How many languages / What languages do you speak?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Giambattista, Feb 26, 2007.

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How many languages are you fluent in?

  1. 1

    29.1%
  2. 2

    37.4%
  3. 3

    22.7%
  4. 4 or more.

    10.8%
  1. Orleander OH JOY!!!! Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    25,817
    I'm only fluent in English. But I can speak enough Spanish, Portugese, Japanese, German, and Chinese to get a free drink from a man who likes to hear how handsome he is .

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  3. Zyxoas Registered Senior Member

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    189
    So languages with prepositions are primitive? Good thing the Bantu languages (like the isiXhosa you mentioned in an earlier post) don't have prepositions...

    In my native Sesotho, which is closely related to isiXhosa (Bantu S branch), there are (by Doke & Mofokeng's analysis) 12 parts of speech, none of which include any "small words" (such as prepositions and particles). Generally, words are constructed from roots, and their meanings and relationships are indicated by prefixes and suffixes. Word order tends to be quite free, and this is further facilitated by the fact that verbs, qualificatives (adjectives, relatives, enumeratives, and possessive nouns and adjectives), copulatives, and pronouns describing a noun agree with it using a "concord" prefix.

    Tone is phonemic, and emphasis is achieved by usually changing word order, putting the most important element first. Some verb tenses are constructed by changing some of the tones of the inflected verb. There are up to 5 basic tenses, instead of English's 2. The verb conjugation system is so ridiculously complicated it would make you cry...

    There are 17 noun classes (the Bantu group as a whole has 25, if one includes classes 1a and 2a, though no modern language has retained all the classes) and most classes have their own unique sets of concords. Colours and a few other descriptive words are adjectives while most others are relatives (the difference essentially lies in the use of concords). There are 3 demonstrative pronoun positions (the Bantu norm is 4). Ideophones are an integral part of the language (not simply isolated utterances) and have their own syntax. Conjunctives (basically like English conjunctions when used between sentenses or clauses) may be formed from special verbs.

    Learning about strange languages certainly does expand one's mind. I tried learning 'Arabic a while ago but it didn't work since I was basically trying to do it from the Qur'an (like leaning English from Shakespear). I may still continue trying to learn it, as well as (written) Chinese. I would also like to learn more about the major Khoisan language Khoekhoegowab (aka Nama or Hottentot) but there seems to be very few resources available for it (which makes me wonder how the Namibian education department manages to teach the language in school as a first language).
     
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  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    24,690
    No, sorry if that's the impression I gave. I think any "part of speech" that gives you a small number of words to express a small number of concepts, without any way of creating new ones, is going to seem primitive after the next Paradigm Shift. Prepositions in the Indo-European languages have gone through the Neolithic Revolution, the Dawn of Civilization, the Industrial Revolution, and are now entering the Post-Industrial Era or Information Age. There are only a couple of dozen of them in any of our languages, and unlike nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, there is no convenient mechanism for creating or borrowing new ones. (We have doggedly managed to create a small handful of new ones over the centuries, such as "beyond," "during" and "without.") In, on, with, at, by, to, for, over, under... Most of them obviously originally denoted physical relationships like relative location, but as life became more complicated they were pressed into service for a host of new meanings. In time, in love, in English, in disagreement, in the lead... these are all different relationships, poorly expressed by the same word. It would be difficult for me to explain to a foreign student the difference between arriving at a meeting "in time" and "on time," despite the fact that I sense and understand that difference.

    Prepositions in English are a handicap. So are verb tenses and noun cases (in languages that decline nouns like German, Russian, Greek and Romanian) because there are so few of them. Inflections generally stifle the development of a language by not being easily adaptable to a new structure of the external world. That was the problem with Esperanto. It has what seemed 140 years ago like a generous assortment of suffixes and prefixes that "allow you to create any word you need," but it's rather awkward in a post-industrial society. The fact is downright embarrassing today that it has a suffix denoting female, but not male. Titles of occupations and such are assumed to be male.
    That seems to be a very common way to teach Arabic.
    Do they emphasize writing in the early school grades? Perhaps not!
     
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  7. Zyxoas Registered Senior Member

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    189
    What do you mean "do they emphasis writing in the early school grades?" I've seen on the internet final Khoekhoegowab papers, meaning that the children learn it all through their school careers.

