Is Speaking a Language Different From Being Fluent in It?


Are you bilingual, trilingual, or multilingual? Or, are you a polyglot or hyperpolyglot? Perhaps you are monolingual, but aspire to learn other languages.

If you do speak one or more foreign languages, you certainly have been asked, “How many languages do you know?” This a challenging question to answer. It's rarely as straightforward as, “I speak three languages.” The response is more likely to be a tiered explanation such as, “I speak Spanish rather fluently, have an intermediate knowledge of French, and a conversational capability in German.” Does that mean that you really speak three languages or that you just have knowledge of three languages?

What Is the Difference Between Having Knowledge of a Language and Speaking It?

What exactly do descriptions such as quite fluently, intermediate knowledge, and conversational capability really mean? That, of course, is the crux of the question when one tries to describe how many languages he or she knows. The whole area of language knowledge is quite subjectively and loosely defined.

Let’s take the word fluent. Does that mean we can say anything we want to and understand everything we read or hear?

It is probably safe to say that the readers of this article are fluent in English, either due to the fact that it is their mother tongue or because they have achieved a high level of education in the language. That, however, does not mean that someone who is fluent knows the English word for every object or concept. It is even difficult to define the size of an educated adult’s vocabulary. Estimates vary. Typical estimates size active vocabulary at 18,000 to 20,000 words and a passive vocabulary at an additional 15,000 to 20,000 words. By passive vocabulary, researchers mean that the person recognizes and has some degree of understanding of words that are used primarily in erudite or technical writing, but does not use them actively in his or her own discourse.

Can someone having a vocabulary of 3,000 to 5,000 words be said to have a fluent knowledge of a language? How do we define a degree of language knowledge and speaking ability?

In an effort to address the challenge of defining an individual’s level of knowledge, the Council of Europe created the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). CEFR is a guideline used to describe language achievement levels in the four areas listed above in a consistent manner to avoid the random descriptions that people are prone to use. The framework is divided into three levels, each with two sub-levels. This is an abbreviated description of interactive speaking classifications:

Group Level Description
A: Basic User A1: Beginner Can interact in a simple way to ask and answer simple questions on very familiar topics provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
A2: Elementary Can communicate in simple, short social exchanges requiring a simple, direct exchange of information on familiar topics and activities.
B: Independent User B1: Intermediate Can enter unprepared into conversations on topics that are familiar, of personal interest, or pertinent to everyday life.
B2: Upper Intermediate Can take an active part, with a degree of spontaneity, in discussion in familiar contexts that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible.
C: Proficient User C1: Advanced Can spontaneously formulate ideas and opinions for social and professional purposes with precision and without much obvious searching for expressions.
C2: Proficiency Can take part effortlessly in any conversation, conveying finer shades of meaning precisely and with a good familiarity with idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms.

The C: Proficient User category represents what most people would understand as fluent. A good initial target for someone learning a new language, or refreshing a previously learned language, would be the B1: Intermediate User definition.

What Makes Someone Multilingual, a Polyglot, or a Hyperpolyglot?

Confusion also arises when describing people who speak many languages. We encounter terms such as multilingual, polyglot, and hyperpolyglot. There really is, however, no authoritative definition of these terms when it comes to discussing an individual’s linguistic capabilities. Michael Erard, in Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners, used the number six as the cutoff between multilingual and polyglot. His reasoning was based on the fact that there are geographic communities around the world such as India or the Balkans where people speak up to five languages just as a part of their daily lives. Of course, it is easy to assume that they may speak these languages equally well, but this might not be the case. They may just function easily in the various languages, but still rely on their mother language for writing or precise discourse.

Richard Hudson, linguistics professor emeritus at University College London originally defined a hyperpolyglot as someone who can speak six or more languages fluently. Again we encounter the concept of fluency. Erard, however, modified this definition in his research. He classifies people who have a command of six to eleven languages as polyglots, and those with twelve or more as hyperpolyglots. Erard skirts the issue of fluency by using the expression have a command.

Throughout history there has been a fascination with polyglots, although many of the claims of mastery may be difficult to substantiate. One of the earliest reports on a polyglot is by Plutarch in his Life of Antony. He writes of Cleopatra (69-30 BCE):

“It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter.”

Reputedly, Cleopatra spoke Greek (her mother tongue), Egyptian, Ethiopian, Troglodyte, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Median, Parthian, and many others.

In any historical discussion of hyperpolyglots, the name of Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (1774-1849) will almost certainly arise. References vary in the number of languages he spoke, adding dialects and dead languages, but it's somewhere between 40 and 72 languages. His fame was perhaps enhanced by the fact that he was probably the first hyperpolyglot to be thoroughly studied. In 1858, nine years after the Cardinal’s death, Charles W. Russell published The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti. Russell opens his tome with the statement:

“In the life of Cardinal Mezzofanti I have attempted to ascertain by direct evidence, the exact number of languages with which the great linguist was acquainted, and the degree of his familiarity with each.”

