Category Archives: Multilingualism

Robert Stark Interviews Ron Unz about His Campaign for Senate


I listened to the whole thing, but I still do not get it. Unz is a Republican, but he’s not much of one. He sounds more like a liberal Democrat. They had a debate for the Senate race recently, and all of the candidates seemed to be trying to out-liberal each other, including Unz. I do not understand him at all, and I have no idea what to make of this guy. Mostly I have no idea why he is a Republican at all.

I might almost vote for him, but I am still mad at him for his anti-bilingual education initiative, which was completely unscientific. We have done 120 studies on bilingual ed, and 106 of them proved it was superior in attaining both the home language and the target language. Compared to L2 students who did not go through bilingual ed, the bilingual ed kids did better. In fact, the non-bilingual ed kids were hampered and sort of damaged, and they were still having excessive problems with reading and writing English far into high school.

It’s more that it is counterintuitive that it would work at all. Intuitively, it seems like a stupid idea that makes no sense, so people just go with their gut feeling which is anti-scientific. People simply cannot believe the science because the conclusions seem to go against common sense.

A phased bilingual ed program where they gradually have more and more classes in English until they are fully phased in in 5th or 6th grade seems to work best. The idea is that you test the kid coming into school to see which language is stronger If English is stronger, you put them in straight English classes. If the home language is stronger, you put them in bilingual ed. The idea being that you should teach them to read and write in the strongest language, and then they transfer those skills over to English. It works great.

I probably will not vote for Unz, but he sure is an interesting candidate, and he would probably not be a bad guy to vote for. You can promote Unz on this site because he is not a typical Republican.


Filed under Education, Multilingualism, Politics, Republicans, US Politics

A Look at the Tariana Language

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Tariana language in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.

Upper Amazon
Eastern Nawiki

Tariana is a very difficult language mostly because of the unbelievable amount of information it crams into its morphology and syntax. This is mostly because it is an Arawakan language that has been heavily influenced by neighboring Tucanoan languages, with the result that it has many of the grammatical categories and particles present in both families.

This stems from the widespread bilingualism in the Vaupes Basin of Colombia, where many people grow up bilingual from childhood and often become multilingual by adulthood. Learning up to five different languages is common. Code-switching was frowned upon and anyone using a word from Language Y while speaking Language X would get laughed at. Hence the various languages tended to borrow features from each other quite easily.

For instance, Tariana has both a noun classifier system and a gender system. Noun classifiers and gender are sometimes subsumed under the single category of “noun classifiers.” Yet Tariana has both, presumably from its relationship to two completely different language families. So in Tariana is not unusual to get both demonstratives and verbs marked for both gender and noun classifier. Tariana borrowed such things as serialized perception verbs and the dubitative marker from Tucano.

In addition, Tariana has some very odd sounds, including aspirated nasals mh (), nh (n̺ʰ) and ñh (ɲʰ) and an aspirated w () of all things. They seem to be actually aspirated, not just partially devoiced as many voiceless nasals and liquids are.

Tariana gets 6, hardest of all.

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Filed under Americas, Applied, Colombia, Language Families, Language Learning, Latin America, Linguistics, Multilingualism, Regional, South America

Check Out Belarussian

Here is a sample of the Belarussian language from a Belarussian TV commercial. For those of you who speak a Slavic language, I would like you to listen to this clip and tell me how much you can understand of it.

I decided to post my section on Belarussian from a recent paper of mine. My charming critics say that I am “promoting misinformation,” and have banned all links to me. They also say that everyone should ignore every single word that I write because nothing that I say is true, not even one sentence. However, some averred that in an entire paper, I might state one or two true things.

If any of you know anything about the subject below, tell me if they are right. Tell me if every single sentence below is true or false. In fact, tell me if you can find one false sentence below.


Belarussian is one of the most recent East Slavic lects to come into existence, as the earliest Belarussian texts are from only the 1500’s. So the split between Belarussian and Ukrainian and Russian is shallower than that between Spanish and Portuguese.

Belarussian intelligibility with both Ukrainian and Russian is a source of controversy. On the one hand, Belarussian has dialects that are intelligible with dialects of both Russian and Ukrainian.

Reports of the endangerment or looming death of Belarussian are usually politically motivated attacks on President Lukashenko accusing him of killing the language.

On the contrary, Belarussian, while in a disappointing situation, is very much alive. Almost all Belarussians can speak the language, but only 15% do so in day to day conversation. Most of the rest more often play the role of passive speakers although they can speak the language if they need to (Mezentseva 2014).

Belarussian knowledge of their language benefits them because it gives them a head start on learning other Slavic languages (Mezentseva 2014).
Belarus was actually part of Poland at one time, as was Western Ukraine. Belarussians see themselves as a different people from Russians.

For centuries, they called themselves Tutejshiya “our people” (Mezentseva 2015).

Part of the blame for the decline of Belarussian lies with Belarussians themselves because despite the statements in the paragraph above, Belarussians have a very strong attachment to Russia and only a weak attachment to their own land (Mezentseva 2014). The result of this is that although 85% of Belarussians can speak Belarussian, and Russian is the preferred language in the country (Pavlenko 2006).

In 1991, Belarus only had one official language, Belarussian, though Russian was in wide use. In 1994, the people voted to have two official languages, Belarussian and Russian. Russian-language media and politicians quickly took advantage of the situation and used to opportunity to make Russian the dominant language in the country (Mezentseva 2014).

Lukashenko regularly wins elections by 75-80% margins, and polls show about the same support. The very unpopular opposition are regarded by most Belarussians as traitors and anti-Russian, pro-US tools of the West out to destroy the country.

