I get this question all the time here in Puerto Rico, and apparently O gets it as well – about me, his wife, not about himself (he speaks Spanish, English and more French than he thinks). He told me yesterday that he brags about his wife who speaks several languages and understands even more (Danish, Norwegian, understand written Dutch). However, personally I always feel a little embarrassed when I start listing the languages – Swedish, English, French… and nowadays I guess Spanish but not so much Italian anymore.
First of all, because it is not that many – not if you have lived in Brussels where almost everybody [in the European Commission / Parliament circles] speak at least three languages. And secondly, because I don’t write French very well, nor Spanish and my Italian is almost non-existent, so I don’t think that those languages count fully. Some people will find this statement false modesty, but really, I know a lot of people who speak these languages (and others) much better than I.*
When I lived in Italy 2000-2001 my Italian was passable – I communicated with my Italian friends in Italian and I could get by, but I haven’t spoken many words of Italian since 2005 when I visited an Italian friend in Valencia. Since then I have concentrated on learning Spanish and the languages are just too similar [for me]. I have an Italian ex-colleague who is married to a Spanish woman; they both speak each other’s languages + French (and English of course) and they now live in Portugal and are learning Portugese (only Romanian missing!) – I don’t know how they do it, but maybe it is different when your mother tongue is a Latin language?
How do you define knowing a language and what do you consider to be fluent? I do consider myself to be more or less fluent in French, even though my grammar could be much better… I read books in French, as well as in Spanish (and used to read also in Italian), which I think is a great way to improve your [at least passive] understanding of a language. It doesn’t matter that I don’t understand every single word, as long as I understand the context.
Just today I was asked the question again, and after the “oh’s” and “ah’s”, I felt once again the need to explain that as a Swede, living abroad, you need to speak other languages as nobody speaks Swedish… And remember, I have lived in three bi-, tri- or quadlingual countries; Puerto Rico (Spanish & English), Belgium (French, Dutch & German) and Switzerland (German, French, Italian & Romansch), so I am used to people speaking more than one or two languages around me.
A lot of my friends also speak at least 3 languages, and have lived in at least 3-4 countries – so I am not that special. Take the example of my three best friends from my hometown [in Sweden] who live in Oslo (also lived in Denmark, France, Switzerland, Tanzania); Copenhagen (previously lived in France, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland) and the south of France (as well as Spain). All of us have foreign partners and communicate in different languages every day – at home, at work and in our social lives. It is not something we think about too much, we just do it 😉
Recently I have read a very interesting book, The Story of French by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, about the history of the French language and I will probably come back to this publication, but what is interesting with the Canadian authors is that they are a bi-lingual /bi-cultural couple who speak both English and French. Jean-Benoît is French-speaking from Quebec, and Julie is English-speaking from Ontario. Apparently they had a period when they swapped the language spoken at home every other week! A very interesting method to guarantee language equality and improve both persons’ linguistic knowledge. Maybe something O and I should attempt, but at the moment I am just looking forward to my B-I-L arriving tomorrow, which will force me / us to speak Spanish at home for a week!!
Read more about my own language history here.
*) And I was taught to compare myself to the ones that are better than I, not worse. I guess my father’s way to make sure that I excelled in school…