How many languages do you speak?

I get this question a lot.  “Dr. Kelm, how many languages do you speak?”  It is a really hard question to answer because somehow quality and quantity are hard for people to separate.  I don’t want to exaggerate or give a false impression and I certainly don’t want someone to say, “Liar!  I talked to him!  He’s lousy at Spanish!”  So, my basic long answer (which nobody wants to hear) is “Well, my Portuguese and Spanish are my best foreign languages and I feel pretty comfortable with them.  Then my Italian and German are pretty good, enough to get by and I could use them pretty well when I was there traveling.  Catalan seemed harder, but last time I was there I was finally getting the hang of it.  I’ve also studied some Japanese, but I’m pretty rusty right now (but I had a great time speaking Japanese in Japan).  Now I’m studying Chinese and I’m really loving it.”  You see what I mean.  Nobody wants to hear the long answer.

Maybe it is because people (especially North Americans) think of a foreign language as an ‘all-or-nothing’ kind of deal.  If you say you speak German, people think you should be able to talk just like a German on every subject and in every situation. Well, I’m here to stay that it ain’t so!

I find it refreshing sometimes to talk to Europeans who speak “all those languages.”  Recently I was talking to a person from France, who of course also speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian.  The thing is that his Italian was, well, as jumbled up as my Italian.  But it was cool, because there was no hangup with this notion that we have to have perfect Italian to claim that we “speak” Italian.

My general impression is that people would enjoy foreign languages more if they didn’t have the added pressure of feeling like they are supposed to be equivalent to native speakers.  You will notice that our educational system promotes this viewpoint too.  We generally teach foreign languages as if learners are somehow going to be total experts some day. (Why else would we spend weeks teaching third semester college students about all of the adjective clauses that trigger the subjunctive in Spanish?) My general impression, however, is that the majority of our learners do not need to speak like undercover spies. They would be just as happy having a great time talking about sushi with Japanese friends in Japanese.

So three cheers for those who can enjoy using foreign languages to interact with people around the world, even if they are not “near-native” speakers.  That, by the way, is why I put the picture of me at Tian Tan in Beijing.  I was hanging out in the park where I enjoyed listening to the old men as some played their instruments while others sang along.  Finally I got the courage to talk to them in my limited Chinese.  We ended up having a great time and I had a fantastic experience.  So, how many languages do I speak?  I’m over the hang up.  I speak eight.

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9 Responses to “How many languages do you speak?”

  1. Tamara Says:

    I’ve always considered you speak 8 languages. However I resort to the “hangup” when I speak of myself. Do I speak Spanish and Portuguese? I feel the need to say no because I dont’ think I speak well enough. Well dang it, I can hold simple conversations, and understand much much more- so I speak 3 languages!

  2. Jann Randle Says:

    Bravo, Orlando! It is really important to let students (and everybody else) know that, in general, the effort to communicate is more much more important than being perfect. The errors that make language teachers wince are usually just common errors that native speakers manage to “listen through,” just as US English speakers “listen through” the English speech of a tourist or classmate from Japan, Russia or Argentina. Of course, that doesn’t mean that for some purposes, phonetic, lexical and grammatical accuracy is absolutely important, but for most people in most situations, the question is: can you get your meaning across? You are absolutely right about the importance of having fun, enjoying the ability to communicate with people from another culture.

  3. Kostas Says:

    I only speak my two languages spanish and catalan, but i’m larning french

  4. Tommy McDonald Says:

    Dr. Kelm, I really appreciate the questions you ask and your general philosophy towards language.

    How do you feel about the question of “Speaking like a Native Speaker”?

  5. Orlando Says:

    Kostas, I love Catalan. There is something really run about being an American, but being able to speak a little Catalan in Barcelona. People really appreciate the effort.
    Tommy, really interesting question. I initially have 3 basic thoughts:
    1. I once heard a guy say, when responding to the observation that he spoke English with a Japanese accent, “That’s because I’m Japanese.” It got me thinking, yes I want to speak my foreign languages well, but they are “foreign”. It’s OK if I don’t sound like a “native.”
    2. I remember once when a Brazilian said to me, “You even speak better than we do.” I thought, “well that can’t be good.” What he meant was that I used “correct” Portuguese in places where native speakers say something else. Part of speaking really well is to know when to use “substandard” forms.
    3. One of the keys is “listen, listen, listen” Listen to how people actually say things. Whenever I travel, I keep a little notebook or 3×5 card with me and I’m always writing down things that I hear. This includes things like ums, ahhs (English), OOO (POR) na ja (German) este (SPN) and ano (Japanese), etc.

  6. Dave Ferguson Says:

    I’m not a linguist, but my own experience says you’re on to something here. I’ve been scraping the rust off my mainly high school French by chatting (in text and in voice) with French speakers in Second Life. I’ve had that same “you even speak better” experience, for something like the same reason: I don’t know enough slang or substandard usage.

    It’s really important to get over the ‘native speaker’ standard if you don’t have literally thousands of hours to devote to practice. You need to work at close approximations of the sounds, but more important in general conversation, I think, is being able to participate. Yeah, I’ve got an American accent. I can manage the French U, and my Rs are becoming more French, as well. More to the point in terms of my own standards, I can occasionally be funny and I can usually take part in an ongoing discussion.

    “Speaking a language” is like “cooking.” There are lots of meanings inside that term. The ones that matter most are the ones that matter to you.

  7. Getting by and Enjoying It | Sinosplice: Life Says:

    […] Dr. Orlando Kelm, a man of impressive linguistic ability, recently made some related observations: […]

  8. Bethany Womack Says:

    So how would you recommend learning the substandard speech if you can’t go to a foreign country for a while and pick up on it?

    And it’s encouraging to hear that cause I do the same as Tamara when someone asks me what languages I speak. “ummm English and some Spanish”. It could be better to say I’m a native English speaker, but I also speak Spanish.

  9. Language Learning Motivation « Ripe Ideas Says:

    […] question “how many languages do you speak?” is sometimes frustrating and confusing.  Here is an example of how Dr. Orlando Kelm of the University of Texas at Austin treats in an optimistic […]

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