Mutual intelligibility

This week I heard an interesting conversation about the mutual intelligibility between Czech and Slovak friends. They were talking in English, but said that when they can talk to each other in their own languages they’re able to understand everything. The Slovak lass said that she finds it strange for Czechs to speak Slovak to her as if they speak Czech she understand them without difficulty, though if people from other countries speak Slovak, that’s fine. I use what little Slovak I know with her, for example. The Czech lass said more or less the same thing about Slovaks – she doesn’t expect them to speak Czech, though if they do, that’s fine by her.

If you are a native speaker of Czech or Slovak, what’s your take on this?

What about other languages that as mutually intelligible as Czech and Slovak?

I understand that Swedes and Norwegians can talk to one another in their own languages, for example. Would it be strange for a Norwegian to speak Swedish or vice versa?

9 thoughts on “Mutual intelligibility

  1. Sometimes it is one-way. Lowland Scots speakers understand English perfectly but English speakers don’t completely understand Scots. I think an English speaker could learn to speak basic Scots very quickly (probably not with the right accent), but I don’t think many people would do this. On the other hand, Scots speakers switch to English when speaking to English speakers.

  2. As it happens, Czech and Swedish are the two languages I’ve mostly been looking at this week (apart from keeping on with my Spanish). It’s nice to know that if I learn them I’ll be able to communicate with Slovak and Norwegian speakers too. (I’ve been undecided for a long time between tackling Norwegian or Swedish and opted to go for the latter as there’s now a Duolingo course for it.)

  3. Mutual intelligibility between Slovak and Czech is near 100% – if I recall the data from the MICRELA project correctly, they got results somewhere in the neighborhood of 97-98%. What was surprising to me (I’m a native speaker of Slovak) is that while Czech kids under the age of 13 seem to have some difficulty with Slovak (they are not exposed to Slovak as much as Slovak kids are to Czech*), this assymetry disappears as they grow up and my Czech grad school classmates have no problem understanding me, no matter the subject.
    If you’re interested in mutual intelligibility of closely related languages, do check out the MICRELA project. For Germanic Scandinavian languages, of course, there is the meanwhile classic study Håller språket ihop Norden?.

    *A case in point: movies on DVD. While the Slovak law mandates that movies shown on TV be broadcast dubbed into Slovak, there is no similar provision pertaining to DVDs and so many movies, including animated ones for kids, are available in Czech first (or even exclusively) and kids watch them in Czech. “Cars 2” is one of those and it includes a hilarious and touching throwback to the good old federation days when football matches always had two casters, one Czech and one Slovak. In the Czech dubbing, the casters at the race in the beginning of the movie, replicate this dynamic.

  4. Unfortunately the mutual intelligibility of the Scandinavian languages isn’t as high as some people (like me) make it out to be. 😐

    It’s not strange at all for Scandinavians to learn each other’s languages. It’s no uncommon for people to live in one country and work in another. If you plan to do it for a longer stretch of time then learning the neighbouring language helps a lot (it depends on which field you’re working in of course). Usually it’s a gradual process where you start by switching out words that can be especially hard to understand. There are always people who think it’s just a matter of changing your pronunciation and the result tends to be unintelligible.

  5. Ukraininan is partly mutually intelligible with Russian. As a native speaker of Russian, I’d rather say I don’t understand Ukrainian. I’ve heard that Bulgarian is more comprehensible to Russian speakers, which is rather surprising.

  6. Hi there. I’m Polish and last year I went to Tatra mountains with a friend (he’s a Pole as well). During one of our trips we met a Slovak guy, with whom we spent a couple of hours hiking and chatting, using our native languages. There were some minor misunderstandings (solved with gestures and one time with a help of English word) but we were able to communicate. It was a bit easier for me then for my friend (probably because I know Russian, and some words that sound different in Slovak than in Polish are similar to eastern slavic), but he was still able to get the point.

  7. bulbul: That’s an interesting point you make about the legal requirement to dub all foreign films shown on Slovak television. But that surely must mean — especially if it applies to TV series too — that you never have the opportunity hear the original language, or the actors’ own voices, in anything shown on the small screen? I’d find it a great loss if I couldn’t watch the foreign-language crime series that are shown on television here (in the UK) — subtitled, of course, but nevertheless in the original Danish, Swedish, French, Italian, etc.
    P.S. By “casters” do you mean “commentators”?

  8. Kevin: you are quite correct about the small screen. But, fortunately, there are more options these days, some perhaps on the wrong side of the copyright laws, but still ok.
    And yes, by “casters” I meant “commentators”. The term “caster” is used in the type of sports I like to watch (mostly Starcraft), so it’s the term I am most familiar with.

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