How many languages / What languages do you speak?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Giambattista, Feb 26, 2007.


How many languages are you fluent in?

  1. 1

  2. 2

  3. 3

  4. 4 or more.

  1. Gremmie "Happiness is a warm gun" Valued Senior Member

    I have to agree with you there...
    It's definitely easier to learn another language when you're younger.

    But, it's cool to learn other languages, no matter what your age...I'm fairly fluent in 5 languages now... I'm in my late 40's, and plan to master at least a few more.

    You just keep on trying!

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  3. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Since all the languages you have studied so far are members of the Indo-European family, I would recommend that your next one be from another family. Mandarin (the Sino-Tibetan family), Japanese (the Japonic family), Arabic (the Afroasiatic family), or something from the Malayo-Polynesian or Austronesian families, or any of the families of North America, South America, Africa, southeast Asia, Oceania, Australia, etc.

    Although English, French and Russian seem quite different, they are all descended from a common ancestor so they have many things in common that are much different in unrelated languages. You don't realize this because you haven't looked at the other language families. Chinese has no singular/plural, no present/past/future, no masculine/feminine, etc., and it uses verbs to express ideas for which we use adjectives and prepositions. Japanese does not have the subject-verb-object syntax that we're accustomed to; their syntax is topic-description.

    Studying a language with completely different paradigms increases the ways in which you can think.
    We have done our children a great disservice by not making any foreign language a standard course in the elementary school curriculum. I was fortunate because in Arizona in 1954 Spanish was a required class in the 7th grade. We were still (barely) young enough to learn our lessons well. When I picked it up again in high school it was easy. Still, I wish I had started much younger, since I am not even close to fluent in the language.
    A child's brain picks up languages much more easily than the adult brain. Children who grow up in places where multiple civilizations overlap, and where they hear two or three languages spoken every day, learn them naturally without realizing they're expending any effort.
    In addition to the vocabulary, grammar, etc., it is vastly easier to master the phonetics of a second language when you're younger. Your tongue and the other muscles in your speech organs are still quite flexible, so you can put them into the right shape to form new sounds. People who study their first foreign language in adulthood usually end up with a positively awful American (or wherever they're from) accent. This is just as difficult for the foreigners they're talking to to understand, as it is for you to understand a foreigner speaking English with a positively awful Spanish, Chinese, Russian, etc. accent.

    But there's a little more to it than that. Once you've learned the sounds of two different languages, your brain and your speech organs are a little more flexible. If you begin to study a third language later in life, even much later, the phonetics will be much easier and you'll come much closer to sounding like a native, certainly close enough that no one will have trouble understanding you.

    The same is true of grammar and syntax. Once you realize that there's more than one way to arrange the words in a sentence, or that there's more than one way to reduce your observations of the universe into words at all, then when it comes time to learn a third way or a fourth way it won't be nearly so hard.
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  5. Twelve Registered Senior Member


    I guess that everyone have got their tips on keeping their foreign languages alive. One needs to practice very much to manage to no forget 5 languages.

    You recommend that the next language to study is a language from another family.
    This made me think about the motivations behind learning a foreign language.

    Apart from professional or work reasons, one must feel comfortable with the country, society or culture where that language is spoken. I mean, for example, that if someone chooses Chinese as a foreign language to learn (and you don't need that language for working), I would suppose that individual likes China as a culture.
    And if you study Swedish, I would guess that you like Scandinavia. And I would imagine that you like Germany or Austria, if you tell me that you are learning German. And so on ...

    Otherwise, I can't understand that someone could study the language spoken in a country or culture that one doesn't care.

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    Last edited: Jan 1, 2012
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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    So what is your motivation? As I've said before, as you learn more languages that are as different as possible from each other, it gives you a tremendous intellectual advantage by being able to view the world from different perspectives.

    Most of our thoughts are formed in words, and having multiple languages, especially extremely different ones, allows you to reality test your thoughts in one language against the paradigms of another.

    Why do we unconsciously assume that all nurses are women, and automatically use the pronoun "she" to refer back to one? A speaker of Chinese can't do that because their pronouns have no gender--nothing in their language does.

    This should be your motivation: To enrich the way you think, and become wiser.
    I've studied Hebrew and Russian, and I'm not very fond of either Israel or Russia.

    As for Portuguese, you might be interested in Portugal rather than Brazil. The accents are quite different.

    Surely the hundreds of millions of people who study English do not all do so because they like us.
    Spies do it all the time.

    One of the things that happens while you study a language is that you begin to understand the culture. Perhaps you won't dislike it so much once you understand it.

