How Many Languages Do You Speak?
I’m often asked, how many languages do you speak? I think many polyglots are asked this question and it’s a difficult question to answer because we can have varying degrees of knowledge of languages. Some languages we can just speak right away. If you ask me to say something in my stronger languages I can just start speaking. Not a problem. But then I have other languages where I have a fair amount of knowledge, but I can’t just turn them on. So let me go through I would say the first dozen languages where I can speak now. Obviously, English, French and I’m going to go in a declining order of proficiency, so English and then French.
When I say speak, typically the languages that I can speak the best and the most confidently are the languages that I have spoken the most. Even though I’m a great proponent of input-based learning to build up your capability in a language, in order to speak it well you have to have lots of opportunity for real, meaningful conversations. So, obviously, I have had that in French, I have had it in Japanese, I have had it in Mandarin Chinese, I have had it in Spanish, but less. Most of my practice using the language was when I used to hitchhike in Spain in the mid sixties, hours and hours and hours sitting with truck drivers and other people who picked me up. Recently, I have had far less opportunity to speak Spanish.
Then probably comes Swedish because I did a lot of traveling in Sweden doing business and German, but both of those languages are languages that I speak less well than the first group, simply because I don’t have as big a vocabulary. I haven’t done as much reading and listening in them and I make more mistakes. I can converse comfortably, but with more mistakes.
Then comes probably Italian. I have traveled to Italy and so I can speak that language. Then probably Cantonese and then comes Portuguese, which is very similar to Spanish. It’s almost like Spanish spoken with a few different words and different pronunciation. I’ve had less opportunity to speak it, some while in Brazil, some while in Portugal, but really not that much. So with my Portuguese I don’t feel as confident. It ends up being a conscious effort to convert my Spanish into Portuguese and I don’t feel so comfortable speaking it.
Next comes Russian where I have had a lot of input, lots of listening and reading, some opportunity to speak. I was in Russia briefly, for a week or 12 day, back seven or eight years ago. More recently I was in Ukraine, particularly in Kiev and Eastern Ukraine, and I was speaking Russian most of the time. I can turn it on. With mistakes, but I can turn it on.
It’s the same with Ukrainian now, which I learned after Russian. I was, in fact, on television in Ukraine in Kiev, prime-time television speaking both Russian and Ukrainian. I understand the languages well. I speak Russian. I understand Russian much better, but I understand them both comfortably and I can speak albeit with mistakes.
So that takes me, I believe, unless I’ve forgotten a language in there, up to about 12 that I can say I speak comfortably. These are the languages that I speak. Next comes a group of languages where I have hardly had any practice speaking, but I have a fair degree of understanding. These are languages that I would say I know, but I don’t speak.
Korean is say next, right? According to LingQ, I have 40,000 words that I know in Korean. When I was in Seoul and I gathered with a group of people there we had dinner and I was speaking Korean, but I haven’t spoken much Korean. I’ve had a few isolated online conversations. I’ve worked at it quite a bit, but I don’t feel comfortable in saying that I speak it. Although superficially it can sound as if I speak it, it wouldn’t take me more than a couple of to get, I believe, in a Korean environment to get my Korean up to the level where I could comfortably say I speak it.
Then I’d go Czech, Polish and Slovak that are related languages. Here again, I understand them, a lot of them anyway. Given an opportunity to be in that environment, I could elevate them to the level of languages that I speak, but I don’t like to say I speak them. I like to say I know them. I know of them. I’m acquainted with them, but I can’t say that I comfortably speak them.
So the first 12 are the ones that I speak. The next four are ones that I think I could, I’m close to being able to say I speak, but I’m not quite there yet because I haven’t had enough speaking experiences. Then come the languages that I have been working on more recently.
First of all, Romanian and Greek that I put a fair amount of concentrated effort into for a few months before going to those countries. Of course, Romanian is much easier than Greek because so much vocabulary is similar to Italian. Some of it is similar to Slavic languages, about 20% of it. It’s written in the Latin alphabet. I’ve found that even after two months of a lot of input-based learning and some online tutoring, I was able to communicate in Romania. Greek, I spent eight months at it. It’s a different writing system, there are fewer sort of freebie vocabulary items, but I was able to communicate comfortably while I was on the Island of Crete.
In both those languages, if confronted today by someone speaking Romanian or Greek, I wouldn’t be able to say much, if anything at all. So those are certainly not languages that I speak, but those are languages that I have invested in. If I were to go back to them, go back to some of the material I’ve been using to learn and start speaking I could, again, raise the level, but they’re certainly not languages that I can claim to speak.
Now come my last three languages, Arabic, Persian and Turkish. There my level is that they are no longer unfamiliar to me, I know how they work. I have in Persian 2,500 words, in Arabic 8,000 words, in Turkish 6,000 words. In some ways Persian is the easiest of the three because the structure is so similar to European languages, but of course the writing system is a bit of an obstacle.
Those are languages that I will be working on, all three of them, over the next year or so to gradually improve my level. Will they ever reach the level of the first 12? I don’t think so, unless I spend a lot of time in Turkey, in Iran or in an Arabic-speaking country. The problem with Arabic again is that I’m studying traditional Arabic and there’s no country where that’s the national language. Who knows? Maybe I’ll spend some time in Lebanon and learn Levantine Arabic or in Jordan or somewhere.
So there you have it. It’s a summary of the 12 languages that I can say that I speak, four languages that I could elevate to the level of languages that I speak but I just consider them languages that I know, two languages that I learned over a short period of time which are at a lower level of development and then the final three. So the total is 21, but only 12 of them can I genuinely say that I speak.