Dialects, standard languages and education

We all know that maintaining our mother tongue/father tongue, mother language/father language, heritage language is important to transmit our children a sense of belonging through this language, and to the culture that is attached to it.

What if we want to transmit a dialect or regional variant?

Especially families who raise their children abroad tend to prefer transmitting "standard versions of their languages", which means the standard German, not Bavarian, or regional variant from Thüringen for example. The reason for this is very natural: because the variant that allows us to interact with a broader group of people in the target language is the standard one!
And the standard language (or one of the standard languages*) is what is taught in schools and usually expected to be learnt.


What compulsory education had to do with this 

Standard vs non-standard can make us think about the difference between Classic Latin and Vulgar Latin: vulgar from lat. vulgus, i.e. the "common people". 
Education started in ancient times and was tied to royal, religious or military organization. The more classical language was used for instructions, whereas the "vulgar" language was considered not admissible for education.

In his The Republic (c. 424-c. 348 BCE), Plato explained the concept of compulsory education: the ideal city would require ideal individuals, and ideal individuals would require an ideal education. Marsilio Ficino (1434-1499) translated Plato's work and made it accessible during the Renaissance, which culminated with the Enlightenment (or "Age of Reason", an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries).

To get a good idea of public education, I recommend reading Plato's Republic. It is not a political treatise – don't judge the book by its title! – but it is the finest, most beautiful work on education ever written, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, says about it in Emile.

Plato argues that the first care of the rulers in his ideal State is to educate. He indicates the Hellenic model of education as the best for improved morality and religion. Education in music for the soul and gymnastics for the body, Plato argues, is the best way to educate the Guardians (the second class of citizens in his ideal city). Plato clearly indicates that the Guardians’ education is moral in nature. Their education should emphasize the acceptance of beliefs rather than critical independent thinking.

Plato asserts that education must begin in youth and continue in later years. According to his educational theory, the good man and good citizen can only coincide with a perfect State. (Daniel Heller)

In Sparta, boys between age 6 and 7 were sent to military school, and at age 18 or 20 they had to pass a test to gain citizenship and political rights. At age 60 they could retire. – This looks very familiar, right? In fact the educational system embraces the same time frame – apart from the fact that our children attend schools where other subjects than military ability or leadership skills are taught/trained.

Fast forward to the 16th century, compulsory education for boys and girls was established thanks to the Protestant Reformation. The reason for this was for parishers to be able to read the bible (Martin Luther An die Ratsherren aller Städte deutschen Landes, 1524). The compulsory education system that was compulsory for boys and girls (!) radiated from the German Dutchy Palatine Zweibrücken in 1592, later Strasbourg (1598). The same development can be observed in Scotland, where the School Establishment Act of 1616 aimed to establish schools in every parish. The US followed Luther's and other Reformers' and parents were obliged to teach their children how to read and write since 1620 (The Plymouth Colony). Around the world, education systems were implemented and modernized over the centuries, and the "compulsory school attendance based on the Prussian model gradually spread to other countries"(1): Denmark (1739 and 1814), Prussia (1763), Austria (1774) etc.

The real "boom" started in the 1800s when compulsory education was formally established in Liechtenstein (1805), Travancore (1814), Turkey (1824), Greece (1834) etc.. and compulsory school attendance spread gradually to other countries. The centralization of most European countries contributed to this, which meant that a "standard version of the nation's language" needed to be consolidated when the education became compulsory. By making education compulsory it was necessary to have a centralized system for the evaluation and as dialects and regional variants were considered "hindering" the acquisition and learning of the standard language, that was taught in schools, they were banned from schools.


About dialects, regional variants and standard languages...



By Lotusfleurie - Own work, Public Domain

A standard language is a repertoire of broadly recognizable conventions in spoken and written communication. It is developed from related dialects, "either by social action (ethnic and cultural unification) to elevate the given dialect, or by defining the norms of standard language with specific and selected linguistic features drawn from the existing dialects". (2) Standard varieties are associated with higher social prestige and greater functional importance than nonstandard dialects or regional variants. Standard usage is considered the linguistic authority, it is the codified standard. (3)
Standard language can arise informally, without formal government intervention (like in the case of Standard English), or formally, directed by prescriptive languages institutions, like in the case of French (Académie Française: Le bon français) and Spanish (Royal Spanish Academy: El buen español).


