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NELSONDWLIN

How many Languages do you Speak?

My identity has always been a complex cultural melting pot. I have been able to mix and match different cultural ideas and integrate them into my way of life. I’m deeply aware that many people don’t have this kind of opportunity, so I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to interact with people from all walks of life. When I describe my multicultural background, people immediately ask me, “How many languages do you speak?” I avoid answering the question by responding with, “a few.” I understand why people ask me this question, but I find it a little one-dimensional. It is a classic problem between quality and quantity. 

First, let’s define what language is. Any skill is a construction of several interrelated subskills; the four subskills of language are speaking, reading, writing, and listening. However, language skill is mainly associated with oral communication since speaking is our default communication style. Speaking is viewed as the holy grail of language. People usually ask the question, “How many languages do you speak?” and not “How many languages do you read?” or “How many languages can you understand?” 

My conversational fluency and listening comprehension are quite high in all the languages I speak. The most underdeveloped area is writing, simply because (1) I haven’t practiced it as much, and (2) I don’t need it. Necessity is a huge motivator, and it’s never been necessary for me to write in a different language. In terms of reading, I only struggle with Chinese. Reading in my parents’ native language is the same as doing a 1,000 piece puzzle—piece by piece, word by word. It’s a laborious and time-consuming task, which I’d rather avoid. I am glad no one asks me how many languages I can read effortlessly. I can assure you that the answer would not be impressive. The point is that my level of competence, i.e., quality, varies depending on the subskill and the language. Maybe, people should start asking me, “On a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate each of the four subskills in those languages?” Of course, as cognitive misers, they are usually not so interested in the details.

The problem with assessing myself is subjectivity and superiority bias—a tendency to overestimate desirable qualities and underestimate undesirable traits. So you need to allow for that, maybe, reduce one or two points for each rating. The problem with testing is that it only captures your fluency at a point in time. Another problem with tests is that they are not always accurate predictors of real-life performance. I have never found the actual need to take a test. An experienced teacher could, in theory, assess my skill level, but I have never met anyone like that either. For now, you have to take my word for it. 

What about languages in which I dabble? I can read some French; and words that I don’t know, I can guess from the context because French is a Romance language—related to Portuguese and Spanish. I know several useful and many other useless words and phrases in Japanese and Korean because I have many friends and students from those two countries. I am good at copying sounds and mimicking body language, allowing me to appear more fluent than I am. I call it “the illusion of fluency.” Should I also mention that I understand three different Chinese dialects? In the end, most people will be happy with the answer: “I speak five languages.”