The Things They Ask Me

How many languages do you speak?

I don’t know.  Definitely English, so that’s one. Spanish, I speak that everyday, so that’s two. I used to speak French and Italian… do I still speak those?  I’m not sure, it’s been a while; I would probably need a couple weeks in-country to recover those, it’s up to you if you want to count those.  I suppose I speak Chinese to a certain extent. But truth be told: I don’t really understand Chinese yet. I might understand Portuguese or Catalan better than Chinese, but you definitely can’t count those, because I can’t say much.  My Tagalog is not productive, but I can certainly say “hey stupid, go wash your hands!”  I’ve studied Latin, German, but it was all reading knowledge.  I studied ASL before (and I love it!) but my vocabulary is all gone and my grammar was never that good.

Ok, so by my count, I speak two languages; English and Spanish.  Of course, I hear myself making crazy mistakes in Spanish, so I don’t always feel like I speak Spanish.  But in any case, nobody really wants to hear that I speak two languages.  They always want to hear a big number.

The point is this:  it’s weird to count languages that you speak.  If you want to answer that question, you first have to decide what qualifies as a language; then you have to decide what qualifies as “speaking.”

What qualifies as a language?

One Taiwanese person sheepishly told me, “I only speak Chinese and a little English.”

So I asked, “Don’t you speak Taiwanese at home?”  He looked puzzled, and admitted that yes, he totally speaks Taiwanese at home, ever since he was a child.  Apparently it never occurred to him that it was a language.

What qualifies as “speaking?”

One time, in China, I overheard some Chinese people commenting that ALL AMERICANS spoke Spanish. One of the other Americans said, “No we don’t, all we know is ¡Hola! ¿cómo estás?”

At that point someone else chimed in with another phrase in Spanish; not really speaking, just reciting enough to clown.  The Americans all felt like it showed how little Spanish they knew.

The Chinese, however, were dazzled by the Spanish demonstration; it was enough to positively confirm that ALL AMERICANS SPEAK SPANISH.

So as you can see, it’s not just me that has a hard time answering the “how many languages” question.

What language do you think in?

I don’t believe people think in language; I believe people think their thoughts, and when they need to communicate those thoughts, that the brain translates those thoughts into language.

What makes me think that? Because sometimes there’s a lag between thought and language, and monolinguals experience this too… when you know what you’re thinking, but you blank on how to express it.

Also, maybe monolinguals don’t know this, but there are plenty of times where I can do complex thinking without using language. Sometimes the inner monologue is silent. Driving home from work, for example, doesn’t require language power to decide when to speed up or slow down; I don’t use language to decide to change lanes or take a different route.  Of course, I’m thinking the whole time, but my inner monologue is silent. Other times when there’s no language happening:  when I’m cooking, when I’m folding clothes, when I’m playing the ukulele…

I once told my office mate this, that my inner monologue is not running on the drive home. He was alarmed; he couldn’t imagine not talking to himself the whole time, he thought it was dangerous and irresponsible to drive. For my part, I think a perpetually running inner monologue must be exhausting and is probably a form of psychosis.

What language do you dream in?

I don’t know why people think foreign language dreaming is some kind of milestone; I know some people who supposedly dream in the target language, but when they speak during waking hours, I want to hold my ears.

And another thing; I dream about all kinds of things. I dream that I can jump into the clouds; sometimes in those dreams I worry that I will fly too high and pass out due to lack of oxygen. Sometimes I dream that Satan is trying to possess me and I have to rebuke him in the name of Jesus. Sometimes I dream of friends I haven’t seen in years. Sometimes I dream that I can’t keep discipline my study hall. The point is this:  dreams are not real; often they are not even realistic. So who cares if I’m speaking perfect French in my dream, it’s probably just my brain tricking me.

Why don’t you become a translator at the UN?

1)  Because translating and interpretation requires a level of concentration and mastery that I find unreasonable; I don’t ever want to work that hard.  And 2)  making a career of repeating what other people are saying would feel like being covered in ants.  Oh, also 3) I’m not good enough, nor do I want to be.  Too much work.