Russell clearly recognized the criticality and the challenge of ascertaining an individual’s command of a language. The appearance of flowing conversation can give the impression of fluency. This becomes even more difficult to assess when the language or dialect is more exotic.

To exemplify the challenge of describing a hyperpolyglot like Mezzofanti, Erard describes Mezzofanti as someone “who was said to speak 72 languages across 11 language families and could read and write in six alphabets.” Here again we are challenged by the concepts of speaking a language and knowing it. In the case of dead languages such as Latin, Ancient Greek, Old English, or Classical Nahuatl, the knowledge may be based solely on reading rather than speaking or writing.

Modern-Day Hyperpolyglots

Because of the Internet, it is easier for hyperpolyglots to make their existence known. Such is the case of Timothy Doner—who has received both video and print coverage from The Economist and The New York Times, Emanuele Marini, Ray Gillon, and Alex Rawlings, to mention only a few.

What is notable about each of these hyperpolyglots is that they also describe their linguistic skills in a tiered or circumlocutory way rather than stating bluntly that they speak a specific number of languages. One should note as well that, when they are interviewed and tested, they typically are in a controlled environment answering common questions or describing their experience learning a specific language. This is not to detract from their accomplishments, but rather to highlight that speaking a language functionally is very different from being fluent at the level of a simultaneous interpreter.

When referring to a functional level, it means that they have learned the basic vocabulary and grammar that is required to communicate in the most common interactions that a foreign speaker of a language might encounter (e.g. explaining how and where you learned the language, describing your academic studies, talking about your family, etc.). This is very different from engaging in a discussion of global warming or tensions in the Middle East.

This is the key to the polyglots’ skills. They have learned how to acquire the essential vocabulary and how to assemble it with the most common grammatical structures at a functional level. They do this rapidly and extremely efficiently. At this functional level, a language student can say that he or she speaks a language.

How Does One Become a Polyglot?

Marini advises us to start writing about our daily lives and ourselves through e-mail exchanges with native speakers. He recommends doing this as soon as possible to acquire the vocabulary we need for speaking and making it our own. The question then is exactly how much vocabulary do we need?

Again, this is a highly subjective area with a range of numbers. With a vocabulary of about 500 words you can begin to communicate, but in a limited way. The challenge is to learn the right words as soon as possible to get to a functional level. A common estimate is about 3,000 words. Those will cover most common topics. That also seems to be a realistic goal to set.

People who are interested in learning a new language frequently ask whether or not a specific aptitude is required. Yes, having a linguistic aptitude helps, but it does not ensure success. Many students with aptitude and good intensions start a new language and then drift away due to weak commitment.

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90) was another famous 19th century hyperpolyglot who reputedly spoke twenty-nine languages. In Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Biography, Edward Rice gives us this description of Burton’s passion, or perhaps better stated, vocation:

"Everywhere he dove into languages, dialects, derivations, languages that piled up on him as if he were some great multilayered polyglot walking dictionary, and that would pour out of him in the future, as if he, Richard Francis Burton, alone were the source of the Ur-tongue, primordial, agglutinative, and inflected to seventeen cases."

In interviews, polyglots often describe themselves as “collectors of languages” or “language addicts.” They seem to be driven to learn the next new language the same way a lepidopterist is driven to acquire a new species of butterfly for his or her collection. Some polyglots estimate that they spend from five to nine hours per day with their studies and linguistic interactions.

For someone who aspires to learn a new language or even to become a member of what Erard describes as the polyglot’s “neural tribe, joined not by a common language but by a restless linguistic promiscuity,” here are some recommendations. First, keep in mind that most polyglots are autodidactic. Formal language courses probably move too slowly for them or they are studying an exotic language for which local courses may not be offered. Also, with regard to techniques, there are innumerable tips from polyglots online. The key, just as for the proven polyglots, is to discover what works for you.

If you are just starting, select a basic self-study text. Focus on memorizing the dialogs, basic grammar, and vocabulary. Concentrate on completing that text before branching off into other books. Also, read the texts out loud to get comfortable pronouncing the new language.

Regardless of the amount of time you can spend, set aside a fixed study period each day. Many polyglots also systematically track their progress with a new language as well as their review of acquired languages.

Getting started does not need to be an expensive proposition. There is a selection of US Foreign Service Institute language texts and audio files covering forty-four languages online. These are in the public domain and free for download. The site is especially good if you are interested in exotic languages such as Hausa, Twi, or Kiswahili.

After completing the basic text, you may want to follow with a review using a university-level text. This will go into grammar in more detail and focus on building reading vocabulary.

(Since reading is a major source of vocabulary acquisition, I recommend starting with any selection of elementary readers, but then move into detective novels. This genre is an excellent starting place because it focuses on describing contemporary life situations using common, high-frequency vocabulary. Additionally, detective novels contain lots of dialog written in colloquial style.)

So, if you feel the passion, make the commitment. Get started.

¡Buena suerte! Viel Glück! Удачи! Good luck!

Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?

Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

AFP, Getty Images
Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”


More from mental floss studios