One major problem for the language is that Belarussian is now associated with the opposition in the country. This association of the language with the unpopular opposition has hurt the language and is a major reason why state support for Belarussian has been lukewarm at best (Mezentseva 2014).
However, the linguistic situation in the country is complicated, and there are Belarussian-language TV stations and a number of daily newspapers (Mezentseva 2014).

The Western media reports that Belarussian is dying, but this is politicized discourse.

The truth is that Belarussian is becoming more and more popular these days, as it is coming to be seen as the prestigious “language of the intelligentsia” as opposed to the Soviet era in the 1970’s and 80’s when it was regarded as a “village language.” Belarussian language advocates say that they are not pessimistic at all about the state of the language and in fact they are optimistic. Belarussian is used in the educational system, and advocates expect its use there to expand. Independent Belarussian classes have been springing up to assist Belarussians who want to promote the language and culture. (Mezentseva 2014).

Russian nationalists often state that Belarussian is a dialect of Russian. However, this judgement is based more on national chauvinism than linguistics (Mezentseva 2014), as Russian lacks full intelligibility of Belarussian.

However, the statement is partly true if we are discussing Trasianka and Russian. Trasianka is Belarussian dialect based on a a mix of Russian and Belarussian that arose during the Sovietization of Belarus. It resembles Russian spoken with a Belarussian accent and is spoken mainly by rural dwellers who moved to towns and started to watch a lot of Russian TV. It is also widely spoken in Eastern Belarus near the Russian border (Mezentseva 2014).

West Polesian or West Palesian is a transitional Belarussian dialect to Ukrainian. Some think that West Polesian is a microlanguage, but the majority of Belarussian linguists say it is a dialect of Belarussian (Mezentseva 2014). But see the analysis of Polesian in the Ukrainian section above under Ukraine for a fuller account of this very confusing lect. Belarussian and Ukrainian have 84% lexical similarity.

Pronunciation is also very similar between the two languages. Some of the grammatical categories do differ. Belarussian intelligibility of Ukrainian is high at 80% (Mezentseva 2014).

Belarussian has many Polish borrowings, hence Belarussian has a fairly high intelligibility of Polish at 29%. Written intelligibility is higher at 67% (Mezentseva 2015).

Although Polish is notorious for being one of the hardest languages in Europe for foreigners to learn, Belarussians can actually learn it fairly easily due to the similarities between the two languages (Mezentseva 2014).

Testing Belarussian intelligibility of Russian is not realistically possible.
The vast number of Belarussians speak Russian, and of those who do not, all or nearly all have at least passive knowledge of Russian. At the moment there are few to no Belarussian monolinguals. If they exist at all, there may be a few elderly female monolinguals in the far west of the country by the Polish border (Mezentseva 2015) , but it would be difficult to study them.

MI figures:

Belarussian: Oral intelligibility: 80% of Ukrainian and 29% of Polish.Written intelligibility: 67% of Polish.


Mezentseva, Inna. English teacher, Belarussian and Russian speaker, Vitebsk, Belarus. BA in Education and Linguistics. Vitebsk State University, Vitebsk, Belarus. December 2014. Personal communication.
Mezentseva, Inna. English teacher, Belarussian and Russian speaker, Vitebsk, Belarus. BA in Education and Linguistics. Vitebsk State University, Vitebsk, Belarus. May 2015. Personal communication.
Pavlenko, A. 2006. Russian as a Lingua Franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 26: 78-99.

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Filed under Applied, Balto-Slavic, Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Belarus, Belorussians, Dialectology, Europe, Europeans, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Multilingualism, Polish, Politics, Race/Ethnicity, Regional, Russian, Russians, Slavic, Sociolinguistics, USSR

Beherrschen Linguisten viele Sprachen?

This is a German translation of the post, Linguists Know Lots of Languages? that appeared first on the old site. I used to have a lot of folks translating articles for me on the old site because I had so much traffic coming in and I wanted to accomodate international readers. I would keep track of how many would come from any country for any post and then tally them up. At some point, I would have enough demand for a transation. The blog was making no money at all, so I was volunteering, so I asked all of my translators to volunteer also.

This post might be interesting to any of you who know German. If you want, I can put the English version of the post in too.

Beherrschen Linguisten viele Sprachen?

Ein weit verbreitetes Mißverständnis ist, dass Linguisten viele Sprachen beherrschen. Eine Abwandlung davon ist, dass wer nicht polyglott ist, auch nicht für einen Linguitik-Studiengang zugelassen wird – und schon gar nicht, wer nur eine Sprache spricht.

Viele ältere Leute denken, das Wort “Linguist” sei ein Synonym für “polyglott”.

Ich habe einen Master in Linguistik und spreche nur eine Sprache gut: Das ist Englisch. Mit Spanisch komme ich einigermaßen zurecht, aber ich beherrsche es nicht fließend und schon gar nicht wie ein Muttersprachler. Ich verstehe ein bisschen Italienisch, Französisch, Portugieseich und Chukchansi Yokuts (eine Sprache kalifornischer Indianer), aber mein Spanisch ist besser, als diese Sprachen.

Als Linguist muss man nicht mehr als eine Sprache beherrschen. Beispielsweise habe ich etwa die Hälfte eines Wörterbuches und Sprachführers in Chukchansi Yokuts fertig gestellt, aber eher würde die Hölle vereisen als dass ich diese Sprache wirklich zu beherrschen lernte. Ich habe nur die Daten gesammelt, organisiert, analysiert und in eine Lexikon und etwas Lehrmaterial umgearbeitet.

