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Identity through Language

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What is a dialect? It isn't a person's accent per se, which only describes how words are pronounced. Accent is a physical activity, because the shape of the lips or the coordination between the tongue, lips, and jaw affect a word's pronunciation. Instead dialect includes accent, as well as grammar structures and word choices. For example, people in Britain queue up; people in New York wait on line; and people in the American Midwest wait in line. Yet each phrase has exactly the same meaning. Rhythm and intonation are also part of dialects.

Dialects form because we all need to fit into a group. Language, or how we speak, provides one way to define our identity. The clothes we choose to wear, or the neighborhoods in which we live, also advertise who we are. But dialect isn't as changeable as clothes or neighborhoods. Ethnicity and social status may also affect dialect, again because we want to belong to a group.

Young children first imitate their parents. They copy how mom and dad speak, the gestures they use, and other actions. It's how infants and toddlers learn. But as children grow older, they begin to copy their peers more and more. As a result, children of immigrants don't speak English with a German or Italian accent like their parents, for example. The same holds true for kids who move from one part of the country to another. If a child moves from Texas to New York, she will eventually sound like a New Yorker, not a Texan, over time.

In today's shrinking world of instant communication with far off places and people, as well as the effect of TV and movies on culture everywhere, some people might believe that dialects have begun to disappear. But experts mostly suggest otherwise. Only in the most isolated cultures has dialect begun to lose its distinctiveness because so many new words have entered with modern technology. This affects how the people speak the language. But in most other places around the world, movies, TV, and modern communication have less influence on dialects. Slang from a popular movie or TV program may spread through a language, but not accent or intonation.


Step 1: Listen to the article, which is about 4 minutes and 20 seconds long. Listen only, and don't worry about understanding everything.
Step 2: Listen once more, and try to understand the general information of each paragraph. In your head, explain a paragraph's main idea in one or two sentences. Write your paragraph summaries after you have listened to the whole article. Listen again, check your answers, and compare your answers with a partner.
Step 3: Look at the article, which has missing vocabulary words. Try to write any words that you remember from the listening. Listen once more, and write the missing words.
Step 4: Read the article, and look up any unknown words. Now listen again. Can you understand more?
Step 5: Listen! Listen! Listen! Listen to the article on the train or in your free time. Each time you listen, you will slowly improve!

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