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.
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.
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.