What’s your number?

November 1, 2011 by 13 Comments
Exit for tough questions

Exit for tough questions

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.  🙂

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This post was written by Richard


  • Amy Burr says:

    I usually use number two, and maybe number one if the person is genuinely interested and wants to have a long-ish conversation about it…

  • Michelle Mitchell says:

    Are you a politcian? How many languages do you speak then?? I’m just naturally curious and probably in awe!

  • Josef Wigren says:

    I usually reply with how many languages I feel confident in holding the current conversation in, and say that I’ve studied a few others as well, but don’t know them to the same extent. If I know the person who asks me, I might get into a deeper explanation about levels and things like that.

  • Ryan says:

    Number one and occasionally number five. It’s rather difficult to explain bilingualism to a monolingual person. I imagine it must be difficult to explain how polyglottery works to those who are not polyglots, even if they have a language or two under their belts.

  • Boo says:

    How many do you actually speak then? I am a language fanatic too! At uni studying 2 languages at uni standard, and have jsut picked up beginners chinese, and obv have my mother tongue… but it’s still early days. I am extremely in awe of you, as I know how hard they are to learn, so I too would be very intrigued to know how many you speak fluent/very well and how many are still in the process of becoming fluent in?
    Many thanks

  • Fasulye says:

    I think that quoting a number of languages in itself does not give exact information and it’s a wise descision, if you don’t quote any number in interviews. For me it’s more relevant to know which languages we have in common to share in our Skype conversations, so I am not interested in counting the number of your languages.

    Such numbers when speaking about polyglots are much overrated because also polyglots speak their languages on different levels. It would make more sense to say:”I speak the language X on the level B2 and the language Y on the level C1″. And it would be nonsense to compare polyglots by their language numbers, because polyglottery should be a lifestyle and a phantastic hobby – but not a competition!


  • Kristofer Lindh says:

    Very interesting to read about this so called answer- problem, I have never actually thought in these manners before but still I always struggle to find an answer which satisfies the persons who ask me. I usually solve this problem by telling them how many languages I’ve studied and how many of them I speak fluently, but on the other hand, my opinion is that a single number is far not suitable to represent your entire knowledge. It’s rather a question of estimation and to me that’s the trickiest thing to explain this to monolinguals without boring them.

    Discěre sit vivěre.

  • José Miguel says:

    Hi Richard. I always wanted to exchange thoughts with a serious polyglot like you. I’m often asked this question and I’m also in a fix to give an answer. It all depends on the asker’s profile, I think. Many people would love to be polyglots but don’t have the discipline, time, courage, or the motivation, so when you know your dealing with this type of person you should be careful not to foster envy. On the other hand there are loads of skeptics who will never believe in your skills and will downplay everything you do or say. Therefore I tend to give vague responses and try to be respectful at all times. Overestimating your skills might get you into lots of trouble (Yeah, I know about Ziad Fazah and many other pretenders). As a language teacher, translator and interpreter I often answer by simply handing out my business card including 10 languages, which include Japanese and Hebrew, so if people seem surprised or uncomfortable, I just say, well, I’m not all that fluent in those two. Also, I often add that I’m still learning them ALL, that learning a language (every single one) takes a ilfetime and is never to be fully mastered, not even your mother tongue, especially to my students. Did Cervantes, Shakespeare or Goethe master their mother tongues? Un abrazo y hasta pronto.

  • Robert says:

    I agree with José Miguel above… it’s hard to say you speak a language when you’re still learning it. But generally we keep trying to improve all of them. It’s just that if it’s your mother tongue and you don’t understand something that’s ok, but if it’s a foreign language that you claim to know then it looks like you’ve failed.

    Anyway, the way I answer is by saying I can hold a normal conversation in x languages and watch a movie in y languages. I find it much easier to understand someone face to face than to follow dialogue in a movie. Is this common? A nice blog post for someone might be the transition to being conversational in a language and from there moving on to actually being able to pick up most of the dialogue of a movie in that language. Or perhaps I just don’t listen enough…

  • mlhpolling says:

    I will answer with the number of languages I can hold a conversation with smoothly. Honestly, I just understand one foreign language which is English but I learn a couple more. With the passing of time, I am going to understand more and more languages.

  • Simon says:

    I’ve used some your strategies in the past, but now generally say that I’m more or less fluent in five languages. Sometimes I add that I can have a least a basic conversation in maybe seven or eight others, and know bits and pieces of a few more.

  • Jonis says:

    I say that I have a general knowledge of such and such languages. I don’t like telling the number of languages I speak, because there would be many awes, thus increasing the possibility for certain people to try to hold a conversation in the language they speak (fluently). But sometimes this can be a bit tricky since you might get stuck in the middle of the conversation and thus failing the ‘test’.

    • There are always people who will want to put you to the test. I have had it a lot and the key is to keep things real. As long as you know where you are at with things and you are comfortable with that, others can say what they want but you don’t feel worried about it. At least that’s been my experience of it. 🙂

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