Für meinen Linguistik-Studiengang war es nicht einmal Voraussetzung, zweisprachig zu sein, um zugelassen zu werden. Ihn haben Viele studiert, die nur eine Sprache beherrschten. Sicherlich, es gab auch viele ausländische Studenten, die jedoch alle auf einen ESL-Abschluß hinarbeiteten (ESL = English as a second language) und dann wieder im Ausland Englisch als Zweitsprache unterrichten wollten.

Alles was wir machen, ist das Studium von Sprachen. Aber man muss die Sprachen nicht wirklich erlernen um sie studieren zu können. Aus irgend einem Grund verstehen viele Leute das nicht.

Es ist wirklich wahr [in diesem Sinn], dass viele Linguisten mehr als eine Sprache kennen, lesen können und schreiben können.

Ein Linguisten-Witz (Mal seh’n, ob Sie ihn verstehen. Sie müssen viellecht ein bisschen nachdenken.): Man sagt, der berühmte Linguist Roman Jacobsen spräche Russisch in 17 verschiedenen Sprachen.

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Filed under Applied, German, Linguistics, Multilingualism, Translations

Some Arguments Against Using Mutual Intelligibility as a Criterion in Linguistics

KIRINPUTRA writes in response to this piece:

I think Lindsay is right in using mutual intelligibility as the criterion for determining what’s a language. I also think that intelligibility can be real tough to measure, and that something should be said for the kind of situation where mutual unintelligibility is only temporary, i.e. where a week of exposure has the speakers off and running.

As Campbell puts it, “But the question remains, does one actually have to specifically pick out and learn new phrases on their way to learning or can you pick them up in passing assuming to understand?”

So languages A and B are mutually unintelligible, but speakers become able to understand each other after a week of steady contact. Languages C and D are mutually unintelligible, and speakers still can’t understand each other after months of steady contact, unless they learn each other’s language or use a third language. Do we treat both situations the same and call them different languages? I think that’s worth thinking about.

Campbell brings up another valid point: attitudes influence intelligibility. Part of this is raw, conscious effort. Part of this is psychological and pretty much subconscious.

Another point that nobody has brought up yet is topic dependency. Mutual intelligibility usually varies depending on what the speakers are trying to talk about. A “deep” Taiwanese Hokkien speaker and a “deep” Medan (Sumatra) Hokkien speaker could probably understand each other reasonably well across a wide range of household and agricultural topics, but if it came to fixing a car or a motorbike, they’d be speaking different languages, in effect.

The task of quantifying intelligibility gets harder if we wanna pin this down. Maybe a “basket of topics” concept could be advanced, kind of like the “basket of goods and services” concept used to measure inflation.

There’s a video on Youtube where two Siam Thai speakers go up into central Guangxi and try to communicate w/ Zhuang speakers speaking only Siam Thai. First it doesn’t work, then it starts working. They realize that it only works when the topic is one that’s heavy on shared vocabulary.

Based on intelligibility criteria, how many languages is Hokkien (what Lindsay calls “Xiamen”)? A lot of Penang Hokkien would go over a Taiwanese Hokkien speaker’s head at first exposure, just b/c of intrinsic linguistic differences. Typically, there would also be a lack of effort on the part of the Taiwanese speaker to understand a non-Taiwanese form of Hokkien.

Even beyond this, psychologically, both sides (but esp. the Taiwanese) have a hard time acknowledging an unfamiliar form of their familiar Hokkien tongue. Due to subconscious psychological reasons and a lack of effort, they may honestly not be able to understand each other (assuming the Penang speaker is one of the few with no Taiwanese Hokkien media intake). The shared vocabulary, collocations, idioms, etc., though, are definitely enough for them to understand each other w/ just an attitude adjustment.

Yet, I don’t think the shared vocabulary and grammar are “good enough” to establish that PngHk and TWHk are dialects of the same language. How do we really know? What strikes me as being much better evidence is having witnessed TWHk and PngHk speakers communicating effectively in their respective dialects w/o having to resort to another language – even though such encounters have typically resulted in a quick switch to Mandarin as of the last 10 or 15 years or so.

Intelligibility is tricky to quantify, no doubt; but lexical and syntactic similarity have got to be even trickier to measure in any meaningful way.

I have to take exception with a couple of Campbell’s minor points. They sound suspiciously like the stuff you read in papers by some (not all) Chinese scholars.

Campbell says, “Fangyan we have determined as topolect, but as used many centuries ago could also refer to any language of a different region. Today it has a specific use and currently applies to a “county”, notwithstanding the fangyan of neighboring counties may be the exact same thing.”

I don’t know what Campbell means by “today it has a specific use”. It’s not only common for laypeople to use “fangyan” to refer to the speech of a province or any other region, it’s also pretty common for scholars to spit out collocations like “Yue (~ Cantonese) fangyan”, never mind that “Yue” is a group of languages spoken across two provinces of China and taking in at the very, very least three mutually unintelligible languages.

Campbell also says, “It reminds me of Sinoxenic borrowings of Chinese words into neighboring Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese which all now have approximately 60% of their core lexicon borrowed from Chinese. But these languages belong to other families and developed separately…”

This is kind of begging the question. What if the North Chinese political grip on Vietnam was somehow renewed? Sure enough, Vietnamese would continue to absorb “Chinese” elements deeper and deeper into its lexicon and structures, to the point where a linguist from the “modern” linguistics tradition would say it was a Chinese language.

And indeed the evidence seems to reveal that this is exactly how Hokkien, Teochew, Hailamese, Wenzhou, Hoisan (Taishan), etc. “became” Chinese languages. The best paper I’ve seen on this was by a Chinese scholar named Pan Wuyun (潘悟云). What’s Sinoxenic? Who was neighboring what? What’s core lexicon? Who developed separate and who developed together, and where and when? These are unresolved questions, not the open-and-shut case that most linguists in the field (even many non-Chinese) seem to think it is.

