Is Speaking a Language Different From Being Fluent in It?

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Are you bilingual, trilingual, or multilingual? Or, are you a polyglot or hyperpolyglot? Perhaps you are monolingual, but aspire to learn other languages.

If you do speak one or more foreign languages, you certainly have been asked, “How many languages do you know?” This a challenging question to answer. It's rarely as straightforward as, “I speak three languages.” The response is more likely to be a tiered explanation such as, “I speak Spanish rather fluently, have an intermediate knowledge of French, and a conversational capability in German.” Does that mean that you really speak three languages or that you just have knowledge of three languages?

What Is the Difference Between Having Knowledge of a Language and Speaking It?

What exactly do descriptions such as quite fluently, intermediate knowledge, and conversational capability really mean? That, of course, is the crux of the question when one tries to describe how many languages he or she knows. The whole area of language knowledge is quite subjectively and loosely defined.

Let’s take the word fluent. Does that mean we can say anything we want to and understand everything we read or hear?

It is probably safe to say that the readers of this article are fluent in English, either due to the fact that it is their mother tongue or because they have achieved a high level of education in the language. That, however, does not mean that someone who is fluent knows the English word for every object or concept. It is even difficult to define the size of an educated adult’s vocabulary. Estimates vary. Typical estimates size active vocabulary at 18,000 to 20,000 words and a passive vocabulary at an additional 15,000 to 20,000 words. By passive vocabulary, researchers mean that the person recognizes and has some degree of understanding of words that are used primarily in erudite or technical writing, but does not use them actively in his or her own discourse.

Can someone having a vocabulary of 3,000 to 5,000 words be said to have a fluent knowledge of a language? How do we define a degree of language knowledge and speaking ability?

In an effort to address the challenge of defining an individual’s level of knowledge, the Council of Europe created the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). CEFR is a guideline used to describe language achievement levels in the four areas listed above in a consistent manner to avoid the random descriptions that people are prone to use. The framework is divided into three levels, each with two sub-levels. This is an abbreviated description of interactive speaking classifications:

The C: Proficient User category represents what most people would understand as fluent. A good initial target for someone learning a new language, or refreshing a previously learned language, would be the B1: Intermediate User definition.

What Makes Someone Multilingual, a Polyglot, or a Hyperpolyglot?

Confusion also arises when describing people who speak many languages. We encounter terms such as multilingual, polyglot, and hyperpolyglot. There really is, however, no authoritative definition of these terms when it comes to discussing an individual’s linguistic capabilities. Michael Erard, in Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners, used the number six as the cutoff between multilingual and polyglot. His reasoning was based on the fact that there are geographic communities around the world such as India or the Balkans where people speak up to five languages just as a part of their daily lives. Of course, it is easy to assume that they may speak these languages equally well, but this might not be the case. They may just function easily in the various languages, but still rely on their mother language for writing or precise discourse.

Richard Hudson, linguistics professor emeritus at University College London originally defined a hyperpolyglot as someone who can speak six or more languages fluently. Again we encounter the concept of fluency. Erard, however, modified this definition in his research. He classifies people who have a command of six to eleven languages as polyglots, and those with twelve or more as hyperpolyglots. Erard skirts the issue of fluency by using the expression have a command.

Throughout history there has been a fascination with polyglots, although many of the claims of mastery may be difficult to substantiate. One of the earliest reports on a polyglot is by Plutarch in his Life of Antony. He writes of Cleopatra (69-30 BCE):

“It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter.”

Reputedly, Cleopatra spoke Greek (her mother tongue), Egyptian, Ethiopian, Troglodyte, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Median, Parthian, and many others.

In any historical discussion of hyperpolyglots, the name of Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (1774-1849) will almost certainly arise. References vary in the number of languages he spoke, adding dialects and dead languages, but it's somewhere between 40 and 72 languages. His fame was perhaps enhanced by the fact that he was probably the first hyperpolyglot to be thoroughly studied. In 1858, nine years after the Cardinal’s death, Charles W. Russell published The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti. Russell opens his tome with the statement:

“In the life of Cardinal Mezzofanti I have attempted to ascertain by direct evidence, the exact number of languages with which the great linguist was acquainted, and the degree of his familiarity with each.”

Russell clearly recognized the criticality and the challenge of ascertaining an individual’s command of a language. The appearance of flowing conversation can give the impression of fluency. This becomes even more difficult to assess when the language or dialect is more exotic.

