You Say Tomayto, I Say Tomahto

At The New Century School, language is important. Really important. Students there speak at least three different languages during each and every school day. In fact, TNCS is moving more and more toward an immersion model in which students learn geography or another subject in a tongue other than English. (Read The New Century School: A Retrospective and Prospective Look to learn more.)

What about the variations within a given language, though? Jokes have long circulated about American versus British English; on this side of the pond we have finally come to understand that “flat” is as much a place to live as a topographical description in the U.K.. Zooming in the lens a bit, how about Midwestern American English versus Midatlantic Coast American English—ever thought about how different these dialects can be in terms of both pronunciation and the names given to things? When an Iowan walks into a convenience store in Baltimore to buy a “pop,” how does the clerk understand that said Iowan is referring to the carbonated beverage we know as “soda”?

What do you call a carbonated beverage?

What do you call a carbonated beverage?

Research from North Carolina State University student Joshua Katz and Harvard University professor Bert Vaux proves that regional dialects are alive and well in the United States, despite the reasonable expectation that globalization would have significantly homogenized languages since Fred Astair’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” days. Read about it in “Soda, Coke, or pop.”

What does this mean for TNCS students? Interestingly, the three languages they speak, English, Spanish, and Chinese, show more similarities with the word “soda” (Spanish: soda; Chinese: sūdǎ) than do American dialects. But as with English, within those languages it’s a different story. Many TNCS staff come from different Spanish-speaking countries, and words in one country mean something completely different in another. For instance, if you order “frijoles negros y arroz” (black beans and rice) on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, you’re going to get a very different plate of food than if you ordered the same in central Mexico. The former is made with coconut milk and coconut; the latter not so much. The same goes for Chinese, only the differences may be even more extreme. There are eight main Chinese languages, each of which has its own dialects.

Fortunately, the Chinese developed a lingua franca, which we know as Mandarin, but is also called Modern Standard Mandarin, Standard Chinese, Modern Standard Chinese, Putonghua, and Guoyu and is the most spoken language in the world. About a billion people can communicate in Mandarin. That’s one seventh of all Earthlings! (By the way, Mandarin is also the name given to one of the eight main languages. Confused yet?)

Modern Standard Mandarin is what our kids (or “young-uns,” if you happen to prefer) learn at TNCS, but it’s fun to ponder this dialect thing from a number of angles. Are we all in a state of continuous confusion without even realizing it? Or is there perhaps a cognitive mechanism that allows us to subconsciously bridge the gaps?

Do we—can we—really understand one another? One thing is for sure: TNCS students will be better equipped than monolinguals to process the babble. Being multilingual, their nimble brains have a keener ability to monitor context and respond accordingly. (Read Multilingualism at TNCS: Optimizing Your Child’s Executive Function and visit Top 10 Benefits of Multilingualism for more.)

Also, have some fun with some of Joshua Katz’s interactive graphics: visit Beyond Soda, Pop, or Coke.

One thought on “You Say Tomayto, I Say Tomahto

  1. Once again, thanks go to Robin Munro for suggesting this post!

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