    Are you saying that closed word classes are outdated? But I believe that every language has those. The only difference in Sesotho between the closed adjective and enumerative classes and the open relative classes is that the three sets use different concords (they are all qualificatives, distinguished only by morphology). I honestly can't think of any Sesotho words with similar problems as you cited for "in," as the language is aglutinative (while English is analytic) thus there are no "little words" since their functions are provided by affixes with definite meanings.

    I don't think you can get rid of "little words" in an analytic language, since they provide the same function as affixes in a more synthetic language.

    I didn't mean I was being taught Arabic from the Qur'an, I meant that I was teaching it to myself...

    Please elaborate on your concerns about inflection (in general, not just crazy IE declension). Does Finnish have the same limitation? What do you think of re-anima-t-ion and thousands of other words constructed from Greek, Latin, and Germanic affixes, similar to inflection (or do you strictly mean I pray/he prayS/I prayED/etc)?
     
  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Messages:
    24,690
    You wondered how they teach the written language in school, since you didn't find a lot of written instructional materials. How exactly do they teach it then? There must be some textbooks available somewhere.
    Some extremely small closed classes reflect logical abstraction and are, therefore, probably as timeless as arithmetic. E.g., personal pronouns: One would suppose that I, you and he will be the only people we can talk about for all eternity, no matter where society's structure and technology take us. (Chinese dispensed with the he/she/it variants of the third person pronoun in ancient times.) But larger closed classes, such as prepositions, which attempt to catalog all possible types of relationships, are doomed to obsolescence. A farming society living in permanent villages is going to have a lot more types of relationships between nouns and activities to describe than nomadic hunter-gatherers. People whose lives are full of engineered technology will have even more, and 21st century humans who live a large part of our lives in a virtual universe will have still more.
    I agree that the class of prepositions would be useful instead of limiting if it were not closed. The Indo-European languages have a taboo against coining new prepositions.

    However, after studying Chinese I have the same criticism of a language structure with a limited set of classes. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, numbers... this is starting to look very much like the structure of computer programming languages. They become obsolete very quickly as the hardware engineers hand new domains over to the software engineers and the limitations of their languages prevent them from developing high-quality software efficiently. Programming languages reflect the structure of the universe they were built for, and human languages do the same thing.

    China, the world's oldest continuous civilization and possibly the world's oldest continuous society going back to the Neolithic Era, has had to adapt to Paradigm Shifts in the structure of its universe. Its solution has been to simplify its language structure, making it more adaptable. It only has two parts of speech, each of which are expandable without limit, no inflections, and it has lost paradigms that once seemed like sensible representations of reality such as singular/plural and past/present/future.
    Chinese has done an admirable job. The Wikipedia article on analytic languages goes to great lengths to define Chinese particles. But in practice
    • There are only three or four of them; di for possessive and dei for participial are merged into de in standard Mandarin
    • Their practical purpose is to parse spoken sentences
    • They can be omitted when the meaning is clear without them, and often are in writing where homonyms have distinct characters
    I don't know anything about Finnish. My knowledge of inflection in non-Indo-European languages is limited to a cursory view of Japanese and Hebrew. The Japanese language is full of ritual and formality, and a Zen master would surely insist that struggling to express oneself in Japanese builds character.

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    Inflection builds a type of complexity into a language that is recursive: it's about the language itself rather than about its use as a technology for communication. If it's difficult to create new prepositions to describe an increasingly rich and complex world, how difficult is it to create new inflections?

    I am not as critical of English's word-building engine, which includes tools borrowed from other languages, because it is not a closed paradigm. We find Germanic, Greek and Latin elements like "un-," "ize" and "-able" useful, so we use them. (Sometimes all at the same time as in "unrealizable," a word that would frustrate a traditional etymologist.) As we need more, we invent them or find them. In America we already use Russian "-nik" and Spanish "-ito." "E-", our own prefix meaning "online," is well established.
     
  9. Frud11 Banned Banned

    Messages:
    567
    These symbols (phonemes and morphemes) in english, that are called "tack-ons", are the same thing Latin did, to absorb other languages.

    They're also sememes, and memes, or they mean something basic. Like e- does.

    The 21st century will be the age of the image, and I don't mean just CGI.
     
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2008
  10. Elucinatus Registered Member

    Messages:
    36
    I grew up in a Mexican neighboorhood. Never learned Spanish as a kid, never wanted to. I never really made an effort to succeed in Spanish class, and eventually dropped it as a High School course.