Campbell is probably right in saying, “Hua is usually tacked on to a place name. The “speech” of a particular place as long as there are no others competing (for example Nanning in Guangxi has several languages).” I would add that competing languages w/i counties is the rule rather than the exception throughout tropical and coastal subtropical China.

The tendency in each area (not necessarily just one county) with competing languages is for each language to go by a two or three syllable nickname where the last syllable is usually 話 (hua in Mandarin). Cantonese (but not the Hoisan type) is usually known as 白 hua. Hokciu (a.k.a. Foochow) is known locally as 平 hua (exact same name as Tuhua). In the Leizhou area, 海 hua and 黎 hua are two distinct “Min” varieties, reportedly mutually intelligible only w/ each other or at most also w/ some type of Hailamese / Hainanese Min.

Speaking of which, a primer on Hailamese was published about a century ago in Singapore. The author (de Souza) explains in the introduction which dialect of Hailamese the book is based on, and says that dialects of Hailamese from the other side of the island are “perfectly impossible to understand”. So there may actually be more than one language w/i just Hailamese Min.

Finally, about the Chinese scholars falling down on the job. I would say that, first of all, they generally don’t think this is their job. To them, “Chinese” is basically “assumed” to be one language. U could just call that shoddy academics. Secondly, though, some Chinese scholars are doing a pretty good job, such as Pan Wuyun.

In the Anglo tradition, a guy like Pan Wuyun would come out at some point with a “come-on-and-own-up, most-of-all-y’all-is-wrong” paper. But unfortunately that kind of thing is really rare in China. And so it’s left to foreign scholars or guys like Lindsay or myself to say this, w/ the disclaimer (at least in my case) that there are many individual decent scholars in China too.

The truth is that among most linguists, mutual intelligibility is not a controversial topic. There are a few loudmouths who scream that it cannot be measured, but to most of us linguists it is a ho-hum subject, not the source of a lot of screaming and yelling. Most of the tumult comes from outside the field, amateurs or simply ignorant people who are not linguists. They usually bring up all sorts of arguments, but in the field, we do not worry much about any of these rejoinders.

Often we will do more than one study. If the results are different, we just average them together and to get a mean.

Surely attitude matters, but if you test enough people, all of that levels out. You have some that really want to understand the other language and others who just give up easily. You average them all together and get a mean for the population.

There are not many languages that can be learned after only a week of contact. And if there were, we would not say they were mutually unintelligible. Even very closely related languages like Azeri and Turkish take about 3-4 weeks of close contact before they are communicating pretty well.

I have an informant in China in Hubei Province. She said about every third city over was a new Mandarin language, and you  could learn the new language after about 3 weeks of close contact.

In Africa, they have a concept called 1 day languages and 2 day languages because that is how long it takes to learn them. These would not be considered languages because they are too easily learned.

As an example, I have heard Latin Americans say that when they fly into El Salvador in the morning, they don’t understand all of what the Salvadorans around them are saying, and the Salvadorans do not understand everything they are saying. However, by the end of the day, everyone is drinking and slapping each other on the back and they all understand each other.

So Salvadoran Spanish could be considered a 1 day language. Salvadoran Spanish is a dialect of the Spanish language, not a separate language.

About topic dependency: we usually test for mutual intelligibility by playing a relatively neutral recording of someone speaking in the language. I suppose you could use a video too. You cannot use two people trying to talk to each other because then you have all of this extralinguistic coaching going on that interferes with the result and makes it higher than it is.

Due to subconscious psychological reasons and a lack of effort, they may honestly not be able to understand each other (assuming the Penang speaker is one of the few with no Taiwanese Hokkien media intake). The shared vocabulary, collocations, idioms, etc., though, are definitely enough for them to understand each other w/ just an attitude adjustment.

This has been brought up by a well-known linguist as a complaint to me against using native speaker knowledge as a criterion for mutual intelligibility. He told me we could not rely on native speakers to tell us how much they understand of another language because, well, native speakers lie. Instead we could only rely in the knowledge of linguists.

He gave the example of two groups that understand each other very well but hate each other so much that say they can’t understand the speech of the other people even though they can. In other words, they lie. Realistically, I have been studying mutual intelligibility for a long time now (in fact, I am a bit of an expert in it) and I have yet to come across this situation. This really is just a red herring.

Yet, I don’t think the shared vocabulary and grammar are “good enough” to establish that PngHk and TWHk are dialects of the same language. How do we really know? What strikes me as being much better evidence is having witnessed TWHk and PngHk speakers communicating effectively in their respective dialects w/o having to resort to another language – even though such encounters have typically resulted in a quick switch to Mandarin as of the last 10 or 15 years or so.

That doesn’t really count. You might be looking at an intelligibility situation of 80-85% between those Hokkien lects. Also we do not look at two speakers negotiating a conversation because that throws in new variables.

For inherent intelligibility, we want someone listening to a recording or watching a video. Quite a few speakers of very closely related languages (and some not so closely related) can negotiate the sort of conversation described above. Yet the fact that they both revert to Mandarin instead of carrying on in different Hokkien forms implies we are dealing with two separate languages here. They abandoned their own tongues and switched to common Mandarin presumably because there are too many misunderstandings when they use their Hokkien varieties.

Intelligibility is tricky to quantify, no doubt; but lexical and syntactic similarity have got to be even trickier to measure in any meaningful way.

Not really, we have many measures of lexical similarity and we use them all the time. We also measure syntactic and morphological differences – variations in grammar. A lot of linguists decide that two tongues are different languages simply based on the fact that they are too far apart – structurally separate languages.