The standard language ideology implemented in schools, causes other languages – regional variants, dialects, but also other languages – to be considered "incorrect" in the given context. Language and education policies require control mechanisms – exams, assessments – to be done in an officially codified variety, which is the standard language. But the standard language ideology is a "bias toward an abstracted, idealized, non-varying spoken language that is imposed and maintained by dominant institutions". (4)

In the past 30ish years, attempts were made to introduce dialects and regional variants into the schools for several reasons.

To recognize students' language abilities and support their language development, in regions where dialects and regional variants are actively used by the community, dialects variations should be included in classrooms and curricula. Dialects show considerable differences at all linguistic levels, from pronunciation to grammar and vocabulary and for many students, using the standard language means to receive education in an additional language.

Learning is better and more successful when conducted in the variety spoken by students. In addition, it is claimed that the use of students’ variety in education enables students to use their own potential and helps them to achieve ‘deep learning’. Besides, the use of students’ native dialect in education enhances the social, cognitive, emotional and linguistic development of learners’ in and out of school. For these reasons, it is argued that students need to be educated through their own variety. (5)

Although allowing the use of a variety of languages in education can be motivating and have a positive impact on the learners, the main concern to linguists, eduationalists and researchers is that "deciding the Language of Instruction (LOI) depends on a variety of factors such as historical, economic, pedagogical, sociolinguistic, cultural, ideological, theoretical or/and political (UNESCO 2003)" (5). Considering that experts are asked to value the different dialects of a language while also preparing textbooks and National Exams, in multidialectal societies, selecting the variety to be used as the LOI is difficult and controversial. The mismatch between the varieties used at school and those used at home is not easy to solve. The "deficit hypothesis" from the 1960s and 1970s, considered the non-standard varieties as inadequate for communication, and are considered as a "handicap, socially and cognitively" because of them being "sloppy, illogical or bad grammar" (6), thus considered inappropriate for instruction (7). The "difference hypothesis", on the other hand, says that "no one linguistic system can be shown to be inherently better (...) [and therefore] using a particular dialect can be associated with having any kind of inherent deficit or advantage". In fact, non-standard dialects are not deficient, but just "a different in expressing ideas" and can, thus, be used for educational purposes.(5)

"There is general consensus, in fact, among educationalists and sociolinguistics alike, that valuing dialect in the classroom makes real difference to educational achievement of speakers." (5) (8)



What does this mean for our home dialects?

In multilingual families, where children grow up abroad, in an additional country and language, transmitting a dialect or regional variant is a challenge as they usually are not written varieties and therefore require regular exposure and can't be supported by written resources. We can find resources for some dialects** and regional variants online, and there are youtubers who are specialized in speaking their dialects and making them accessible for others, but although these resources can be used as additional support for those who use the variants on a daily or regular basis, maintaining dialects across cultures is a considerable challenge for internationals. One of the ways to preserve dialects and regional variants is to write books about them, describe them, but what our families need are audiobooks, audio material to listen to when raising a child with that dialect on the other side of the world!

As an avid defender of all home languages (i.e. languages that are necessary to communicate in the micro society, at home, with family), and user of different dialects myself, I welcome the tendency – or shift? – to not only welcome, but integrate regional variants and dialects into the classroom. It fully makes sense to me, as the local dialects and variants are what we are surrounded by. I personally enjoy exploring the different variants here in the Netherlands, as much as I liked exploring the different Swiss-German and Swiss-Italian dialects.

As the topic of the International Mother Language Day (IMLD) in 2022 is “Using technology for multilingual learning: Challenges and opportunities”, I wanted to share the challenge families like mine face when it comes to transmitting our languages and dialects to our children who grow up abroad. I wish there were more audiobooks and resources like Heidi (on Spotify) or Grimms Tales in Swiss-German. I am aware that the celebration in 2022 is about "teaching" and we usually don't teach our languages to our children, but when it comes to home languages, most parents do teach their children how to read and write, or, in case of dialects, how to speak and further explore their language.



