How Many Languages Do You Speak?

danger! photo by fons feijsbergen

Probably more than you think.

There’s your primary language, most likely the language you learned from birth. I know a few people who only spoke their parents’ language before they attended American schools and transitioned to English so completely that they no longer remember the first language of their family. Others manage to maintain the native language with the new.

If you’ve traveled a great deal, you may have developed some proficiency in the languages of the places you’ve visited. This might be the ideal way to learn languages, by immersion in the culture with native speakers. I’ve always wanted to do that.

Have you ever been tempted by those language learning ads on television? I have, a little, but I suspect that it would take a lot of time and I might never retain the language if I don’t use it every day. If anyone has tried one of those programs, I’d be interested in hearing how it went. It also seems that online translation services may help with a word here and there, but they don’t take the place of learning a language.

old urdu photo by asif akbar

Most of us, some under duress, studied a foreign language in school. I eventually used my classroom language, French, in graduate school. I was required to have proficiency in another language, so I took a basic Spanish course. I remember a lot of the French language because I began learning that when I was twelve. I’ve retained little of the Spanish because I crammed that into my older brain, at age 30. I can still read a little in French, enough to limp along, but I’ve never traveled there so I’m sure that my vocabulary and pronunciation are abysmal.

My friends who attended Catholic school or seminary usually know some Latin and maybe a little Greek. I wished I’d had some Latin under my belt when I studied anatomy and physiology in my Physician Assistant training. Latin is written everywhere on the human body, so to speak. Vocal and instrumental musicians I’ve met learned some basic Italian, Spanish, French and German as they studied and performed different composers’ works.

Sign language is not only useful for communicating with people who have a hearing impairment.  A few children in our family learned basic sign language. With signs for “milk,” “more,” “Mommy” and “Daddy,” the little ones weren’t so frustrated before they could speak words. I also had good experience with Dunstan Baby Language, a simple method that I learned about online that helps parents understand what their infants are communicating, by their sounds and cries.

i love you photo by ben kaye-skinner

Wherever you live, it’s likely that the regions in your country or even different neighborhoods have dialects, accents and slang that are unique. People in Wisconsin speak differently from their neighbors in Minnesota. I lived in Texas for five years of my childhood but they called me a Yankee the whole time, because I sounded different. Then, when I moved to Colorado, they accused me of having a Southern accent.  As Tony Soprano would say, “Whaddya gonna do?”

My sister, son and son-in-law know several computer programming languages, so proficiently that they make a living from the logic beneath and among those languages.

Law and medicine each have their own languages, as well. I did fairly well in medical training, not because I’m a natural scientist, but because I caught on to the language of medicine. My brain would remember the sound of the words and attach meanings to them. This helped me, but I noticed that my classmates had different, and maybe more efficient, ways of memorizing vast pages of medical information within a short time.

What birth or cultural languages do you speak? Does your profession demand a unique vocabulary or ways of expressing what you know? Have you immersed yourself in another culture for long enough to feel the differences language can make? Maybe now is the time begin with that language you’ve always wanted to learn.

14 responses to “How Many Languages Do You Speak?

  1. I’ve been tempted by the language learning software, there’s actually a Rosetta Stone commercial on television as I start typing this, but I don’t know if I’d use it enough to get anything out of it. In a few moments of weakness, I decided I wanted to learn Russian so, since neither by high school nor my college offered it, I bought two “Teach Yourself Russian” books. I don’t know Russian, suffice it to say.

    I took French in high school and college and I’m very happy I did. I don’t think I’d be confident enough to speak French to a native French speaker, but I can muddle through reading it. It’s strange too, because I think I learned more about grammar from my French classes than I did my English classes (I’m American). I want to know French better and I want to know more languages. Now I just need the dedication…

    • I knew a few grad students, one native and the other very studious, who spoke Russian. The studious one thought that Russian was one of the hardest languages to learn. I, too, learned more about grammar in French class…I would never have known about subjunctive verbs without dear Mme. Lane, one of my favorite teachers. Thanks for reading!

  2. Learned Latin prefixes and suffixes at a pretty early age as a result of my mother’s medical/nursing books, but I’m not sure I’m ‘built’ to be a fluent linguist. I’m taking a Spanish course this summer and correct pronunciation is always so difficult for me. But I’ll keep trying!

    • Good for you on the Spanish course. That’s a language you may actually find opportunities to practice. Goodhusband and I were talking yesterday about different sorts of intelligence, in no particular order or detail, but we compared how he learns and designs in a spatial, problem-solving way, while I’ve always been such a book-and-language person that practical problem-solving exercises challenge me. We complement each other, anyway, and he’s very kind to act like he doesn’t notice the stupefied look on my face when I don’t follow what he’s showing me! It’s always good to hear from you, Amy. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • Yes, there are definitely different learning styles. I’m already sort of noticing that with my boys. It’s ridiculous to think all people learn the same way since every one is so different as it is.

  3. I speak both Arabic and English, Arabic being my native tongue. I also know a tiny bit of French. I was taught English in school, but I developed it on my own through the excessive amount of books I read. My job does demand that I am always up-to-date with expressions and structures – I’m a translator, and I’m always getting new and different things to translate.

    • Translating…that’s a rich subject in itself. Is it sometimes challenging to communicate cultural nuances from one language to another? At my elementary level I’ve experienced enough of this to be cautious when I quote or write about other languages. The cultural context is what I’m lacking in my language learning, another reason to immerse myself in France before I start improvising! Thanks for commenting and sharing your experience.

  4. My birth language is English. In middle and high school I studied French. But in college and grad school, I studied Chinese (Mandarin). I’m most comfy in English but my Chinese got me around last summer in China. And my French reading and listening is still good but when I try to speak it, I usually speak in Chinese and then have to stop and translate back to English and then to French. 🙂

  5. I have always wanted to learn a lot of languages… I know to say “Hi! How are you doing?” in almost 12 languages now!! But I just can’t seem to go any further… So basically, right until now, I know just my mother tongue(Tamil), Hindi and English properly!!

    • Thank you for your comment. You write very well in English and learning three languages is an accomplishment. Here in the central part of the United States, we never have opportunity to speak other languages, so we often don’t try as hard to learn them as we would if our people were more diverse. I’m not familiar with Tamil. Might you tell me more about it?

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