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Filed under Applied, Cantonese, Chinese language, Dialectology, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Mandarin, Multilingualism, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan, Sociolinguistics

Mutual Intelligibility in Linguistics: Guideposts and Roadblocks

A colleague of mine wrote to me about my new paper, “A Reclassification of the Chinese Language” which has just been uploaded to Academia. This paper reanalyzes the Chinese or Sinitic language family from the 14 languages that Ethnologue to 343 language based on the criterion of mutual intelligibility with >90% = dialect, and <90% = separate language.

Your topic is deep and complex. I find it valuable even if it’s still just a pilot.

All works by Hillary Chappel might be of interest for you. However she studies the typology of dialect, you implement a criterion of mutual intelligibility.

Only one point on which I feel you should be cautious from the start: intelligibility is not always bidirectionnal; e.g.

1) Portuguese speakers understand Spanish speakers better than the contrary, and this is due to differences in the phonological system which much more complex in Portuguese.

In the case of Portuguese v Spanish, we average them together.

Portuguese has 58% intelligibility of Spanish.

Spanish has 50% intelligibility of Portuguese.

Average together is 54%.

Factor out Bilingual Learning

One thing I always try to factor out is bilingual learning. You want to try for “virgin ears.” Bilingual learning means that the results are not valid. We look for “inherent intelligibility.” Males often have been intelligibility of Lect B simply because they have heard it for work while females have stayed at home and not heard it. A friend of mine lives in a city called Leyang (?) in Central Hebei. She said once you go three cities over, you get to a new language. She said it takes ~3 weeks of close contact with the new language to pick it up, often due to tone differences. 3 weeks of close contact is about right for closely related languages with ~80% intelligibility.

A famous Sinologist agreed with me that a 90% cutoff is a good cutoff. Once you start getting below 90%, you start running into intelligibility issues, mostly in more complex and technological speech but also in everyday speech.

Native speakers are actually excellent informants as far mutual intelligibility goes. You only have to find decent, normal, scientific minded people of some intelligence.


However, there are two  types whose opinions should simply be dropped:

Problem: “Everyone can understand everyone.” “I can understand everyone.” The first one is usually some sort of nationalist. The second one may be full of it, very smart or maybe very good at languages. I am not interested at how Mr. Amateur Linguist can understand Lect A. I want to know about how well Joe Average Peasant understands Lect A under normal day to day conditions.

False alarm: “No one can understand each other.” “We cannot understand them.” This person is lying, and everyone can understand everyone or Group A can indeed understand Group B. Why are they lying? They are doing this because they want to feel their speech is unique and they are different from the other speakers or they simply do not like the other speakers and do not want to believe they speak the same language as their rivals.

Realistically, I never run into people like this. This is a straw man thrown up by linguists who are nervous about the mutual intelligibility concept.

Native Speaker Judgment

Just ask native speakers. Most native speakers are excellent informants and will inform you straight off whether or not or how well they can understand the other speakers. Many of these people are of limited education or even intelligence, but they can often give you a rather oddly accurate figure like “65%.” Then you will ask several other “ignorant peasants” and they will also tell you “70%” or “60%.” It is amazing what sort of intuitive judgment your average native speaker has in this area. Where you get different numbers, just add them together. If you get enough informants, the average should look pretty good.

“There Is No Way to Accurately Gauge Mutual Intelligibility”

A red herring very popular among the “Physics envy” crowd in Linguistics where it seems we can never really measure or define much of anything as the social sciences measure subjective and variable human beings. Scientific intelligibility studies are very good, and we now have them down to a fine art. Linguists who claim this is not measurable are simply ignorant. SIL and Ethnologue have this down to a fine art.

“Only Experts Can Answer These Questions”

A red herring. “Don’t ask native speakers, ask a linguist.” This argument comes from linguists and discounts native speaker judgements about intelligibility, arguing instead that these judgements are properly made only by linguists, apparently those who have studied the language. Why a scholar knows Language A better than the folks who speak it is beyond me. The reason for this argument is apparently that native speakers lie.

But my experience has been that they generally do not, and anyway, the only real liars (over-estimators who say Lect A understands Lect B perfectly – often nationalists – are easily ferreted out.) Also this is an elitist attitude that seems to say that native speaker judgements should be discounted in favor of the truth-speakers from the ivory towers. This elitist argument is disturbing.

Be Careful of the Judgements of Second Language Speakers

Some “hazy” lects are mostly just hard to understand for 2nd language speakers. This may be the case with Beijinghua and Berlinerisch, both of which 2nd language speakers of Chinese and German consider infernal however most Chinese and Germans find them odd, funny, or crazy but nevertheless more or less intelligible.

“Our Language” Versus “Not Our Language”

“Language” and “not our language” is well understood.

People have a good knowledge of “what is our language.” For instance I spoke with someone who spoke a language called Bergish spoken around Dusseldorf (not listed in Ethnologue – many German languages are not listed). I went through a number of the surrounding cities, and she would say, “That is our language” or “They speak our language,” often adding that some words were different but it was clearly the same tongue.

When I got all the way over to Aix, she told me that was absolutely not her language anymore. She didn’t have a name for it other than Aacher Platt, but it was another language all right. Intelligibility was “about 60%.” I wondered if her language was spoken over the border in the Netherlands (there was a suggestion that it might be) and she simply told me that she could not understand any lects spoken in the Netherlands. Therefore, Bergish apparently does not cross the border and is instead the South Gulderish language in the Netherlands.

