How many languages do YOU speak?!


It seems like at least once a week, someone asks me:

” so, how many languages do you speak anyway?”.

My answer is usually “I have no idea!”.  I really don’t.  So, for New Year’s this year I thought, what the heck, perhaps I should tally them up and see how many I do  “speak”.

I have studied quite a few foreign languages over the years: some for school, some for work, some for travel…  But the majority of them have been ” just for fun”!   Most people I tell this to can’t wrap their heads around it.  Why on earth would someone voluntarily study a foreign language “just for fun” ?  Especially one with little chance of actually being spoken with someone ?  ( yes, I actually bought a Zulu audio course once so I could figure out how to do clicks!).  Most Americans that I know totally dreaded their obligatory High School language courses.  They merely endured them and as a result speak one language, English.  The idea that anyone would voluntarily subject them to the process comes across as just plain crazy.  After all,

“eeeeveryone speaks English, right?!?”

Yep, I am a bit crazy and that does help…     But, I think the real reason I do this goes deeper than this.   I think my love of languages started back when I was a child. Our family would take several week trips to remote areas of Mexico every year and it would drive me nuts that I wasn’t able to communicate with most of the people.  We usually went to areas where very few people were able to speak English and as a result, I was determined to learn some Spanish.  4 years of High School Spanish and 2 semesters of University Spanish later,  I could pretty much hold my own in Mexico speaking Spanish.  My Senior University year I spent a summer in Spain where all my classes were conducted in Spanish.  Unfortunately, all my interactions outside of class were in English with the other U students.  A cautionary note: if you intend to go abroad for an “immersion” experience, avoid other Americans like the plague…unless you feel that your English needs work…   The true value of this experience abroad came after my term had ended and I set out to explore as much of Europe as possible – in four weeks!

Traveling through twelve different countries I found my experiences improved considerably by allowing myself to get out of my comfort zone.   I intentionally sought out the destinations less frequented by tourists in order to get a better sense of what each country was truly about.  English was rarely spoken but I was amazed to find that with a phrase book/dictionary and a little effort, I could be understood in languages that I had never studied before!  In return, I was rewarded with hospitality, generosity and insight into cultures that there is no way I would have received if I did not make these efforts to speak with people in their own languages.

My curiosity was then ignited.  I started to learn more about language families, mutual intelligibilities, dialects, different alphabets and scripts. It was like I uncovered a universal puzzle with thousands of little pieces to be mastered one by one.  When I returned, I only had one semester left in school so I had to make the most of my limited time.  I concurrently enrolled in Russian and Arabic. Not the easiest languages to pick up, but they were in different scripts and totally unrelated to any language that I had come into contact with.   I didn’t “master” either one in my one semester, but this became a springboard into the study of many, many  others which continues to this day.

So, back to the original questions;

  1. Why do I study all these languages for fun and
  2. How many languages do I know?  

For the first question, sometimes it is simply for the challenge, or because the language sounds cool, or because I love the script, or because there is a Greek speaking restaurateur down the street and I can try to speak with him in the tongue of his motherland, or because I love the music of the country and want to be able to sing along ( however badly ) …  The reasons I study them are as diverse as the languages themselves. There isn’t a specific reason.

For the second question, I suppose it comes down to how well I can speak the language.  I do believe from my experiences abroad that one can “know” a language without necessarily being “fluent” in the language.  Since the main reason I study is for travel, I devised my own spoken fluency spectrum which encompasses my needs.  Maybe I’ll call it the “Liddy Scale” 🙂  I then self-assessed how well I speak the languages that I have studied and ranked them according to the scale.

Level 1:  Very basic knowledge of the language.   Rudimentary familiarity with the language’s grammar.  Knowledge of several basic phrases from memory for example:

  1. Basic Greetings and polite expressions,
  2. How much is this?,
  3. Do you have a room?,
  4. I’d like to order this,
  5. I’m learning _ x_
  6. I need help,
  7. Am I going to get violently ill if I drink/eat  this? etc…

Able to have basic needs met with the help of a phrase book.

Level 2:  A basic knowledge with ability to construct several phrases freely without a phrase book.   Basic conversations should be fairly easy but beyond this, help of a phrase book / dictionary is necessary.  Able to comprehend if the speaker speaks slowly and deliberately although much in the way of gesturing is still needed. I would estimate that a three level Pimsleur course should get one to this level.

Level 3:  A good command of verb tenses, aspect, case declinations, plural formation gender formation and other components of syntax. Conversations on most common subjects should be fairly effortless. Help with phrase books or dictionaries is necessary with less routine subject matter.  Speaker is still likely to have an accent.  Ability to understand over 50% of news broadcasts and movies, more if subtitles are used as an aid. I would estimate level 1 of an FSI type course should get one to this level.

