Ask a Literary Lady: Help! I Can’t Read Books Written in Dialect

Ginni at B&NDear Literary Lady,

I have trouble reading books written in dialect so I always avoid them. I know I’m missing out on some great novels though, so how do I tackle books written in dialect without getting frustrated?

– B.M., Pittsburgh, PA.

Dear B.M.,

I love books that capture the diversity of speech, but I agree that it can be more challenging to read novels written in dialect than novels written in plain, standard English. For one, novels written in dialect take more work to read, word for word, than other novels. When you read a work written in dialect, you have to digest the prose phonetically. You have to sound it out in your head, maybe even mouth the phrases to yourself silently, until something finally clicks in your brain and you hear what the author is trying to say.

As an avid reader, you probably moved beyond reading phonetically ages ago. It’s something we do when we were first learning to read, but we don’t maintain the practice throughout the years. Instead, we just look at a word and the visual cue may be enough for us to know what it means.

When reading in dialect, we have to return to the way we read as children—phonetically, diligently, and painfully slowly. And that’s where our frustration lies—we are reading more slowly than we usually do, we are reading in a way that we’re not used to, and because of this, we start to feel dumb.

I think having more patience with yourself can actually help when tackling books written in dialect. First of all, don’t expect to read it at the same pace as other books. Tell yourself you’re reading in another language, and set your expectations accordingly. You’re going to be turning the pages at a significantly slower pace than usual, you’re going to be rereading certain sections, you’re going to be completely puzzled at times, and you’re going to be perfectly ok with that.

Second, it helps to remember that reading a novel in dialect is not just about knowing the story and figuring out what happens. A lot of authors write in dialect to capture a different time and place, and to authentically develop a character. Stop and ask yourself if you can hear the characters. Who are they? What would they sound like in a movie, or in real life? Sometimes, focusing on the characters is a more rewarding exercise than focusing on the plot.

Additionally, try to embrace the phonetic aspect of reading a book in dialect. Sit at home and read it aloud. Listen to the novel on audio. Become aurally acquainted with the accented dialogue, and think about how the author has cleverly manipulated their text to help you imagine and imitate a form of speech. If you really can’t hear it, try looking up clips online or reference material that might help you sound out the dialogue better. Sometimes I’ll even imagine different actors mastering the accent in a movie.

Lastly, I’ve found that reading in dialect sometimes piques my curiosity about how others speak in the real world. I’ll catch myself listening to other people talk and thinking about how I’d represent their speech in writing. What do I assume about people I see every day, just from the way they speak? How would I describe how they speak to others? How would they tell me a story in their own words? I find that thinking about these things always gives me newfound appreciation for writers who write in dialect.

Love and paperbacks,
Literary Lady

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