Over around Aix where Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands all come together, I had an informant in Stolberg, Germany who spoke a language called Southeast Limburgs (also not listed in Ethnologue) who spoke of the tongue a bit further away in Cologne (Kolsch Ripaurian) as not quite his language. “That is 70% our language,” he told me. I am not sure what he meant by that, but I figured 70% intelligibility and a new tongue. We went up and over to Belgium in the Three Countries area around Kerkrade and he thought a bit and said, “That is still our language. It is 90% our language.” I figured 90% intelligibility and a Kerkraads as part of Southeast Limburgs.

The Troublesome Politics of Many New Languages

One problem with my 90% marker is that my Sinologist friend told me that if he set Sinitic tongues at 90% intelligibility, he could easily come up with 2,000 Sinitic languages. That would certainly create a few waves, if not deadly tsunamis, and the Chinese government would not be pleased, but at the very least it would be a nice hypothesis to see get tossed about in the lit by sober-minded linguistic scientists.

Structural Differences Are Better than Mutual Intelligibility

Chappel is doing something similar. At some point, linguists speak of “structurally separate languages.” At some X degree of differentiation, the lects are just too different structurally and hence are thought to be different tongues. This is supposed to be an argument against my mutual intelligibility criteria, but actually it is rather circular as once two lects start getting far enough apart to where linguists want to split them off as structurally separate languages, this same differentiation that justified the split also starts to impede mutual intelligibility, often below the 90% mark. So these two criteria end up with the same conclusions anyway.

Lexical Similarity Is Better than Mutual Intelligibility

Lexical similarity. We are supposed to look at this instead of mutual intelligibility also, but it is misleading. Asturian has 95% lexical similarity with Spanish, yet Spanish intelligibility of hard Leonese is as low as 25%. As you can see, lexical similarity is not quite accurate for deciding against a split, although it may be helpful in deciding for a split. Hence, the North Frisian “dialects” only have 65-70% lexical similarity, so they cannot possibly be dialects of a single tongue and most be separate languages.

Natural Barriers and Transitional Lects, not Mutual Intelligibility

Once again this ties in very well with mutual intelligibility. Intelligibility in Asturian is good except where it transitions into other languages. In the west, it transitions into Galician and we start getting intelligibility issues and probably a new language in between Galician and Asturian (Eonavian). In the east, Asturian transitions in Castillian around Eastern Asturian and Cantabrian and we start getting into a new language (Cantabrian-Extremaduran.) These two arguments are not competing, instead they are eating each other’s tails.

Bilingual Learning Ability Is Overrated

My Sinologist friend told me that he knows Mandarin speakers who have been living in Hong Kong surrounded by Cantonese speakers for 20 years who do not know one word of Cantonese. This implies right there that they might be quite different and we are surely dealing with two separate tongue. If Cantonese and Mandarin were dialects of a single tongue, there is no way that Mandarin speaker could spend 20 years living in Hong Kong and never learn one word of Cantonese.

Impressionistic Judgements Are Not Scientific

The problem here is that impressionistic judgements are quite accurate in terms of determining dialect from language. I often hear hazy judgements like, “You know, we can’t really understand those people very well” or “Sometimes I have a hard time understanding them,” but I can tell by listening to them that a lot of their words are the same as hours.”

Although those are impressionistic judgements, when speakers start talking like that, they are generally referring to intelligibility somewhere around 80-90%. At over 90% intelligibility, in general, no non-ideologue ever says that Lect B is different from Lect A. They always say it is the same language, and often add that maybe some words are different here and there. Once again this is an impressionistic judgement, but it is generally accurate.

The problem with Chinese is that I got the impression that the vast field of Chinese linguistics in China (and the volume of work is truly huge by Chinese scholars and students) has written many times on mutual intelligibility and the like, however, when I was doing this study, so much of the best work I wanted to read always seemed to be in Chinese, and I simply cannot read Chinese at all. No study of this subject will ever be done properly until the Chinese literature and hopefully Chinese scholars and students themselves are involved.

I have a lot more to say about this but I will leave it at this for now.

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Intelligibility Figures for Romance Languages

Here is some new work I did on mutual intelligibility in the Romance family. If you speak any of these languages, feel free to chime in. The one figure I am worried about is 0% of Italian understanding of Romanian. One informant said that, but I have a feeling it is higher than that.

Intelligibility Figures for Romance Languages

Intelligibility for Spanish speakers, oral: 80% of Asturian, Aragonese and and Extremaduran, 78% of Galician, 62% of Catalan, 50% of Portuguese, 25% of Italian, 6% of Romanian, 1% of French, and 0% of Sicilian.

Spanish has 95% written intelligibility of Ladino, 93% of Galician, 87% of Catalan, 78% of Portuguese, 50% of Italian and Romanian, and 16% of French.

Catalan has 94% oral intelligibility of Valencian, 63% intelligibility of Belearic, 27% of Italian, 5% of French.

Catalan has 27% written intelligibility of Italian.

Asturian has 82% oral intelligibility of Mirandese and 71% of Portuguese.

Mirandese has 82% oral intelligibility of Asturian and 71% of Portuguese.

Portuguese has 95% oral intelligibility of Almedilha dialect, 86% of Galician, 71% of Mirandese and Asturian, 58% of Spanish, 40% of Hermisende dialect, 55% of Catalan, 25% of Leonese and Italian, 17% of French, and 5% of Romanian.

Portuguese has 90% written intelligibility of Italian.

Galician has 58% intelligibility of Catalan, and 0% of Extremaduran and Andalucian Spanish.

French has 30% oral intelligibility of Catalan, 27% of Portuguese, 16% of Italian, 13% of Spanish, 7% intelligibility of Romanian, and 0% of Sicilian.

