Language = More Than Just Words (Linguists Know Best)


Let’s start off with the Top 10 most spoken languages in the world.

1. Mandarin—1.026 billion total speakers
2. English—765 million total speakers
3. Spanish—466 million total speakers
4. Hindi/Urdu—380 million total speakers
5. Arabic—353.5 million total speakers
6. Russian—272 million total speakers
7. Bengali—250 million total speakers
8. Portuguese—217 million total speakers
9. Japanese—123 million total speakers
10. German—111.8 million total speakers

The list of languages above has, for a couple of years now, been known to be the top spoken languages in the world, especially in the business world. These 10 languages are used the most out of a total of 7,000+ languages in the world. Companies may ask for a translation thinking that by simply asking for a language is enough. However, as Linguists know, it is also important to specify the dialect to be used either for the translation or interpretation.

A language is defined by dictionary.com as “a body of words and the systems for their use common to people of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition.” The definition for a dialect may be very similar but distinguishes the difference in the phonology, grammar and vocabulary used by a group of speakers who are set off from others geographically or socially. For example, a country can have a national language, such as English in the U.S. (the de facto national language), but the dialects depend on the geographic location, such as a southerner saying “Y’all,” which is the use of the English language but a different style of pronunciation and spelling. Also, don’t confuse accent and dialect; accent refers solely to how the language sounds, while dialect includes both the accent and the grammatical way that the person speaks. If a company’s target market is southern U.S., then they will most likely use the southern dialect in their marketing materials to connect with the southerners, but they would not use the same dialect if marketing in New York.

Let’s discuss the Portuguese language as another example. If an interpreter is needed for English to Portuguese interpretation, does the client want Brazilian Portuguese or the Portuguese used in Portugal? Although most in those countries can understand both, there is a huge difference especially when doing verbal interpretations. There are different accents and expressions used, as well as the same words used yet with different meanings. The Portuguese language has about 9 different dialects and is officially spoken in 9 different countries, including Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde. Dialects become even more complicated when considering the differences of the language depending on location within the same country. Portuguese in Northern Portugal is spoken differently than Portuguese in Southern Portugal; the terms, expressions, and idioms used in the different locations within Portugal are different, which makes it important for companies to know exactly where within the country they are trying to reach.

There are thousands of languages used worldwide, around 7,000 to be more precise, but there are 5x that amount in dialects. The Chinese language alone has about 9 different varieties of the language, and each variety has several different dialects. Specifying the dialect along with the language for the translation and/or interpretation is important, especially when selecting the ideal Linguist for the task.

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2 thoughts on “Language = More Than Just Words (Linguists Know Best)

  1. It is definitely important to recognize different dialects as opposed to the standard language that might appear slightly lifeless. For example, Serbo-Croatian has now split into several versions/dialects due to the country splitting into several smaller countries. So now we have Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin. Many people speaking one of these dialects expect their interpreter to actually speak their own dialect, and rightly so, even though they could understand any of the 4 easily. As an interpreter, I am trying to meet that expectation but as a service provider I find it important to let the client know that these are not 4 different languages and that in a case of emergency any interpreter fluent in any of the 4 dialects can offer a satisfactory service for their limited speaker. So the limits, the expectations and possibilities should be clear for all of us to do our job better.

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