    I would however, have liked to taken Latin, but our shitty school didn't offer it. In the future I plan on learning some 'Gammon', which is an 'under the table' language used by travelling Irish gypsies.
     
    Last edited: May 16, 2008
  11. tim840 Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    1,653
    I'm only fluent in one language, English. I've been working on Chinese for three or so years now, but I'm far from fluent. I speak it pretty well, but when it comes to understanding others speaking it I'm terrible. Too many homophones. And confusing grammar (like verbs or entire sentences being used as adjectives).
     
  12. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Messages:
    24,690
    That's becoming quite common. It's fashionable now in L.A. for children of Latino immigrants not to know Spanish. A few years ago the DJs on the leading Latin music radio station had to switch to announcing in English. And the Rednecks worry that Mexican immigrants are going to destroy our culture!

    Still it's unfortunate. Since most of the thoughts of most people are formed in words, I agree with the scholars who insist that our thoughts are shaped by our language. Knowing a second language not only gives you a second way of thinking, but it also allows you to analyze your thoughts in both language by an external standard, something most people can't do. I was rather inarticulate in English and struggled to express myself until I started to study Spanish.
    When you start studying Latin you will kick yourself in the butt for not learning Spanish when you had the chance. 3/4 of the vocabulary would be at least vaguely familiar, and the complex paradigms of verb conjugation that bewilder most anglophones would make intuitive sense.
    Actually "Irish Gypsies" is a misnomer. The Irish Travellers, as far as we can tell from their DNA and culture, are an Irish people, not members of the Indic people who migrated west to Byzantium a thousand years ago. Many similarities between the Traveller and Gypsy lifestyle, as well as the way they're treated by the surrounding populations, reinforce the erroneous notion that they're related.

    The language of the Travellers is widely known as Shelta, and strictly speaking it is not a language at all, but a "cant" or "secret argot" developed artificially to prevent outsiders from understanding them. Its vocabulary is predominantly Irish Gaelic with borrowings from English and Rom (the language of the true Gypsies), with a lot of deliberate fanciful twists like swapping letters and turning words backwards. But the structure and syntax of the language is based on English.

    The origin of Shelta goes back at least 300 years and possibly earlier. The modern form of Shelta has been heavily hybridized with English and the name "Gammon" may be used to distinguish it from its predecessor which was purely Celtic in vocabulary if not structure.

    The opening line of The Lord's Prayer for comparison:
    • Irish: Ár n-Athair atá ar neamh, go naofar d'ainm.
    • Shelta: Mwilsha's Gater, swart a manyath, Manyi graw a kradji dilsha's manik.
    • Modern Traveller cant or "Gammon": Our Gathra, who cradgies in the manyak-norch, we turry kerrath about your moniker.
    • English: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
    There is currently a critically acclaimed TV show on fX, a U.S. cable channel, called "The Riches," about a Traveller family who are living a high life in Louisiana after stealing the identities of a dead family. It's well researched and uncompromising in its portrayal of Traveller culture and their interaction with "Buffers," which is what they call us. It's a typical American sitcom with plenty of laughs but frequent sojourns into dramatic situations and social commentary. Oddly enough the stars are British: Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver, doing perfect American Southern accents (the only American dialect most British actors can get halfway right).

    There are several thousand Travellers in the U.S., around 25,000 in Ireland, and two or three hundred thousand in the U.K.

    One Shelta word that has become an everyday word in British English is "bloke" for "guy." Shelta "moniker" for "name" was common slang in the U.S. early in the last century. Both of these words have fairly well-established origins in Irish.
     
  13. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    4,888
    English, French, Chinese. I can read and mildly understand the other romantic languages to some degree.
     
  14. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    4,888
    Fraggle I like your ranking system, but it's worth making it more clear.

    In French my reading is about a 7.5 - 8 while my speaking is about a 6. In Chinese my reading is about a 6.5 while my speaking is about a 7 and my listening slightly above that. In Spanish and Italian I'm much closer to a 5.5 or so. In Cantonese my speaking is non-existant but listening is about a 5.5 as well.
     
  15. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    4,888
    Also, Fraggle, I think fluency is more fluid than you may have indicated.

    I'm not quite sure how many hanzi you know, but it may be more than I do. Of course, my speaking and listening far exceed my reading and writing. Yet when I speak Chinese with someone I am never even close to thinking in English. My mind completely switches to Chinese mode the minute someone speaks the language around me.

    This is probably due to living in the environment and learning in a native setting.
     