French has 90% written intelligibility of Catalan and 70% of Portuguese.

Romanian has 70% oral intelligibility of Istroromanian, 40% of Italian, 25% of Spanish, and 15% of French and Portuguese.

Romanian has 60% written intelligibility of French, 45% of Galician and Piedmontese and 33% of Italian.

Italian has 40% oral intelligibility of Catalan, 16% of Portuguese, 11% of French, and 0% of Romanian, Arpitan and Sicilian.

Italian has 75% written intelligibility of French and Spanish, 25% of Portuguese, and 20% of Catalan.

Piedmontese has 0% intelligibility of Arpitan.


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Spanish-Italian Mutual Intelligibility

See this video here.

This is an interview with the director of a documentary called Rio De Onor which I would really like to see, except that it is in Italian. Rio de Onor is a town on the border of Spain and Portugal where an odd Senabrian Leonese with Galician influences lect full of Portuguese words is spoken. It is probably similar to Mirandese, but I think it is in a different branch of Leonese than Mirandese is. Rihonores-Mirandese mutual intelligibility (MI) is not known. The town is split. Half of the town is in Portugal, and the other half is in Spain! The residents typically spoke Rihonores, but they also all spoke both Portuguese and Spanish. They spoke Spanish and Portuguese indifferently, mixing them together along with Rihonores.

It is said that Rihonores is extinct or nearly extinct, but that does not seem to be the case. The writeup for this movie says that all of the town’s residents spoke “Mirandese” often during the filming, which took place in 1996. Rio de Onor does not speak Mirandese, but it does speak Rihonores, so the writeup must be referring to Rihonores.

I doubt if Rihonores has gone extinct since then. In addition, a recent paper was written on the grammar of Rihonores. The paper was authored in the mid-1990’s and was written in Portuguese, but I was able to read it in part anyway, especially with the help of a translator. The paper stated that residents of the town now spoke Spanish and Portuguese most of the time. They all knew Rihonores, but its use seemed to be more reserved for special occasions as if it were some sort of ceremonial language.

The town is located in a binational national park and it has a Medieval appearance about it. Rio de Onor has been losing population for some time now and there are not many people left in the town.

At any rate, I continue to see comments that Spanish and Italian are mutually intelligible. Well, I just watched 5 1/2 minutes of an interview with this Italian director, and I can tell you right now that I did not understand one single word he said. That’s a Spanish-Italian MI rate of 0%.

If you don’t know Italian but have knowledge of another Romance language, watch this video and tell me how much Italian you can understand.

I think the MI of Spanish and Italian is much exaggerated.

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Is Romance Mutual Intelligibility Overrated?

Paul S. writes:

I can speak Spanish decently, though I read it better, and that wasn’t a tough read. That being said, I can read Portuguese pretty well too and can’t understand it spoken much at all.

Well try doing research in Portuguese then. I can speak a bit of Portuguese, and I have been trying to read it for some time now. Lately I am doing a lot of research, and much of it is in Spanish. I use translators a lot, but even then I have to go back to the original Spanish. I can do research ok in Spanish, but it is not real easy.

I also run across a lot of Portuguese, Galician and Asturian. Research is quite hard in all of these. I am having an extremely hard time reading Portuguese, and previously I thought I could read it fairly well. Also I have a friend in Brazil, and she used to send me mails all the time in Portuguese, and honestly, I was pretty lost reading that stuff. I think Spanish-Portuguese written intelligibility is overrated.

I cannot understand much spoken Portuguese either. I watched a clip on Youtube the other day about some city council meeting in a town on the Spanish-Portuguese border, and I could not understand a word they said.

I have a feeling that the oral intelligibility of Romance is also overrated. You hear a lot of anecdotes. Eonavians said that Western Asturians could not understand one word of Eonavian, which is a Western Asturian-Eastern Galician transitional dialect!

Castillian speakers who went to Valencia to live said that after seven years, they still could not understand one word of Valencian and Catalan spoken at normal speed. However, they could understand TV announcers in those lects very well because the announcers used Castillian intonation as opposed to Catalan/Valencian intonation.

Some people from the north of Spain say that they cannot understand a single word of the hard Andalucian spoken on the streets of the big cities.

Commenter James Schipper lived in Brazil for years and is fluid in Portuguese. However, he only understood 40% of the strange lect spoken in Hermisende, Zamora, in Spain. Linguists say that this is a Galician dialect with heavy Portuguese influence and significant Leonese influences. On some linguistic maps, it is colored as a Portuguese dialect.

He was also able to understand only 25% of Alistano Leonese.

And we haven’t even left the Iberian Peninsula yet!

A while back, in a large city in northern Italy, an old woman had become lost. They took her into the police station and she was chattering away for a few hours. They kept asking her questions but she did not understand them as she didn’t speak Standard Italian. People had all sorts of theories on where she was from. Some thought Greece, and there were many other guesses. Finally a worker came in who was familiar with the strange Western Lombard dialect from the high northern Italian mountains that she spoke. The old lady and the cops all spoke a Northern Italian dialect, and none of them could understand the old lady.

On the border of France and Italy in and around the city of Menton near Nice, a lect called Mentonasque is spoken. It is close to the old language of Nizzard spoken in Nice. This is an Occitan-Ligurian transitional dialect, a halfway between Maritime Provencal Occitan spoken in France and Ligurian spoken in Italy. Nevertheless, Mentonasque speakers say that they cannot understand a word of the Ligurian spoken in Italy. And linguists now see Mentonasque as a Ligurian dialect!

One would think that if these languages were that close, one could learn one or another of them pretty easily. To some extent this is true, but not to the extent of dialects of a single tongue or very closely related languages where you can adjust fairly easy over a period of 1 hour-3 weeks.