    There are hundreds of language families. I'm sure you can find a language that is strikingly different from the Indo-European tongues without having to betray your principles. Of course it could be one that you'll never have much chance to practice with a native.

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  8. Twelve Registered Senior Member


    I agree with you that it's useful to enrich the way we think. Anyway, it depends on each individual. I dont' think I could study a language from a culture-country-continent which I am not very fond. Maybe a few lessons .. but later I wouldn't be motivated enough to continue for a very long time.

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    Spies learn foreign languages at work. They are paid so it doesn't matter wheter they are not interested very much in some languages.
    It's the same with other "jobs" (diplomatics, reporters abroad, ...): They don't spend their own money and spare time in learning foreign languages, they are paid for it. So they don't need to try very hard to speak many languages.

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    Last edited: Jan 2, 2012
  9. Astral Registered Member

    Ok, I have studied quite a few languages, at least at an elementary level, so I know a lot about them, but I am certainly not fluent in anything but English. I can understand a lot more than I can speak, and often I can read stuff I would not understand if I heard it.

    I could give you a list of all the languages I have studied. But it would be pretty meaningless. I will start modestly and add more languages as I go. At this particular time I am more interested in translation than in learning new languages fluently.

    I will tell you of my experiences from a personal perspective, trying not to be too

    I've always been interested in languages since I was a little kid, when my best friend arrived in the USA from Greece. His mother was from Athens, and his father was of Russian ancestry and grew up in a multilingual neighborhood in Pennsylvania. His grandfather spoke seven languages fluently, so that became a target for me, one which I have not achieved. My friend taught me to count in Greek and I later learned to count in Spanish and fell in love with Spanish. I had one year of Spanish in high school and then the teacher left, so I had to take French for the next two years. I taught myself German, and much more besides. I've studied all the major languages,
    at least at the very basic level. I have concentrated more on learning to read and translate languages, rather than being able to speak them.

    My major goal these days is to work on my language translator programs. The main program runs under Windows and handles a long list of languages, some better than others. I have concentrated more on European languages, especially Romance languages, Germanic languages, etc. I am currently working on iPhone and Android
    app versions of my program.

    I've played around with lots of languages, including Chinese (Mandarin), Japanese,
    and even Klingon and Elvish. I am interested in any language I stand any sort of
    chance at making sense of. I am making the assumption that any source language
    can be translated to any target language using an intermediate language. That intermediate language can be English or it can be Interlingua or Esperanto or Ido.

    This has been done before, or at least tried. I hope to succeed.

    I would be very happy to share more information about my project, if anyone is
    interested, but I don't want to bore you to pieces.
  10. Astral Registered Member

    I guess this thread is more about learning languages than language translation. Perhaps I am in the wrong place or should start a new thread of my own. I enjoy telling others what I know about the difficulties of translation, especially using computers.

    I worked for two years in Germany and was exposed to people from at least 10 countries all working together on the Spacelab project. That was a fascinating experience. I remember hearing a lot of different kinds of English from people who spoke other languages natively. Even understanding the Brits was a little difficult and the Scots were fun to listen to. I can understand some French and I met a few people who spoke French, including one from Corsica who I imagined talked a bit like Napoleon. Another one was from the Congo and grew up in Belgium. He was about 7 feet tall, I think, and I am already quite tall at 6 ft 4.5 in. He makes me seem short. He now lives in the USA.

    I met this American guy who had studied in Sweden and for a senior project in computer science, he wrote a simple language translator in the computer language called SNOBOL. That inspired me to want to build my own translator program, which I named iTrans. That was in 1980 and I am still working on it. One of my ideas was to build a handheld device that could do translation, like a pocket communicator or universal translator device. At the time I was thinking of using a cable between two such devices. Later on wireless became possible and smart phones were invented. Before that there were the PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), Palm Pilots, Windows handheld devices, etc.

    So my idea for a handheld translator stayed on the back burner for a long time until the past couple of years when I got my Motorola Droid X phone which runs the Android operating system. I managed to build a simple app that does very simple translations. I started out with the set (English, Esperanto, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian). I have made the most progress with French and German, and I know some Spanish and a little Russian, and some Italian. I could add Portuguese to the list quite easily.

    The basic idea is to translate any of the Source languages to Esperanto, then translate the Esperanto text to any Target language. That way I don't need so many dictionaries, since I would only need dictionaries that go to and from Esperanto, so for n languages I'd need 2n dictionaries, whereas if I translated directly from each Source language to each Target language I'd need n squared dictionaries. For n = 7, I'd need 14 dictionaries using the intermediate language approach, and 49 dictionaries using the direct approach. As n goes up, 2n goes up linearly and n square goes up much faster, so if I support 50 language I'd need 100 dictionaries with the intermediate language
    approach and 2500 dictionaries with the direct approach.

