Best Practices

Dialect vs Language: everything you need to know about these concepts

“Dialect” and “Language” are two of the most used concepts when we talk about communication. Although most people have heard of it, not many can differentiate or even explain what these two words mean.
Rodrigo Demetrio
2 min
Table of Contents

“Dialect” and “Language” are two of the most used concepts when we talk about communication. Although most people have heard of it, not many can differentiate or even explain what these two words mean.

The concepts of dialect vs language are especially important for people who work or want to work with translations. That is because you need to master those in order to be a qualified professional linguist.

You don’t need to worry though! Keep reading this text and you will learn everything there is to know about dialect vs language - as well as how and when to use it!

What is language?

Although we talk about language all the time, it is extremely difficult to really explain what it is. We define language as a type of communication used by a group of people. It seems simple: people from Portugal speak Portuguese, Danes speak Danish, Germans speak German, and so on. That’s where we are often wrong! As much as we usually think about countries, it is important to notice that this division is not always right.

Take the Basque region in Spain for example. Even though it is “in” Spain, the Basques have their own habits, culture and way of communication.

There are a number of other examples to that, such as indigenous groups in the Americas or the Greenlanders.As much as it is also related to cultural habits, a language is primarily written or oral. Therefore it is classified as a linguistic idea. A language also has a standardized form that can be either spoken or written. This is the characteristic that differentiates a language from a dialect.

What is dialect?

It is easy to understand what a dialect is once we wrap our minds around the concept of language. Remember when we said that groups of people identify using a specific type of communication?

Well, when there are no norms established yet, those are dialects! It is easier to understand if we think of dialects as being a subitem of “languages”. As a general rule we think of language as a standardized code, whereas a dialect does not necessarily have a standardized system. We can use British and American English or even Portugal’s and Brazil’s form of Portuguese as an example of dialects. Those examples are all about dialects that share the same language.

Dialect vs Language

Okay, now we know what is language and what is dialect. However in the real world the lines between dialect vs language can be a bit blurry. What normally tells dialect and language apart is that dialects are usually just spoken, while languages have written rules. If we follow this logic, a person should not be able to understand other languages than it’s mother tongue. How is it possible for someone who is not fluent in a determined language to still understand it? If you speak Spanish, you probably know that you can read Portuguese.

Similarly a person who speaks dutch can read german. What happens is that, although every language and dialect presents distinguished characteristics that make each one different, they still have some common ground. This is particularly true for languages that come from the same language tree. It is the case of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French; or English, German and Danish.

This can be a bit confusing because most languages have been, at some point, dialects. Spanish and Italian, for example, were both dialects from Latin and eventually matured and became a language. The same goes for any other modern language. The thing is, it can be hard to distinguish on a daily basis what those two concepts are. There is a whole debate around dialect vs language happening until this day. The good part is that localization can be used to clarify this discussion!

Cultural aspects matter

As we mentioned above there are other aspects besides grammatical correctness that makes a language. Or a dialect. Or any type of communication really. This is why we need to talk about localization. Localization is the art of making a translation fit the needs of a particular group. Thus, it means that a person who uses localization is fluent not only in the grammar of said language.

He or she is also fluent in how to communicate using said language or dialect. Hence knowledge on the usage of specific terminology or slangs, for example. Furthermore, let’s not forget how important it is to know what is acceptable to say in each context.    

Localization is an important idea to have in mind when we talk about societies. A British and an American person may have different cultures and behaviors, for example. Therefore, even if they both speak English, any translation done should be customized for the targeted audience.

It simply can not be the same.In other words if you are a translator that is “only” fluent in the grammatical part of English, your job will lack nuance. The key to becoming a master translator is to learn how to mix both the language and the dialect aspects of a society. This means that, yes, you do have to worry about grammatical norms and standardized forms of language.

Nonetheless, you also need to be aware of the cultural aspects that make the targeted group recognizable. Dialect vs Language is a matter that has been discussed for a while now, to say the least. However, there is still a long way to go before these concepts can be completely distinguished from each other. The best way to handle it is to take the best you can from both concepts.

Pay attention to all aspects that make a group of people identifiable, study about them, their habits, their culture and non-verbal types of communication. This is the only way to succeed in this field!

Language vs Dialect. Differences pointed out in the text are arranged inside speech bubbles.

Rodrigo Demetrio
Steering the marketing ship at Bureau Works with 17+ years of MarTech under my belt, I transform mere ideas into tangible realities. Passionate about languages and their power to build bridges, let's build a new one?
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