What’s the favorite place you’ve been?

Seattle, USA.   There’s no place like home.  Also the food’s good.  I do miss Rome sometimes, and Manhattan.  And Taipei.  

Should I buy Rosetta Stone?

No you should not.  Zero languages are learned from multiple choice activities.. That’s a horrible way to spend your money. Don’t.

How do you know when you really speak a language?

Vocabat blogged about the doorknob test, that you know how to speak a language like a local if you’ve acquired the word for doorknob.  Of course the key word is acquired, I don’t think it counts if you look it up or ask someone explicitly for it.

In any case, if the doorknob test is true, then I’m big trouble; I couldn’t tell you the word for doorknob in any of my target languages, and I have looked them up!

Another one of my friends says that you know you really speak a language if you know all the kitchen gadgets.  I knew a dude in college who asserted that you really speak a language if you count to yourself in the target language, even high numbers.

Probably a more professional approach to this question would be to say that you really speak a language if you can express and explain feelings of regret for things that you wish would have happened in the past.  Or maybe if you can do stand-up comedy in the target language, that’s when you know you really speak a language.

I don’t know the answer to this, because I don’t pass any of these tests.  But it is a charming meme, so I tell people they really speak a language when they know all the fish at the local fish market.  Not the biggies, mind you; you’re not going to get away with “shark” and “tuna;” you have to know the name of that bony white fish, the bottom feeder, the little squigglies that they like to grill and eat whole, when you know the local names of all of those fish, then you’re golden.

Of course by that measure, I speak Japanese.  Thank you, sushi bar!  Sad trombone…

7 thoughts on “The Things They Ask Me

  1. I enjoyed this! And laughed at the dazzlement of the Chinese at the demonstration of fluent Spanish. I also like the measure of whether or not someone speaks a language based on being able to express and explain regret. And I’m totally not buying that you can’t do that- come on 🙂

    And “I don’t ever want to work that hard” — haha. I am sure that you work just as hard as a teacher! But all that intensity and concentration is a little more diffused.


      • But all that [intensity and concentration] IS more diffused.
        (subject is singular “all”) compare: “All is well,” “All that she wants is…”

        But [all of that intensity] and [all of that concentration] ARE more diffused. (subject is plural items in a conjoined phrase)

        I think both pass for standard in this case. I should say though that my daily speech has a strong preference for non-standard “is,” especially with “there is/there are” i.e., *There’s a couple of problems with this sentence.

        I was just pointing that out to my students the other day; most of them were baffled… so it might be a trend!

        THANKS FOR READING! Speaking of being a hard working teacher… I’m going to go grade exams…


  2. You are being way too modest JP! I’ll endorse your ability to speak Chinese! But kitchen gadgets, really? The fact that my host mother cannot decide whether 锅铲 is spatula or turner doesn’t make her less of an American. Also, the number test sounds random. When you are dealing with big written numbers like 359,007,390,704, you’ll automatically switch to English model because the position of the dots is too English friendly. I like your idea of the fish test. Although it might not be sufficient to testify your language ability, it can definitely testify your love of fish (or eating fish?).


  3. Hey JP,

    Do you have any recommendations for Spanish study activities as I’m driving 2 hours a day to work and back? I had wondered occasionally in the past if a Rosetta Stone CD set would be worth getting but in terms of language learning value, you appear ready to suggest a root canal over buying Rosetta Stone, not to put too fine a point on it.

    I’m an intermediate level student and if you knew of any CD based products that I could just buy and stick in the car…or perhaps you are familiar with a Spanish satellite station on SiriusXM that you can recommend?


    • Thanks Mike! For listening comprehension, I recommend my old SpanishPod stuff. Send me a private email.

      For grammatical explanation, CoffeeBreak Spanish is pretty good.

      I really can’t recommend much more… and I’ve seen a LOT of it! Good luck!


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