50 Shades of Language

“So how many languages do you speak?” 

It’s a question I hear quite often. And the more languages I learn the harder it is for me to answer. Because how many languages do I speak? I am not sure. Because I don’t really know what ‘speaking’ a language means.

When I respond and say I speak 6,5 languages, people often laugh and ask “How can you speak half a language?” while the question I ask myself is, how can you speak a whole language? What is that point that you say “Oh yes I speak my native language but I also speak another language that I learned”? Because how on earth could you ever compare the knowledge of 20 years of daily practice of your mother language, to a language you have learned for maybe not even a year? I say that I speak 6,5 language but the actual number is probably not even measurable.

Language is considered by a lot of people as a binary thing: you either speak a language or you don’t. But the truth is that language is everything but binary. There are so many different levels of a language, different shades and depending on what you find important you have to judge yourself and come up with an answer: do you speak the language or not.


Literally you could ‘speak’ any language. You can say any word in Swahili, and that would mean that you are literally speaking Swahili, but that is not what people ask for when they ask you if you ‘speak’ a language. ‘Speaking’ a language means dominating it, being able to speak with a certain fluency, understand what is being said when people talk in the language in question. In fact, ‘speaking’ a language also means being able to read it.

Another thing to keep in mind with language is the level to which someone ‘speaks’ it. Many native speakers who are considered fluent will probably not reach the point where they can read/write/talk on an academic level. But what about international professors that give academic speeches but who are not able to understand basic expressions used by common people? Is a native child more fluent than someone who has been learning the language for some years but still has an accent? It is said that there is not a single Chinese person (and there are a LOT of them) who knows all of the Mandarin characters. Does that mean they don’t ‘speak’ their language?

Whether or not you ‘speak’ a language often depends on you but also what country you grew up in. People who grew up in a country where only one language was spoken and taught will quickly say they speak a language, even when they only know a few phrases. People from countries where many languages are spoken will often compare themselves to the native speakers of the languages they had to learn and will probably not list it as a language they ‘speak’ if they do not feel so comfortable with it, even if they have good basic knowledge of this language.

I remember a friend from the U.S. who was visiting me in the Netherlands asking me
“Why does everybody I ask say they speak a little English, when they actually speak very well?”

This made me laugh because it’s true. People in the Netherlands speak good English. Some better than others, but for a country that is not officially bilingual you can get by surprisingly well not speaking any Dutch. But the standard to which they measure English is different from the standard to which for example Americans measure their knowledge of Spanish.

There are many gradations and when people ask you if you speak a language you are forced to evaluate and judge yourself. Something I don’t like to do. I am not a perfectionist when it comes to anything. I don’t like exact answers, I don’t like numbers and am in general not a precise person. Yet when it comes to languages, I can beat myself up over some grammar mistake I made. Something I said that wasn’t perfect can haunt me for longer than I wish to acknowlegde. The only thing saving me from this curse is my extreme laziness which prevents me from actually doing something about the fact that I do not know all of the words, grammatical structures and expressions a language knows.

However the perfectionist inside me is reintroduced when the question “How many languages do you speak?¨ reappears. Because I feel like a fraud for listing the languages that I do not dominate 100%. Which is hard because sometimes it feel that juggling around 4 languages a day makes me fail in all of them, even my native language.

Once when someone asked me how many languages I spoke I explained him why I thought this was difficult and asked him to be more specific to what he thought was ‘speaking’ a language. He said “Any language you know at least one or two words in¨. Umm, do you have a minute? As a former exchange students I have collected a large vocabulary in random sentences in languages I will probably never use (or shouldn’t since most of them are maybe not so appropriate). Other people only want to know those you speak fluently. Most people have probably never thought about the concept of ‘speaking’ a language. They probably never realized that it wasn’t something black and white but that there are lots of grey areas in between.

I think more people should realize that. Those who have already started learning another language will know that there is no finish line. There is no point where you stop and think ¨Now I dominate this language 100%”. There is only personal finish lines that one can be satisfied with, but knowing a language completely is impossible. Instead of chasing those goals of language as a binary thing where we either speak it or not, we should embrace the nuances and shades it comes with.

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