    I have dictionaries for about 80 languages, some more complete than others, mostly stuff I have found in books, typed in manually, or downloaded from online sources. It's been a labor of love since the 1980's. I used to love building dictionaries, back when I was using the direct approach, so I have lots of dictionaries which go from other languages to English and very few that translate anything else, a few that go from English to other languages, and I have a start toward the Esperanto dictionaries I need for the new approach (which is not my idea, just something that's been tried before, but not very successfully, on a project called Ergane).

    I have also built an iPhone version of my new app. I'm struggling now with learning
    how to do the User Interface (UI) for the iPhone. I've got a very simple UI scheme
    that works on the Droid phones and tablets. I also plan for my app to run on iPads
    and also on Windows and the Mac. I hope to make the Windows and Mac versions
    sort of a homebase for the mobile apps, like an alien mothership with little shuttles
    for buzzing around the planets they invade.

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    I already have a Windows version and I can easily create a Mac version from the
    code I've already written for the iPhone, since iOS and OSX both require apps to
    be written in Objective-C. Android uses the Java programming language, which
    can run anywhere on any machine, but Apple discourages the use of Java or even
    forbids it.

    I am also interested in Microsoft mobile devices running Windows 7 (mobile version)
    and the new Windows 8 (Metro). I don't want to spread myself too thin, but I also
    don't want to put all my eggs in one basket. Android is doing extremely well now
    against the iPhone, but Apple is determined to squash Android and is suing various
    hardware manufacturers like HTC and Samsung for patent violations. I should have
    patented my ideas back in the 1980s and then I could sue Apple and Android for
    violating my patents. Actually I did have some good ideas, but I didn't have the
    means to implement them in 1980. One of my friends back then invented an
    electronic golf gizmo that let people swing a club and the computer would measure
    how hard the ball was struck and estimate how far it would have gone, etc. It was
    like an early version of the WII almost. Of course he drew up the plans and tried to
    patent the idea, but didn't get too far with that. It was a very creative idea for the
    time. Perhaps he got the idea from someone else or maybe it wasn't really a new
    idea, just an application of an old idea. Back then people were still playing Pong and
    Atari games and had no clue what was in store for them in the future, with PCs and

    I can also run my programs on Linux machines, and indeed Android is based on a
    Linux kernel, and OSX is based on Berkeley Unix, modified and renamed Darwin by

    I would eventually like to be able to translate at least 100 languages, but right now
    I'd settle for 7, or a dozen, or a few dozen. I have my Windows program which
    does about 80 languages, none of them perfectly, but some of them reasonably
    well. Last night and this past week I've been working on translating Snow White
    and the Seven Dwarfs (Dwarves is now obsolete, I think), from various langauges
    to English. I've done German, French, Dutch, Croatian, Czech, Slovak, and a few
    more. I've also been playing with Icelandic lately. I translated the book of Genesis
    to English from Icelandic, last night. Genesis contains 50 chapters. I can understand a lot of the output, but it is certainly not ready for prime time.

    I've used Grimms' Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales for test cases for my translator for many years. I started out trying to translate Dutch in 1980, later German and French. I've added other languages over the years, including Low German, Old English (Anglo Saxon), Middle English, all the Scandinavian languages, Finnish, the Baltic languages, Slavic languages, etc. I have about 80 languages in my Source and Target menus, but I can't translate all of those languages equally well, nor do I expect to be able to do that in this lifetime. The best I can do is make sure the code works right and let other people populate the dictionaries, if my program works well enough to warrant anyone else getting involved. Sometimes I think of recruiting volunteers who can translate their native language to/from Esperanto, so that I could build up my dictionaries over time. Right now I mostly translate fairy tales which have been translated by humans, as well as the various foreign language versions of the Bible, of which there are hundreds, perhaps thousands. I have the text of at least 50 versions of the Bible that I can use for testing my translator.

    I was looking for a group where people were interested in translation, but most of the groups are not interested in what I am doing, which is not what one would call "professional translation" and I don't know that my programs will ever be able to provide that level of translation. I can currently translate some other languages to English and the results are not fluent English, but they are often understandable enough for people to get the gist of what the original text was saying.