To exemplify the challenge of describing a hyperpolyglot like Mezzofanti, Erard describes Mezzofanti as someone “who was said to speak 72 languages across 11 language families and could read and write in six alphabets.” Here again we are challenged by the concepts of speaking a language and knowing it. In the case of dead languages such as Latin, Ancient Greek, Old English, or Classical Nahuatl, the knowledge may be based solely on reading rather than speaking or writing.

Modern-Day Hyperpolyglots

Because of the Internet, it is easier for hyperpolyglots to make their existence known. Such is the case of Timothy Doner—who has received both video and print coverage from The Economist and The New York Times, Emanuele Marini, Ray Gillon, and Alex Rawlings, to mention only a few.

What is notable about each of these hyperpolyglots is that they also describe their linguistic skills in a tiered or circumlocutory way rather than stating bluntly that they speak a specific number of languages. One should note as well that, when they are interviewed and tested, they typically are in a controlled environment answering common questions or describing their experience learning a specific language. This is not to detract from their accomplishments, but rather to highlight that speaking a language functionally is very different from being fluent at the level of a simultaneous interpreter.

When referring to a functional level, it means that they have learned the basic vocabulary and grammar that is required to communicate in the most common interactions that a foreign speaker of a language might encounter (e.g. explaining how and where you learned the language, describing your academic studies, talking about your family, etc.). This is very different from engaging in a discussion of global warming or tensions in the Middle East.

This is the key to the polyglots’ skills. They have learned how to acquire the essential vocabulary and how to assemble it with the most common grammatical structures at a functional level. They do this rapidly and extremely efficiently. At this functional level, a language student can say that he or she speaks a language.

How Does One Become a Polyglot?

Marini advises us to start writing about our daily lives and ourselves through e-mail exchanges with native speakers. He recommends doing this as soon as possible to acquire the vocabulary we need for speaking and making it our own. The question then is exactly how much vocabulary do we need?

Again, this is a highly subjective area with a range of numbers. With a vocabulary of about 500 words you can begin to communicate, but in a limited way. The challenge is to learn the right words as soon as possible to get to a functional level. A common estimate is about 3,000 words. Those will cover most common topics. That also seems to be a realistic goal to set.

People who are interested in learning a new language frequently ask whether or not a specific aptitude is required. Yes, having a linguistic aptitude helps, but it does not ensure success. Many students with aptitude and good intensions start a new language and then drift away due to weak commitment.

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90) was another famous 19th century hyperpolyglot who reputedly spoke twenty-nine languages. In Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Biography, Edward Rice gives us this description of Burton’s passion, or perhaps better stated, vocation:

"Everywhere he dove into languages, dialects, derivations, languages that piled up on him as if he were some great multilayered polyglot walking dictionary, and that would pour out of him in the future, as if he, Richard Francis Burton, alone were the source of the Ur-tongue, primordial, agglutinative, and inflected to seventeen cases."

In interviews, polyglots often describe themselves as “collectors of languages” or “language addicts.” They seem to be driven to learn the next new language the same way a lepidopterist is driven to acquire a new species of butterfly for his or her collection. Some polyglots estimate that they spend from five to nine hours per day with their studies and linguistic interactions.

For someone who aspires to learn a new language or even to become a member of what Erard describes as the polyglot’s “neural tribe, joined not by a common language but by a restless linguistic promiscuity,” here are some recommendations. First, keep in mind that most polyglots are autodidactic. Formal language courses probably move too slowly for them or they are studying an exotic language for which local courses may not be offered. Also, with regard to techniques, there are innumerable tips from polyglots online. The key, just as for the proven polyglots, is to discover what works for you.

If you are just starting, select a basic self-study text. Focus on memorizing the dialogs, basic grammar, and vocabulary. Concentrate on completing that text before branching off into other books. Also, read the texts out loud to get comfortable pronouncing the new language.

Regardless of the amount of time you can spend, set aside a fixed study period each day. Many polyglots also systematically track their progress with a new language as well as their review of acquired languages.

Getting started does not need to be an expensive proposition. There is a selection of US Foreign Service Institute language texts and audio files covering forty-four languages online. These are in the public domain and free for download. The site is especially good if you are interested in exotic languages such as Hausa, Twi, or Kiswahili.

After completing the basic text, you may want to follow with a review using a university-level text. This will go into grammar in more detail and focus on building reading vocabulary.

(Since reading is a major source of vocabulary acquisition, I recommend starting with any selection of elementary readers, but then move into detective novels. This genre is an excellent starting place because it focuses on describing contemporary life situations using common, high-frequency vocabulary. Additionally, detective novels contain lots of dialog written in colloquial style.)

So, if you feel the passion, make the commitment. Get started.

¡Buena suerte! Viel Glück! Удачи! Good luck!