Why we should transmit our dialects and regional variants

Dialects and regional variants preserve the unique cultural elements of a given place and region. Knowing a dialect or regional variant means that we know more of the roots, the history, the "soul" of a region, a local society. Some assume that individual dialects divide people, but when approached in a way that instead of separating them, tries to find unities instead, we can discover the unique qualities of a region expressed through the dialect. Each dialect has a unique pronunciation and helps give a local culture an identity. What some people find difficult is when we can't translate terms into the standard variant of the language or if there are no equivalents in other dialects. Every translator knows that languages can not be translated one-on-one, there is no perfect equivalent for each word across languages. I consider every dialect like a language – no hierarchy involved or negative/positive judgment about what dialect is "better" or "more prestigious". The mere fact that people speak the particular dialect is reason enough to respect and appreciate it, and understanding is only a natural consequence of wanting to get to know the person or the group. When learning languages, we can experience deeper understanding when we explore its dialects and regional variants. Knowing that in Northern Germany, the term "moin" is used to greet each other at any time, not only in the morning (moin = "morning"), is important for us when we live in that region, but also when our new colleague in Singapore comes from that region and we want to make him feel a bit more welcome.
Uniqueness of dialects provides them a sense of independence and when we speak a certain dialect we can take pride in it, we enjoy defending and explaining our particular way of pronouncing or phrasing to others. Differences enhance cultural diversity and increase independence, and without diversity, our world would not progress. Therefore, our world needs dialects and individual expression to keep cultures alive for future generations.
When transmitting our dialects to our children we transmit the feeling of belonging, or uniqueness and pride. I know that my children feel proud to be able to speak and understand different variants of Swiss-German dialect




Last but not least, I want to share this poem by George The Poet (George Mpanga) with you:


Mother Tongue

My parents never spoke to me in the language of my home city.

They tried to attempt it but the doctor advised against it.

Said it was too much to distinguish as a “word sandwich”.

So I grew up with English as a first language.

So my parents never spoke to me in the language it was supposed to be.

They said: “He'll pick it up when he's older. Hopefully...”

And the culture, that's something that they both really know to keep.

I think of (it) all day and dream about (it) when I go to sleep.

So the irony is... it's when he turned... finally, this 19 year old goes back to Uganda.

But I'm loving it. I'm happy. But more time you're finding me pissed

That I can't communicate the way I really wish.

Hearing my people talking my language, it's like smiling from prison.

It's funny when you miss what you know you never had: my bilingualism.

You might think it's insignificant but I think it isn't.

It's one thing trying to talk it and trying to listen but trying to fit in and fight and resistance makes you feel so far away even after flying in a distance.

See, my parents never spoke to me in the language it was supposed to be.

My Nikes, I'm treading them over these clover leaves.

Why, I'm just one of them nobody's overseas,

disconnected from everybody that I hope to please.

Maybe it’s paranoia, maybe it’s distress but to me the word “diaspora” sounds a lot like desperate, dispersed and dispossessed.

I suspect that this verse puts myths to rest because it's possible to have the rest of both worlds and still miss the best.

George The Poet (George Mpanga)


I invite you to also read my post Mother Tongue, first language, dominant language 

Recommended readings: 
Dialects in Schools and Communities, by Carolyn Temple Adger, Walt Wolfram, Donna Christian, Routledge, 2007.


*with "a standard version of a language" I mean that for example when the school language is English, we can find schools that transmit Australian English, American English (from any different regions!), Irish English, British English, Scottish English etc. 

** This is a page with resources for songs in Swiss-German (and Romantsch) for example.

(1) Soysal, Yasemin Nuhoglu; Strang, David, Construction of the First Mass Education Systems in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Sociology of Education, 1998, 62 (4), p.277–288. doi:10.2307/2112831JSTOR 2112831

(2) McArthur, Tom; McArthur, Feri, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992. ISBN 9780192141835.

Milroy, James, The Ideology of the Standard Language, in Llamas, Carmen; Mullany, Louise; Stockwell, Peter (eds.). The Routledge Companion to Sociolinguistics. London: Routledge, 2007, p. 133–13. ISBN 978-0203441497OCLC 76969042

(3) Chambers, J.K.; Trudgill, Peter, Dialectology (2nd ed., CUP, 1998. ISBN 978-0-521-59646-6.

(4) Lippi-Green, R., Language Ideology and Language Prejudice, in E. Finegan & J.R. Rickford (Eds.), Language in the USA  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 289-304.

(5)Wondimu Tegegne, The Use of Dialects in Education and its Impacts on Students' Learning and Achievements, Educational Journal, vol.4, issue 5, September 2015, p.263-269.

(6) Kangas, T., Education of minorities, in Fishman, J., Handbook of language and ethnic identity, OUP, 1999, p.42-59.

(7) Romaine, Suzanne, Language in society: An introduction to Sociolinguistics (2nd edition), OUP, 2000.

(8) Cheshire, J., Dialect and education: Responses from sociolinguistics, in Papapavou, A., and Pavlos, P. (Eds), Sociolinguistics and pedagogical dimensions of dialect in education , Newcastle; Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007, p.14-33..


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