    Writing a translator that can produce output as good as a human translator may
    well be impossible. Even the best computerized language translation systems
    leave a lot to be desired. I can produce simple literal or rote translations and even
    recognize a lot of idioms. However, to really translate accurately, one has to
    understand the text completely and render it into the target language as well as a
    native speaker of that language would.

    That just isn't possible, except in very limited situations, such as translating
    weather reports, which tend to use the same format and the same terminology
    over and over again. In such a situation, one can translate almost perfectly,
    but it comes from mimicking what human translators would do, only mechanically.

    It's pretty easy for me to simply look up words and output their equivalents, but
    that isn't very useful, since many words are inflected or conjugated and one has
    to recognize all the affixes (prefixes, infixes, and suffixes) which modify the meaning
    of a core word from the dictionary. One has to recognize case, gender, person,
    number, form, tense, mood, aspect, transitivity, active/passive, and all sorts of
    other grammatical things in order to be able to even do what one could call rote
    translation or literal translation, and often times literal word-by-word translations
    make no sense at all, but often they do make sense.

    So I could probably bore you to tears by telling you how my program works in
    exhaustive detail, or show you lots of examples of the kinds of output it produces,
    or of the kind of errors it tends to make (areas I need to improve), but if no one
    is interested, I'll just go somewhere else. I don't mean that to be mean, just don't
    want to waste my own time or yours with something you are not nuts about. I'm
    kind of nuts about languages and translation, especially programming language
    translators. I'd love to meet some other people who do the same thing, but I have
    only met a few, and some of them have already given up on it, and some have
    worked years without making any significant progress, nothing to write home about.

    I could write a book or two about all the stuff I have done, and it would be dismissed
    by academics as unprofessional or unscientific or not of any real value.

    I have studied languages all my life, since I was about 6 years old, but I really began
    in earnest when I took Spanish and French in high school, and I have never stopped
    studying languages since I was a kid. I have mostly concentrated on learning
    grammar and vocabulary without actually learning to speak all the languages I have
    studied. I cannot speak any language fluently except for English, and I can make
    myself understood in German and I know enough French and Spanish to carry on
    a simple conversation and order a beer most anywhere. Of course I can order a
    beer in English in most every bar in the world. I don't go to bars. Maybe I should.

    At any rate, I have dabbled at translating many languages, and I know something
    about most all of the major languages. Unicode has made my job easier, as far
    as programming goes, so I can load and display all sorts of stuff I could not have
    done back in the days of MS-DOS and the early days of Windows.
  11. Saint Valued Senior Member

    1. Chinese language
    2. English
    4. Other dialects of china.
  12. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Guo yu (Mandarin) or Guang Dong hua (Cantonese)?
    In general, linguists classify these as distinct languages, not dialects. The definition of "dialect" requires that they be mutually comprehensible. Since speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghai, Fujian, etc., cannot understand each other, even after a little familiarization, these are separate languages.

    Western linguists used to regard them as dialects, because they were misled by the fact that they are all written the same way. A person in Beijing can read about 99% of a letter written by a person in Guangzhou--or 100% if the Cantonese person writes formally. The reason is that Chinese writing is not phonetic. They all use the same words in the same order (about 99% anyway), so they look the same even if they don't sound the same. This was a tremendous force that prevented the language varieties in distant provinces from drifting apart. But after a couple of thousand years the pronunciation in different places changed in different ways, so the spoken words are no longer recognizable.

    Of course there are dialects of these languages. The people in both Beijing and Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan) speak Mandarin, but the Mandarin of Sichuan is considerably different from the Mandarin of Beijing. The people may not understand each other very well until they get used to the accent. (Imagine a person from Birminghan, Alabama and one from Birmingham, West Midlands, and then multiply that difference in accent by about 20.)

    This was the source of an amusing incident in my life, although my (then) girlfriend didn't find it so amusing. She was from Sichuan and spoke Sichuan dialect, but since her family had lived in many parts of China she had also learned to speak with a Beijing accent. I had taken a course in Mandarin, and naturally in the USA only Beijing Mandarin is taught. She helped me improve my Mandarin by speaking it at home with me--in proper Beijing dialect.

    She thought that Beijing and Sichuan dialect were not mutually comprehensible without a little study and she assumed that I couldn't understand her native dialect. What she didn't realize is that the major difference is in the tones (Sichuan has 6, standard Mandarin has only 4). To us anglophones, for whom tone is not phonemic, two words that are the same except for the tone sound pretty similar. So to me, Sichuan dialect just sounded like bad Mandarin as spoken by an American student. She was talking to one of her friends and said some ridiculous things about me. I interrupted and said, "Why did you say that? You know I never did that." She almost fell over.
  13. Astral Registered Member

    Thanks, Fraggle. That was very interesting.

