Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Human Story - How many languages do most people know?

I need to preface this by saying that this post is a little bit of a departure from the usual research-based content. Everything I say here is anecdotal, based on my own experiences living and working in four countries (The Netherlands, Nepal, Morocco, and Latvia), and should be treated as a data point of one. If you have your own experience or viewpoint on the matter, please comment and share!

I always knew, as I suspect most do, that knowledge of multiple languages is the norm, but if you don't experience it on a daily basis it can be tough to comprehend.The first time I heard four languages over one dinner table, or realized that Moroccan TV commercials switch back and forth between French and Arabic, it blew my mind.

The movie Rabat (which I watched while staying in Rabat) contains dialogue in Dutch, English, Arabic, French, and German - that was a trip for my American brain.

In fact, the planet's majority speaks multiple languages; by my estimation, the most typical count is three:

The home language - in most places, the language people speak at home is distinct from the language of their schools and televisions, at the very least a variant of their national language different enough that I'd consider it a different language. For instance, I've spent time this year with speakers of Limburgish, Rai, Sherpa, and Berber.

The national language - this is the language people use at school, work, and when listening to the news. The language you'd learn if you took a class on it. This is the language people feel most comfortable reading and writing.

The global language - The language people learned in high school. Usually English.

If people don't speak three languages, it's usually in one or more of the following scenarios:

Regional language = national language - If someone is lucky/unlucky enough to live near the region that forms the basis of their national language, their home language might not be very different. When I stayed with people from Utrecht, I had a hard time picking out any differences from the standard Dutch I learned, but in Maastricht I couldn't understand the dialect at all. This one gets fuzzy, and raises questions about what constitutes a dialect that are beyond the purview of this blog. I also noticed that kids born after about the year 2000 are less likely to speak a regional dialect, maybe because growing up with internet access exposed them to their national language at a younger age.
Dutch children exposed to Kabouter Wesley too young risk learning to speak like an angry Flemish gnome.
Parents are immigrants/speakers of a minority language - In this case someone will usually speak the language of their parents. That might not change their language count, if their home language supplants knowledge of their regional dialect. If their regional language is their national language, as above, or if they speak the home dialect of their friends, then this might add one language to their count. Occasionally it can reduce language count, as when Latvians who speak Russian at home only speak two languages, because their home language and their global language are the same.

Different/extra global language - Every country has one or two popular non-English second languages. In the Netherlands, it's French or German; in Nepal, it's Hindi; in Morocco, it's French; in Latvia, it's Russian. Depending on the place, English or a different language might be the strongest second language. Nepalis, Moroccans, and Latvians over the age of about 35 (those who grew up in the Soviet Union) often had trouble speaking English, simply because they had focused on a different language in high school. Educated people might speak two or three global languages.

National language = English - What it sounds like. We Anglophones are notoriously poor with foreign languages, but it's not our fault! Most people are regularly exposed to movies and music in one or more global languages, but we English speakers are sadly deprived of that experience :'( The colonies (America, Australia, and their respective little brothers Cold America and the Kiwi Islands) are also pretty linguistically homogenous, so there are lots of people for whom home language = regional language = national language = (mostly standard) English, a triple whammy that reduces language count to one. The fact that they still remember how to say "buenos dias" and "no comprendo" doesn't mean much.

Learning languages for fun - The delicious freaks who speak languages they weren't taught in school can't be classified for fear of introducing skew to our sample. Plus the fact that it's hard to count how many they know - they finished the Vietnamese Duolingo course already (for you future folks, it came out last Thursday) but haven't gotten around to meeting a Vietnamese person yet, or maybe they remember all the noun classes in Swahili but nothing else. It's just a different phenomenon.

The long wait is over!

How many languages do you speak and why? Put it in the comments!

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