When learning a language you generally want to have a teach with clear pronunciation. If you're planning to learn by immersion, if it's a language spoken in several places, you want to choose the place where the local variety is spoken clearly.

For instance some people would avoid going to Australia to learn English, and Mexico is popular for learning Spanish because people "pronounce every letter", unlike say in Nicaragua or Cuba. It's easier to learn how to discern and reproduce the sounds if they are distinct. This is for adult learners. Obviously children can learn any variety.

Usually a prestige variety will be chosen for things such as news reporters, as was the case with the BBC requiring RP for presenters for many years until quite recently. But what I'm wondering is whether there are languages which don't have a "clear" or "distinct" variety like this, or for which the standard or prestige variety is not one considered to be clear.

Or could it be that it's actually all subjective and prestige varieties are assumed to be the most clear on an a priori basis?

  • "This is for adult learners. Obviously children can learn any variety." Wasn't the "children learn better than adults" thing debunked? I might be wrong but I had that impression. – Alenanno Mar 27 '14 at 11:20
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    @jlawler I would be interested in seeing actual studies on this. – Alenanno Mar 27 '14 at 14:50
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    If there exist varieties of a language that are spoken natively by adult humans, then the overwhelming majority of those adult humans must have learned them as children, because children are immature adult humans and they grow up to become native speakers of whatever variety of the language they learned as children. If they couldn't learn that variety, then it wouldn't exist. But it does. Therefore they can learn it. QED. That's what I mean by "an obvious fact". Assuming, of course, that there is variety in language, which I believe is relatively well established. – jlawler Mar 27 '14 at 16:14
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    I didn't say anything about adult learners; I was responding to the first two comments. 'The "children learn better than adults" thing' can't be debunked. Children do learn languages better than adults. There's a vast individual range of variance, but the pattern is very clear. Plus, this is the way we're evolved to learn languages, very clearly. – jlawler Mar 27 '14 at 16:21
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    Prestige or standard varieties are considered clear and distinct because they are prestige or standard varieties... – kaleissin Mar 27 '14 at 17:17

There are doubtless many languages where the prestige idiom is “clearer” than many non-prestige dialects. But I can think of counter-examples. In the non-prestige “rustic” dialects of Southern France (accent du midi) people say things like “une minute” with 5 distinct syllables, “the way it is written”, while in standard (Parisian) French one says “un’ minut’” with just 3 syllables.

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  • And AAVE makes grammatical disctinctions (of aspect) that are difficult to make in standard Englishes. (This is in the domain of grammar, rather than the phonetics that the question was couched in, but I think the point is still relevant). – Colin Fine Mar 30 '14 at 11:22

I would argue that it's almost certainly the case that it is all subjective. Some of this might have to do with the mapping of speech sounds to the orthography. Sure, you could say that some varieties of Spanish are closer to the ideal that Spanish orthography presents, but none aren't immune to some difference. And what do you even do with English, where the orthography doesn't map very well to the phonology in any variety.

And to provide a good counter-example, competency in Celtic languages, as well as Nivkh, is measured in part by native speakers with initial mutations serving as a proxy. For instance, when a definite noun (including proper nouns) are in the genitive case, they lenite. So Cáit [kaːtʲ] 'Kate' > muintir Cháit [ˈmˠɪnʲ.tʲəɾʲ xaːtʲ] 'Kate's family'. Speakers with good command of the morphosyntactic-phonological conditioning for these mutations are viewed as good speakers of the traditional variety. Less competent speakers aren't able to do this as accurately, and are viewed as speaking "Standard Irish" (which is very much not the prestige variety in this respect) (Ó hIfearnáin and Ó Murchadha 2011).

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  • Actually I wasn't asking about orthography at all since even languages without writing systems are known to have prestige varieties. I did mention "pronounce every letter" because that's how naive people often express this kind of thing. – hippietrail Mar 27 '14 at 15:39

The more I think of this question, the more I conclude it's highly subjective - and what's not subjective might be the result of linguistic background.

As a child I was mostly taught US English. The 1st time I was exposed to Received Pronunciation I was awed at how much more clearly I could distinguish the sounds in the language - to me at least, Americans usually speak as though they had a hot potato in the mouth, blurring a lot the sounds they produce ;-)

When studying Portuguese, I found I could understand chatting Brazilians better than Portugueses, even with their "ti becomes chi", etc. sound changes - European Portuguese has much more complex vowels. But then I found I could understand written European Portuguese much better than Brazilian (spoken or written) since its spelling is much closer to the one of Spanish plus it retains some grammar constructs that have since diverged in Brazilian.

So I guess "clearer" lies in the ears/eyes of the beholder :)

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