    I grew up near Birmingham, Alabama, btw, and I have trouble understanding people
    from my own home state, as well as neighboring states. I don't speak Redneck and
    it appears to be a separate language sometimes.

    Why can't we all speak the same language? That question has been asked millions of times by a wide variety of people, throughout history, I am sure.

    English is a great language, but so is Chinese. So is Russian. And so on. How would we ever pick just one language? I would like to see Esperanto become the official second language of everyone in the world, but of course I am a dreamer and I don't know how to make that happen.

    My iPhone/Android app uses Esperanto as an intermediate language to facilitate translation. Perhaps if enough people use my app Esperanto will become more popular and widespread.

    That remains to be seen. I found this site online that has a universal dictionary, so I am trying to take advantage of it (without violating any laws or copyrights or licensing agreements, of course).
  14. RedRabbit Registered Senior Member

    English: 8.5
    Irish: 6

    I'm impressed with the amount of people who can speak more than 3 languages. Such a clever site Sciforums.
  15. DragonSlay Registered Member

    My Mother Tongue is Tamil. I had to learn english bcoz it is essential for getting job.
  16. michael_taylor Registered Senior Member

    English and a couple of thousand words of Mandarin Chinese. (About HSK-3 I think, though I haven't taken the exams.)

    Initially I only wanted to learn to read a couple of hundred words so I could make sense of Chinese datasheets for electronic components, but have got carried away. At the moment I am learning the pronounciations for those characters and how to spell them in Pinyin for typing. I'm toying with the idea of learning to write the Hanzi characters, on the assumption that extra channels of sensory input will help long term memory.

    Learning about the culture, as is inevitable with any sensible program of study, has inspired me to visit China once I feel confident in my ability to navigate unaided. (I don't like guided tours, don't want to go to places that specialize in catering to foreigners.)

    I can still understand simple French and some German from school, but I can probably only pronounce a couple of hundred words. Most of that is likely only because of the similarity to their English equivalents.

    I'm over 30 now so I don't hold out much hope of ever speaking like a native, but as long as I can be understood and understand what other people are saying that will do me.
  17. Saint Valued Senior Member

    Our Chinese dialects, some of them only differ a little bit, they even have 70% similarity.
    Like Hakka and Cantonese.
    For Hokkein, different regions of Hokkein pronounced slightly differently,
    it is called Ming Nan Yu in Taiwan.
    In Malaysia, the migrants are mainly from Southern China, so we have Hokkein, Hakka, Teochew (I am Teochew, it sounds very near to Hokkein), Hainan, Hokchew and Cantonese.
    The middle and northern part of China's dialects did not spread to here because no migrants from there.
  18. Unconcept Registered Senior Member

    Arabic - Native
  19. Der Großmann Registered Member

    Only English unfortunately.
    I learnt a bit of French in school but was a bit too immature to learn it, as well as lacking interest.
    I have tried to some extent to learn Japanese but didn't get very far.

    One day I'll commit properly to it.
  20. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Do yourself a favor and make it as soon as possible. Our ability to master a second language attenuates rather rapidly. The best time is before age ten. Up to fifteen you'll still get it but it will be harder.

    By twenty our native language has commandeered our brain and our speech organs. We'll never sound like a native and our grammar will always sound a little odd.

    By thirty we'll never be able to think in a second language so we'll struggle to translate in real time--and not always get it right. There will be phonemes that we can't get our mouths to produce, and grammatical and syntactical principles that we can't grasp.

    By forty? Pick out an immigrant who speaks the most annoyingly awful English of anyone you know: that's who you will be.

    So start tomorrow. And do yourself another favor: Don't pick Japanese! Or any Slavic language! Other than that, pick one you find interesting and you'll put more effort into it.

    IMHO Mandarin is one of the easiest languages to learn because the syntax is very similar to English and the grammar is even simpler: no singular/plural, no present/past/future, no masculine/feminine, etc. However, many anglophones find the phonetics daunting because tone is phonemic, and it does have a few bizarre consonants. But all you need for that is a good teacher. Unless you live on a farm fifty miles from Boise, you probably know some native speakers.
  21. Der Großmann Registered Member

    Fair enough. Thanks for the decent reply - I didn't expect one in this kind of thread.

    I may well look into it then. Unfortunately I do have a bit too much spare time right now, so I guess now's the time!
  22. ShyRebel Registered Member

  23. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Well that's an unusual combination! How did that happen?

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