Level 4: Thorough command of grammar and syntax.  Ease with production and comprehension of most conversations.  Ability to understand most news broadcasts and movies without subtitles.  Help with phrase books or dictionaries may be necessary for highly technical subjects. I would estimate level 1 and 2 of an FSI type course should get one to this level.

Level 5: “Fluent”. Can engage in any conversation easily and pick up the subtle nuances of humor and irony.  A dictionary or phrase book should seldom if ever be needed.  Reaching this level without being in an immersion program or residing in-country would be extremely difficult.

Level 6 : Native Proficiency.  ‘Nuff said.

So here are the languages that I have studied and my self-assessed fluency levels of them:
Level 5
Spanish

Level 4
Portuguese
Italian
Galician

Level 3
Haitian Creole
Turkish
Hungarian
French

Level 2

Russian  
(used to be a 3 but lack of practice has demoted it to a 2 😦  … )
Hindi/Urdu
Greek
German
Arabic (Written and Gulf Dialect)
Dutch

Romanian
Mandarin Chinese
Japanese

Level 1
Persian

Albanian

Cantonese
Swahili
Romanian
Serbo-Croatian
Thai
Vietnamese
Finnish
Korean

So there it is.  I speak anywhere from 1 – 24 languages aside from English depending on what level you would consider “speaking”.

For me, I would consider Level 3 and above “speaking” a language and below that ” having knowledge of ” a language.  This is of course very subjective and I’m sure there are as many opinions on this as there are languages!  I do strongly believe that any knowledge of a country’s language, no matter how basic,  is a tool that can greatly enhance a trip to that country.  My experiences have proven that it can introduce a window into its people that would not exist without any knowledge of its language!

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20 thoughts on “How many languages do YOU speak?!

  1. That’s so impressive! I admire the fact you have had the patience to learn so many languages! I’m currently working on my second language, and it’s hard, but I enjoy it! Maybe some day I will be able to speak half as many as you do! Thanks for the inspiration! When you teach yourself do you use a particular computer program or set of books?

    • Thanks Ashley – It’s really not that impressive, it is just something that I enjoy!

      Some resources that I recommend are the Pimsleur programs ( see if your library has them, they are ridiculously overpriced ), the Michel Thomas series are pretty good and you can’t beat the free FSI courses (although they do tend to be quite dry ) . I also really like the philosophy of Benny Lewis on his site “Fluent in 3 Months” . Essentially ditch the books, immerse yourself in the language with REAL people and go to town! I have his book which I think has excellent tips, but you can get all the info from his site if you don’t want to shell out the $50 bucks.

      I have links to all these sites in the sidebar of the blog. Use your language EVERY DAY and you will be amazed at your progress in time!

  2. That is inspiring Liddy! You’ve got to point me to the swahili tape though! That sounds like a kick in the pants. I am going to put the photo’s of my instructors board work in Brazil together into a ppt and send it to you one of these days. Posso até incluir uma de praia também. Muito inspirador!

  3. This is so inspiring! I’m actively working to maintain my Spanish and start off as a beginner in Italian. I envy your linguistic skills. I do agree with you though, that part of it is the challenge which is appealing.

    • I don’t have any better skills than the next guy! I just have the curiosity and tenacity to keep at it!

      Go for Italian! It will seem much easier that it was to learn Spanish the first time around – I promise!!

    • Yeah, they are old and pretty boring, but they work really well for me. I used to have a 30 minute commute so I would just put it on to & from work. The drills take it one step beyond “parroting” because you have to think about your response rather than just repeat what was said. Of course, no two FSI courses are the same so you never quite know what you are getting…

      I learned Portuguese from FSI and it is pretty good ( except you have to follow along with the book – not so good for driving!) I used FSI Turkish exclusively before I went to Turkey to teach and it prepared me very, very well. FSI Saudi Arabic doesn’t have enough drills for me but it is still pretty good. FSI Vietnamese is good except for the obnoxious beeping sound they use!

  4. That’s an impressive list. It’s interesting that you speak Hungarian (sajnos, nem beszélek magyarul jól) and you know some Finnish too. It is always nice to hear about people who venture to Finn-Ugric languages. (Joo, olen suomalainen.)

    • Finno-Ugric languages are AWESOME! Finnish is so beautiful too. Sometimes if I cant sleep, I’ll put on a Finnish podcast. The sound of Finnish is so soothing to me for whatever reason! 🙂

  5. Impressive list of languages! How much do you learn from exercises, books, CDs, etc, and how much from traveling?

    When people ask me how many languages, I usually start with, “Learning languages is like filling buckets with holes: as soon as you start working on one, you lose on the others.” So my levels are constantly changing.

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