  16. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Messages:
    24,690
    Of course. But I thought it was time somebody came up with a simple scale so I invented my own. It's still the only one I've seen. I think the advantage is being logarithmic. Learning 500 words when you only know a thousand vastly improves your mastery of the language, but learning 500 words when you're already getting along pretty well in a language doesn't have quite the same impact.
    I don't think I ever knew 500 and probably less than half of that now since I don't keep in practice.
    I'm only concentrating on oral/aural fluency. Some languages are easier to understand in print than spoken (French, Danish) while others are the opposite (Chinese). In languages that use the Roman alphabet I'd suppose that understanding writing is easiest and understanding speech is hardest. Making yourself understood in speech and writing are in the middle but the order varies from one language to the next. Some languages are very challenging phonetically (Czech) and it's difficult for people to figure out what you're trying to say. Others come at you in overdrive (Italian) and you can't parse the sentences.
    That's a milestone for anyone in any language. Psychologists say the giveaway is whether you or anyone else ever speaks the language in your dreams. Although I don't find that very helpful since the only other language I've ever heard in a dream was Portuguese. I've had very few opportunities to converse in it so I can't believe I can think in it. I know I can think in Spanish, Esperanto and Chinese, although my thoughts are more limited than in English.
    That helps. The biggest factor is age. The younger you learn your second language, the quicker you'll attain both fluency and thinking. The second biggest factor is already knowing a second language; the third is much easier even if it's totally unrelated. Learning a second language as a child makes it easier to learn a third, even decades later.
     
  17. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    4,888
    Of course the more you learn the easier it is to learn vocabulary. I had to work hard to add ten words a day in Chinese when I first came here. Now that can be achieved with almost no effort.

    As for hanzi, I can communicate fully through text message - which means my writing and recognition is well over 500 characters. I would probably guess I can accurately read 1000 characters on any given day. But free-hand writing I'd have to double-check a bunch of those before I'd write them correctly.

    I do dream in Chinese. The weirdest dreams I have are where my friends from back home speak Chinese! That really freaks me out.

    And I did learn French starting from a young age, though I'm not fluent by any means. I know that is still a helping factor.
     
  18. Koalama Registered Senior Member

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    50
    I am only fluent in English(US). I took Spanish in high school and middle school. I know the basics.
     
  19. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    Messages:
    4,888
    I've been trying to answer whether or not I think in Chinese. When I spend a few hours with a friend who can't speak English I think I hit that groove, but I'm not sure. The problem is that as soon as I start thinking about whether or not I'm thinking in Chinese I revert to English. It throws my whole speaking off.

    I think I do think in Chinese, but it produces these weird moments where I have no idea how to produce the thought my brain is attempting to push through. Maybe there's an underlayer of English there. Or maybe it's more like a very young child. I can find a way - very quickly - to do what I believe is express my thought, but I know it's not correct grammar or ideal vocabulary. Much like a child with their first language who often uses strange grammar and out-of-place vocabulary until they pick up the details.

    But I do find it excruciatingly difficult to switch back and forth some times. If I spend one or two days speaking nothing but Chinese the first time I speak to someone in English feels like a total dream-like state. The other way around is easier because I'm used to switching from English to a second language (French and, for a time, Italian). But once my brain is fully in Chinese mode it's hard to flip back to English. Like when I was learning French I find myself forgetting English words. For the life of me I still can never remember how to say 'remparts' in English most of the time. There are certainly nouns (mostly historical or vegetable related) I know in Chinese but have no idea the English for.
     
  20. Rick Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    3,336
    English, Hindi, Sanskrit (fluent in writing, used to be able to communicate fluently years back!), Marwadi (can understand but cant speak ...)

    Rick
     
  21. shedevilx Registered Senior Member

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    113
  22. mrow Unless Registered Senior Member

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    1,041
    English and French
     
  23. skaught The field its covered in blood Valued Senior Member

    Messages:
    4,100
    I never noticed this thread before!
    Using Fraggles scale.
    English is my native language
    German: 5 (300 words give or take)
    Dutch: 4
    Croatian: 3
    Laotian: 2
    Farsi: 2

    The latter 3 I know mostly curses and insults. I had a friend from croatia once who taught me how to say some terrible things in his language. Then I would say them and he would laugh histerically at my accent.

    I would love to learn russian. I don't know why, I'm just obsessed with that language. Also would really like tyo learn latin, sanskrit, and Hebrew. But thats another lifetime.
     

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