“How many languages do you speak?”

In the same way an astronomer hates being asked how many planets there are in the Milky Way, a linguist hates being asked how many languages they speak. It is one of those questions which seems straightforward, but is in fact nightmarishly complicated.

Let us even leave aside the really tricky question of “What is a language?” and focus solely on national languages in Western Europe. How many does anyone speak?

Personally, I speak only one language natively, namely (British) English. English is of course an oddity in Western Europe because, as a fundamentally West Germanic language with a dramatic French-Latin overlay, it has no obvious sister language. Whereas anyone who can read Danish will have a reasonable chance also with reading Norwegian, or anyone who can read Spanish with Portuguese, there is no such partner for English. So native proficiency in English gives you English and, realistically, nothing else – a total of one.

I studied Germanic Linguistics, lived in Germany briefly both as a child and a student, and visit German-speaking Europe annually. Thus, I speak German fluently and with a reasonably native accent – but definitely not to a level of native proficiency. Most German speakers take me to be Dutch (as Dutch is closely related and Dutch people all seem to speak everything!), but almost never mistake me for German. This means I can speak and write grammatically accurately (and generally, but probably not always, idiomatically), and I can read and understand more or less anything proficiently (although, as with anything, if the topic is unfamiliar there can be problems). Notably, I find things that happen in German easier to explain in German, and I occasionally dream in German – some people’s definition of fluency. But I am most certainly not native – so still only one native, but let us say two fluent.

Now it gets really tricky. As a minor subject I studied Spanish, which meant I lived with a family in Andalusia for five months. Immersion is the best way to learn a language in the sense of coming to understand and speak it reasonably fluently, so I certainly was fluent in spoken Spanish (even reasonably colloquially, at least at the time). However, I read very little and my writing would no doubt still have been littered, even after the five months, with minor grammatical errors (notably, mistakes around things like prepositions which may be glossed over or just mumbled in speech, or choice of wrong tense, or the odd wrong gender). I have visited Spain only very infrequently this century, and continue to read very little Spanish, hence my use of the past tense with reference to my former relative spoken fluency. A bit of time back in Spain or Latin America would no doubt help, but it takes me a while to tune in (even, say, for series like Narcos) and even then I by no means pick up every word. So I was never as fluent even in speech as I was in German, it is arguable whether I was ever fluent in writing, and I am only getting rustler. How do you count that one? Not native (so, still one), not really fluent (so, still two), let us call it broadly “proficient”?

Then there is French, and now it gets very confusing! I never stayed with a French family (nor indeed in France) for more than two weeks, but I did study the language to A-Level, and in a subsequent course. Thus, I definitely find it easier to write French accurately than Spanish, but almost impossible to speak it at all idiomatically (far less colloquially). My technical vocabulary is probably greater in French than Spanish, but some more basic household words are probably missing in French but not in Spanish. Of course French, even at the best of times, is extraordinarily difficult for foreigners to pronounce! So, is my French better than Spanish? In some ways yes; in others, no. I would say that, overall, my Spanish is marginally better, but it is hard to calculate. So let us cop out and call it “proficient” too.

Now, the real chaos starts. As a fluent speaker of German with a degree in Linguistics, I find another West Germanic language like Dutch (and Afrikaans, but let us stay in Europe) relatively easy to read, and in many contexts also to understand. I have glanced at a few “Teach Yourself” books, so would have some written and spoken proficiency, given German gives you such a head start anyway. Of course, opportunities for use are scarce, given the vast majority of Dutch and Flemings speak fluent English (and often German). So where on earth does that fit? Er… “limited proficiency”?

Then, as a proficient speaker of Spanish and maybe French, there is an obvious window to Italian and Portuguese. I now visit Italy relatively frequently, find I can get by for everything from ordering meals to discussing football, and have attained a government qualification in it online; however, there are still major gaps in vocabulary (which I often just have to guess) and grammar (I am fine in the present tense but past and future are a little trickier). I used to visit Portugal and find Portuguese easier to read (it looks closer to Spanish than Italian) but harder to understand (it has a certain slushing sound which means “tuning in” for someone familiar with Spanish takes a while longer than it does with Italian – oddly, I find this a particular difficulty with European Portuguese, but less so with Brazilian). I would claim, therefore, what we may call “limited proficiency” in Italian, but would currently claim nothing for Portuguese aside from the potential to attain it some time.

Then, there is Scandinavian. Scandinavian languages are Germanic, but the split with German/Dutch happened even earlier than it did in the case of English. They still look more like German not only because they did not have the French-Latin overlay that English had, but also because they did have a German-Dutch overlay (mainly technical trading and transport terms in the late Middle Ages from “Low German”, a West Germanic variety somewhere in between the speech of Vienna and Amsterdam). I have had the opportunity to visit the Nordic countries regularly, particularly Denmark, both for business and pleasure, over the past decade. As in the Netherlands and Belgium, it is impossible to practise the spoken language (as the locals all speak English). However, as a regular reader of Danish in newspapers and websites I do have some reading proficiency, which vaguely applies also to Swedish, and even some written ability, but almost no spoken capability whatsoever (like French, Danish is in any case notoriously difficult to pronounce). So, er… let us not claim those at all, but no doubt some would!

How many languages to I speak? No idea. But three thoughts:

  • just like anyone can learn to drive a car, anyone can learn a language given determination and the right links/tools;
  • beware of some of the outlandish claims some people about the number of languages they really speak; and
  • if you do embark on a linguistic journey yourself, recognise that the quest for perfection will never truly be fulfilled but is very, very addictive!

7 thoughts on ““How many languages do you speak?”

  1. William Allen says:

    Well I take my hat off to you for being this gifted in languages regardless of how many you think you can speak. I say this as someone who found every subject at school easy to learn with the exception of languages (9 A’s and a U (French) at GCE O-Level). The funny thing is that I have developed a bit of a taste for German TV and films (the joys of the internet TV era) and while I still mostly rely on the subtitles, I am starting to find myself actually grasping the spoken language. Something I never did in 5 years of being forced to study French at school.

    • I don’t think I’m gifted at all, more just interested!

      But yes, I find watching TV with subtitles is a really good way to learn. It’s particularly good for some of the basic spoken language (basic link terms like “OK”, “I accept”, “I know” etc) which you may never see in writing.

  2. Other than English, I have a French GCSE, OCR level 2 Irish, I’ve QUB Open Learning qualifications in Japanese and Korean, 2 years of secondary school Latin, and the Greek alphabet from Maths.

  3. […] are never quite sure which blog posts will prove popular and interesting and which will not. Last week‘s, on determining how many languages someone speaks, proved pleasantly popular! One question […]

  4. […] Actually there is perhaps one question more scary for a linguist (professional or amateur) than “How many languages do you speak?” […]

  5. […] is, of course, quite similar to the question: what does “speaking” a language […]

  6. […] Spain, and you live with a Spanish family, and you are determined to learn Spanish, you will end up conversationally proficient. Indeed, I did so myself in 1998. And it is worth noting that it takes very little skill – […]

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