Monday, April 6, 2015

"How Many Languages Do You Speak?"

This question, which is naturally frequent in the sort of international groups I like, gave me the topic for this post. The answer to the question, of course, always depends upon how well one must know a language before one is justified in listing it among the languages one "knows," and one always wonders, of course, listening to the group's responses, whether this fellow claiming fluency in 30 languages might not be padding his resumee just a bit, and whether this lady saying she knows only 2 is being entirely too modest by listing 2 languages, her native language and one more, whose native speakers assume she's a native speaker, which is extremely unusual for a non-native speaker. Think of all the people you know who've lived in your native country for decades after having grown up somewhere else, who speak your language wonderfully, with ease and grace and a huge vocabulary -- how many of them entirely lack a charming accent? A foreign actor passing for a native in a movie or TV show doesn't count, even though it's still a remarkable achievement with a script and dialogue coaches and multiple takes.

I'll claim 6: I'll stand here and tell you (I won't look you in the eye and tell you, but that's because I'm autistic, not because I'm a shifty schemer or anything like that.) that I can speak English, German, Latin, French, Spanish and Italian, in that descending order of proficiency. I read and write each of them better than I speak them. I have some rudimentary knowledge of Greek, Arabic and Hebrew. I've just started on Hungarian and Armenian.

But of course languages come in families, so my familiarity with Latin, French, Spanish and Italian means that Portugese, Romanian/Moldavian, Catalan, Provencal, Rhaeoto-Romanic and Maltese will not be total mysteries to me. Likewise, my native proficiency in English and a long and intensive study of German mean that I can understand some Yiddish, Dutch/Flemish, Afrikaans, Frisian and Luxumbourgian, all of which can not entirely unreasonably be considered German dialects; and to a lesser extent the Scandanavian Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese. And that is not an abstract theoretical postulate; it's based on some experience with each of those languages, and having discovered that I could understand some of each of them. So should I have said that I speak 24 languages (or 29?) instead of 6? No, I shouldn't have; because, for example, that might've given someone somewhere the impression that I would be of some practical use if someone were needed to act as an interpreter between someone who speaks Provencal but no Faroese and someone else who speaks Faroese but no Provencal. Okay, I wouldn't be completely useless in such a situation, but, depending on the locale, my skills might be much better employed looking for an interpreter than in taking on the steep-uphill challenge of trying to act as one. I would understand enough to figure out, after some effort, that what we would want, ideally, would be someone fluent in both Provencal and Faroese. I would be able, with some effort, to figure out that those were the native languages of the 2 people who needed to communicate with each other.

(Naturally there's a very good chance that both of them would speak English well enough to make me fully superfluous.)

Rather than saying that I'm competent in 6 languages, I could say that I have some familiarity with the Germanic and Romance languages families, and that I have made some investigations into the history and development of those languages and their relationships to one another. This proficiency has not been acquired more or less accidentally in the course of a life of constant globe-trotting, but intentionally through a love for books. Many a la-dee-da carefree globetrotter who never had any particular ambitions as a scholar would be much more useful than I in many situations calling for a polyglot, especially if he or she had any proficiency whatsoever in Chinese or Russian or Japanese or Hungarian or Turkish or Swahili or Nahuatl, etc, etc, etc; whereas I would have much more urgent need than the average globetrotter to suppress the urge to be a pain-in-the-ass know-it-all and criticize as ahistorical the combinations of spoken and written languages and other cultural phenomena in "Game of Thrones." (The dragons could be considered ahistorical, too, Steven. Ya big goof.)

Ideally, the question "How many languages to you speak?" will not simply be answered with a number, but will be the opening to a long and fascinating conversation.

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