Frequently Asked Questions

Do I Really Speak 26 Languages?

This claim about me has appeared widely on the Internet. It goes back to a statement on the cover of the US edition of Empires of the Word (2006): 'a scholar with a working knowledge of twenty-six languages'.

It is pleasantly flattering, but misleading for a number of reasons.

First of all, people tend to forget that having command of a language is a complex of skills, and speaking is only one of them. In traditional language teaching - of which I have received more than my fair share - it is all too easy to learn to read a language without acquiring equal oral comprehension of it. Writing, too, can get detached from speaking: indeed this is almost necessary when studying an extinct or classical language.

And even within these four basic skills (hearing, reading, speaking, writing), I find that there is much variation in what I can manage, depending on the type of material I am trying to process: conversational comprehension pales when faced with the need to understand a long monologue such as a lecture; but paradoxically a technical subject can be easier to understand than a supposedly general one - especially if the words are written down, and the subject is already familiar from studies in another language - usually English.

Fluency is something else that tends to be stressed as a touchstone of true mastery. But fluency itself is multiple. Comprehension of fluent speech is very different from delivering fluent speech of one's own. Both of these have a lot to do with confidence, derived from experience that one's competence has already been judged adequate - or at least that one had got what one needed, without too much misunderstanding or frustration - from previous exchanges. Outsiders will tend to judge by whether they understood what you were saying - often having no idea whether you really understood what they said.

Age plays an ambiguous role. I definitely feel that acquiring new skills - especially languages - gets harder with age; and probably fluency is harder to maintain. But then languages are big, and - other things being equal - the longer one has studied a language, the more likely one is to have already encountered some puzzling turn of phrase.

And all this is affected by context - as well as the subject that is being discussed. In the early 1990s I once had a test of my Japanese reading comprehension, conducted by a European official to see if I could cope with software patents. His reasonable judgement was "Ah yes: I see you can work it out." Not exactly fluent, then, but perhaps serviceable. (I don't know: I never took the job.)

Those of us learning foreign languages have all had the experience of being unable to follow song lyrics, or conversations overheard. You know your own language too well to notice how much harder it is to do these things.

In Japanese, paradoxically, it seems that children's comics (and samurai dialogue in jidai-geki TV adventures) are some of the hardest things for a foreign learner to pick up.

And perhaps trumping everything else, there is the question of practice. Some speakers of 'imperial' languages, such as English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, may beat themselves up for not developing their skills in foreign languages: but how often do they find a real need to use them - i.e. a text that is not translated, or a speaker who is not already better skilled in their own language? Necessity, or at least opportunity, really is the mother of linguistic competence in the long term. I have to admit that, living as I do in Bath in England, opprtunities to use foreign languages have to be consciously sought out: and I'm certainly as lazy as the next man.

Suffice it then to say that I have gained useful material, of one sort of another, working in different ways in at least twenty-six languages. But so could you, if you're interested in languages - and not forced to concentrate on something else to earn your living. And as Jesus wisely taught us to pray: 'lead us not into temptation': the Greek text of Matthew vi.13 is , which could as well means 'do not bring us to the test, or to trial'.

So what were those twenty-six languages anyway?

Well, subject my disclaimers above, the foreign languages I've worked with, over the years (pretty much in chronological order), are:

French, Latin*, German, Russian, Ancient Greek*, Turkish, Italian, Old French*, Modern Greek, Sanskrit*, Hindi, Hittite*, Japanese, Classical Japanese*, Old English*, Spanish, Chibcha* (aka Muisca*), U'wa (aka Tunebo), Nahuatl, Irish, Old Irish*, Portuguese, Arabic, Persian, Chaghatay*, Sogdian*, Guaraní, Tupí*.

I have also dabbled, without making too much headway (at least yet), in many other languages:

Esperanto, Chinese, Malay, Swahili, Hebrew, Navajo, Guaraní, Yucatec Mayan, Maori, Hawai'ian, Finnish, Hungarian, Scots Gaelic, Berber, Akkadian*, Tatar, Chuvash, Classical Chinese*, Afrikaans, Xhosa (close to Zulu), Tamil, Pali*, Dutch, Frisian, Tajik, Yaghnobi, Jinghpaw, Tangut*, Mongolian*

All interesting languages, in one way or another, and each with a distinct, fascinating history. But how many can one penetrate in a single life?

Those marked with a star do not retain native speakers; neither are they any longer widely used as lingua-francas; so oral practice is not really on offer.

How do I know if my language is endangered?

This is a question I often hear as Chairman of FEL, the [Foundation for Endangered Languages www.ogmios.org].

In fact, the Foundation has managed to  thrive and grow for fifteen years without providing the means to answer this question. This is because it does not proceed by categorizing its subject-matter, as an academic enterprise might well.

Languages face limited futures for very many reasons, including:

  • failure of the rising generation to acquire the language (Most of the world's smaller languages have this problem, but it is especially rife in North America and Australia.)
  • absence of literacy (A third of the world's languages have never been written at all, and a further third do not use in practice a system that is available to them.)
  • denial to the language of the political role comparable with its speaker numbers (e.g. Berber languages in North Africa, Quechua, Aymara and Mapudungun in central South America, Mongolian and Tibetan within the People's Republic of China) and even.
  • a sense that other major languages may threaten its current role as a language of wider communication (Both Spanish and French, although they are in the world's top twelve languages by population, feel that their use as a lingua-franca is threatened by the spread of English.)

There seems no real point in awarding a palm of "true endangerment" to some languages, and prioritizing action on their behalf, whether it is documentation or revitalization. Nothing will happen to reinforce any language unless its own speakers keep faith with it, and assert its importance.

What FEL does - and I feel all outsiders should do - is to act as honest, and concerned, brokers of information: to spread knowledge of what is being undertaken, and the different ways in which dfferent communities honour their own languages. Compassion and solidarity are what we can offer.

By contrast, explicit and self-conscious evaluation is something I distrust - whether of endangerment, or indeed of anything else: I've seen too much of it, and its bitter, puny results, in my short career in industrial and government consulting. Much better to travel hopefully, and hope for mutual inspiration from whoever one is working (or conversing) with.