. Now, even when I’m trying to express my thoughts or write anything, I feel comfortable doing that in English. It is saddening that I fail to produce any essay or even engage in a discussion using Arabic without feeling awkward. I only speak Arabic when I talk with my family, but the rest of the day, just English and some Chinese, since I live in China now. btw, I’m 30 yrs old .

  • Thanks Soliman. This is an interesting and slightly sad take on multilingualism. I hope you can rediscover the joy in your Arabic language use some day!

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