How many languages do you speak?
The question itself seems simple enough. I have lost count how many times I have been asked it. I am even less sure on the various answers I have given in the past. Sometimes I am very guarded about it, especially if I know it will be published and that I am going on record. I definitely do not want to do a “Ziad Fazah”.
So why is this question so tough for a language freak like me to answer?
Well I can tell that it is coming before the words have been uttered. Call it a sixth sense, if you will. I put it down to experience, knowing what things people ask a language fanatic. It still makes me nervous to think of how best to answer it without sounding silly.
I have tried many different ways of answering it. Here are some I have used:
1. Defining “speaking a language”
Everyone has a different idea of what speaking a language means, so I drill further to figure out what this person means. By the time I have isolated their meaning, I think they are so bored I usually don’t have to bother answerin 😀
2. Being vague
This is the “tough to say…I have studied X number but I wouldn’t say I speak they all fluently” answer. It is probably the best one to hide behind, but never satisfies the person asking.
3. Talking families
Trying to name families of languages and saying that I have a good knowledge of certain language families, thus trying to play down the whole number game. I am usually met by a look of bewilderment in response.
4. Speaking for conversation
In informal situations I can open up and say, well I could hold this conversation now in X languages. This is usually a large number for me and either raises eyebrows in disbelief or a look of awe. Both reactions are tough to manage as they make me feel very British and I have to immediately say something like “yeah, but I’ve been doing it for yonks and there are people way better than me!”.
5. Giving a real overview
This is where I give a decent overview of what I have studied and to which level. It takes time to do and I only tend to go into such details on very rare occasions. Sometimes it is rewarding to do, but it can also be a fruitless endeavour too.
The number game…
For me the fascination with numbers of languages and who speaks the most is intriguing. I understand that we need to figure out what people can do. It is a natural curiosity in many of us. Perhaps it is one of those things, whereby when you are deep into a subject, only then do you really know what you don’t yet know and what other people around say they know but clearly don’t. In my experience, language learning is no exception to this phenomenon. The English saying “empty vessels make the most noise” proves its validity time and time again! 😀
What does “speaking a language” mean to you? How do you go about answering questions about your ability in languages? How does it make you feel? Do you use any of the tactics I use? Or have you got other ways of answering? I look forward to reading your comments.