What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?

November 10, 2023

It’s often difficult to tell the difference between languages and dialects.

In fact, it’s such a grey area that even linguists find it hard to agree on. 

Or read on to learn the main differences between languages and dialects.

Already know you’re more interested in languages than dialects? Start learning one today for free with Busuu.

The key differences between languages and dialects

1. Languages are communication systems

‘Language’ is the general umbrella term to describe a communication system that uses a set of words and a specific method to combine them.

To put it more clearly:

Anything from Spanish to Mauritian Creole to Esperanto could be considered languages.

2. Politics, history and culture are often factors

Not all of what we might think are “languages” are officially considered so.

Deciding whether something can be defined as a “language” is much more related to how many people speak it and to other, more political, historical and cultural factors too.

For example:

Hindi and Urdu are regarded as separate languages because they are the languages of two different nations (India and Pakistan respectively), even though they are linguistically very similar.

So, unless you live by an international border, the language you speak in your town is probably the same as the language people speak in the village next door.

Yet when you go further afield within the same country, the language might have some distinctions despite being fundamentally the same.

This is because most countries have official languages (used for governmental purposes and taught in schools), but within these languages there might be differences, which is where the term “dialect” comes in.

3. There’s a whole spectrum of dialects

A dialect is generally a particular form of a language which is specific to a region or social group and usually has differences in pronunciation, grammar, syntax and vocabulary.

It’s still a bit fuzzy to understand because dialects can be spoken by people living in one particular town or by a whole nation.

So here’s a useful way of imagining it:

Think of a rainbow. You could say that languages are the more defined colours of the spectrum and dialects are the in-between colours like ‘greeny-blue’ or ‘reddy orange’.

The two main types of dialects are:

a. Linguistic dialects

These are varieties of a language that are considered mutually intelligible. This means that speakers of one form of the language can understand speakers of the other form without learning it from scratch.

b. Sociopolitical dialects

These are languages that, for social, political, or cultural reasons are considered to be less important when compared to a more standard language.

A clear example of this is in Italy, where the official language spoken is Standard Italian.

There are lots of other, non-standard languages like Romanesco and Occitano, which are considered Italian dialects.difference between language dialect

Some exceptions, to name but a few, are Neapolitan and Sicilian, which have been recognised by UNESCO as languages but not by the Italian state and are therefore not used for official purposes.

On a wider scale, countries like Spain, Colombia, Peru and Argentina speak the same language but each version is quite different to one another.

Therefore each version could also be considered a dialect of Spanish.

So, what are accents?

An accent is a distinct way of pronouncing a language, especially one associated with a particular country, region or even social class.

So, while people from different parts of a country might use the same grammar and vocabulary, they might pronounce the words differently. This is what we call their accent.

A person’s accent is usually a result of where they are from, and how and where they learned the language they speak.

Here’s an example:

In the north of England, people pronounce the word “grass” with a short vowel, while people in the south of England are likely to say it with a long vowel.

So there you are, now you have a brief explanation of what each term refers to!

Even though the differences can be defined in some way, there will always be a slight confusion amongst linguists because language is so linked to culture and politics.

However, for me, what’s more important is the fact that language is ever changing and linguistic variety is part of what makes it such a beautiful thing!

Want to start appreciating languages from close-up?

We think you might also like…

Learn a language