Have you ever questioned it before?

The difference is actually not as straight forward as you might think.

For example, what do they speak in China? Chinese…right? Well, there’s actually several languages that fall under the umbrella of Chinese, ranging from Mandarin and Cantonese to Hakka and Wu. Even though these languages are often regarded as dialects of Chinese, these languages cannot be mutually understood.

In Scandinavia, there is the opposite predicament. In Norway, they speak Norwegian and in Sweden they speak Swedish…right? Well, these two language can actually be mutually understood even though they are labelled as two separate languages.

To understand the difference between dialects and languages, we need to travel back to the rise of the nation-state. Before the French Revolution, only around 10% of the population of present-day France spoke French. There were several languages in the country, like Alsatian and Breton. After the Revolution, the government sought to spread égalité (equality) through a shared language. They took the language of the elite in Paris–French–and spread it around the country. This idea of one language, one nation is why we say (especially in Europe) “In Spain, they speak Spanish. In Italy, they speak Italian. In Norway, they speak Norwegian.”

In short, the difference between a dialect and language has more to do with politics and power than about language itself.


  • Do you think there is a difference between a language and a dialect? What is it?
  • Does the language you use differ depending on where you are? Do you speak differently at work than at home? Explain.
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