For instance, in Asturias, there are many Castillian speakers who have been living there for some time who simply state that they cannot understand Asturian. If they were really so close, one would think they would have picked it up easily over the years.

Down in the Bierzo zone transitional between the Leonese and Galician languages, there are Castillian speakers who have been living there for years who cannot understand Leonese, Galician or Berciano. With languages like that being spoken around them all the time, one would think they would have picked up them easily over the years.

The truth is that these languages are not as close as they seem, and much has to do with intonation as the example of the Castillian speaker living in Valencia indicates. In addition, one way to tell that you are dealing with a separate language and not a dialect of a single tongue is that the other language doesn’t necessarily get easier to understand the more you hear it. The factor of motivation cannot be ruled out. The Castillian speakers above who cannot understand Galician, Leonese, Berciano, Asturian, Valencian, Catalan or Andalucian have obviously never taken the time to try to learn the language. They simply cannot be bothered. If people do not want to try to learn a language, even a very closely related one spoken around them all the time, they simply will not learn it.

It is said that after 2-3 months of close contact, a Castillian speaker can pick up Aragonese, Catalan, Asturian, Leonese or Galician. But that is if one is sufficiently motivated. The powerful variable of motivation in language learning cannot be underestimated.


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Are Spanish and Portuguese One Language?

Janie writes:

And Robert, your comment about ”There should be a link to the Spanish-Portuguese study. The rest is just native speakers guessing”, sounds like a weak and unfair attempt on your part to discredit the opinions of others. Just because you have an MA in Linguistics doesn’t make you an infallible expert on language matters. If anything, a person with a PhD in Linguistics would certainly seem more credible to me.

As a previous writer correctly pointed out, sometimes the ‘real’ labs are, as he put it, ‘the streets’. Much of my graduate sociology graduate research was conducted ‘on-the-streets’. When you mingle with the speakers of languages, in this case Portuguese and Spanish, you gain a very different perspective, certainly different than what your academic labs statistics show. For the record, I am a native Spanish speaker from Spain. In Europe, Portuguese and Spaniards have no trouble at all communicating with one another – we consider ourselves brothers, historically, culturally and linguistically. This is fact.

Additionally, I actually studied in New Jersey where there are tons of Spanish and Portuguese speakers. I have many friends who speak these two languages, and I have heard them conversing rather effortlessly with one another all my life. What are you going to tell me, that I’m imagining things? Please. You might be tempted not to post this, but please do the right thing and do post it. Judging from some of the earlier posts, I can assure you that there will be many future responders who will agree with many of the things I have said.

Yes, and many Spanish speakers around me told me flat out that “they can’t understand Portuguese.” On the Net, when I write in Spanish to my Brazilian friends who speak Portuguese, *they can’t really understand me.* I asked them if they speak Spanish, and they said, “Not really.” And in the article the commenter commented on, there are many reports of Spanish and Portuguese speakers not understanding each other very well.

That’s right, I do not believe that it is the typical experience of Spanish and Portuguese speakers in Europe to communicate effortlessly.

I understand that Spanish speakers can’t even understand Fala, and that’s Galician (Portuguese with heavy Spanish influence) with heavy Castillian influence on top of that. Spanish speakers say they “can’t understand a word” of Fala.

On a recent program on Galician TV, a variety of odd forms of Galician or Portuguese spoken in Spain were highlighted. All of these odd forms received subtitles on Galician TV. Brazilian Portuguese speakers told me that they often have a hard time understanding and especially reading European Portuguese. Speakers of the Portuguese dialect closest to Galician report that attempts to speak with Galician speakers on the border with Spain are so difficult that both parties resort to Castillian to be understood. And Ethnologue says that is one language. Portuguese speakers report that they can’t understand Barranquenho, an archaic form of Portuguese full of Castillian spoken on the border with Spain.

My understanding is that even on the border of Spain and Portugal, border villages can’t exactly communicate with each other.

Spaniards can’t even understand other forms of so-called Castillian which are said to be one language.

Spaniards cannot understand either Asturian or hard Extremaduran. In fact, Extremaduran speakers can’t understand Asturian, and some say that that is one language. The Castillian spoken by old Galician women is so odd and full of Galician that most Spaniards cannot understand it. Spaniards can’t even understand Aragonese very well. In fact, on opposite ends of Aragonese, Aragonese speakers can’t even understand each other. Spaniards, especially from the north around the Basque country, can’t understand a word of hard Andalucian. Some Manchengo speakers even say that they are not understand by speakers of Standard Castillian.

Asturian speakers can’t understand Galician, and both are almost Portuguese. Younger speakers of West Asturian Eonavian can’t even understand Galician, and Eonavian is the closest Asturian to Galician.

If Spaniards can’t even understand other forms of so-called Castillian, how the Hell can they understand Portuguese?

When people speaking different languages talk to each other, they can often negotiate a certain meaning by speaking more slowly, adjusting their speech, etc. That doesn’t mean that they are speaking the same language. I meet Italian speakers around here, tourists who are confounded by English. I speak Spanish to them, and we negotiate some sort of a meaning where they can figure out what to order or whatever. So Spanish and Italians are the same language? No.

The intelligibility test for Spanish and Portuguese was very good. The results came back 54% intelligibility. The truth is that with 54% intelligibility in a face to face encounter, you may be able to negotiate some sort of a meaning via the mechanisms I described above. Intelligibility studies produce proper and correct results.

If what you say is true, that Spanish and Portuguese speakers communicate “effortlessly” everywhere they go, then guess what? Spanish and Portuguese are the same language! You believe that?

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