Mutual intelligibility of languages

If you’ve ever wondered just how much mutual intelligibility there between different languages, the sites I came across today will go some way to satisfying your curiosity.

One site is a Wikipedia page which discusses the degree of mutual intelligibility between a wide range of languages for quite a few different language families. It divides languages into those that are mutually intelligible in both their written and spoken forms, their spoken forms only, or their written forms only.

Then there’s a long discussion on this site about the mutually intelligibility of Slavic languages. There seems to be many different opinions on this topic.

I find that with a fairly good knowledge of French and Spanish, plus a basic knowledge of Portuguese and Italian, I can read and sort of understand just about any Romance language, with the exception of Romanian. When I hear unfamiliar Romance languages spoken, I can get a basic idea of their meaning as well.

My German helps me to understand written Dutch and Afrikaans to some extent, and to understand a bit of their spoken forms. In fact I understand slightly more of them than of German regional dialects such as Bavarian.

My limited knowledge of Czech and Russian helps me understand bits and pieces of other Slavic languages, at least when they’re written.

Knowledge of Irish enables me to understand quite a lot of Scottish Gaelic, and some Manx, though as Manx spelling is so different, it takes a lot of decoding.

I can understand some written Cornish thanks to my Welsh abilities, though hardly any Breton.

16 thoughts on “Mutual intelligibility of languages

  1. Hi Simon,
    You have a very interesting blog and I am glad to have linked through to it. I have had fun trying to acquire several languages over the years but my range is very narrow compared to yours.
    My wife is Polish and we were in Slovakia and the Czech Republic a few years back. Slovakian and Polish are comparable to Scandinavian languages but Czech is somewhat different so she did have to use English at times there. I was in Prague a few months back and what I noticed was that almost all of the words for general items are similar to Polish. Spoken Czech is hard for me to understand though.
    Afrikaans is actually very similar to Dutch. They did a survey of Dutch related languages and a while back and Afrikaans was actually closer to ABN (standard) Dutch than some dialects like Limburgs. I can understand more Afrikaans than Flemish dialects and I speak Dutch fluently.
    I havee to say though that anecdotal evidence is not too useful when comparing languages because everything depends on your language background. People who learn languages generally want to understand. I know my ears are alert to any foreign language. Like you say, one language is never enough. I must link your blog from mine as it is a classic blog for anyone interested in languages.

  2. Living in Estonia I have remarked that most Estonians are exposed to Finnish TV and it’s not uncommon for Estonians to travel to Helsinki and further inland. They pick up a reasonable understanding of Finnish. The same can not be said for the Finns as regards the Estonian language however.

    Personally, with my Irish I can have a reasonable go at Scottish Gaelic but written Manx is just too different. I can’t seem to put my French to too much use, except for perhaps understanding some Esperanto.

    All the English in the world can’t however help me understand Ulster Scots, but Lowland Scots isn’t too bad.

  3. I used to be able to understand flemish when I lved there from my German

    With my Spanish I can understand spoken (radio) and written Italian, Portuguese/Gallego and Catalan. I can also understand Chilean spanish at times.

    It´s interesting that some nations here don´t translate portuguese speaking footballers when they interview them. I have heard that in Colombia. In Chile they always do, as the Chileans even have difficulty understanding other spanish speakers on occasion.

    I can normally understand American from my English.

  4. This is a cool topic.
    From having learnt French and some Latin in school I can easily read most Spanish and Italian, whereas oral comprehension is horrible.
    I also have a Peruvian friend who says the Spanish taught in American schools is far different from the norm in Peru, at least.

  5. I have alwaysa been interested in mutual intelligibility. From Latin and a decent amount of study of Spanish (along with small amounts of study of Italian and French), I can understand most written Romance languages to some extent (Romanian is difficult). From German I can understand written Dutch and Afrikaans to some extent. I can also understand Esperanto and Interlingua quite well without much study (especially for Interlingua).

  6. i once had the odd experience of listening to a conversation beteen a Dutch speaker and an Africaaner. I have also had a conversation with an Italian speaker, me speaking Spanish, her Italian

  7. I speak Spanish well as a foreign language and I’m interested in Spanish-Italian mutual intellibility. Recently been to Italy and used Spanish on the unsuspecting natives and, yes, for everyday needs Spanish is understood. Replies are always in Italian for which my comprehenion is around 50% only. Sometimes Italian seems easy to understand other times I haven’t a clue. The News on TV is easy; dramas difficult.

  8. Some interesting links there. To add to the testimonials, having grown up in a Spanish-speaking household as a monolingual English speakers, and subsequently studying until I have a fairly high degree of proficiency in Castellano (I do get confused when initially listening to non-Spaniards and Andalucians – it’s the c’s and z’s). With that and a little bit of determination, it’s pretty easy to get accustomed to at least reading a wide range of Romance languages. In fact, I get all my news from Spanish, Catalan, Italian, and Asturianu websites. Speaking is something else, though…

  9. Much of mutual inteligibility is about desire, as I have noticed when I have tried to get friends here to read blog entries in portugues… they don´t like it. I had to translate the silly thing into Spanish for them (and a Brazilian friend gave it the all clear!)

    It´s also about the level of the language in question or dialect you speak. If you have a large vocabulary in, say, Spanish, you can understand the other romanance languages much better. “El can” is an archaic or dialect word for dog, so you can guess “chien” or “cane” “cão” or whatever else (like from english “hound” you can guess German “Hund”, Dutch “hond” or Swedish “hund”). If you are looking for “perro” or “dog” you won´t get far.

  10. @ James

    What do you mean by, “I can normally understand American from my English.”?

  11. It´s a joke. I used to live there, I am employed in the USA. Most of my friends are from the USA.

    Why does one always have to explain this?

  12. I remember reading somewhere that mututal intelligibility is not so much to do with the similarity of the features of different languages but rather how much contact that individuals have with the language.

    There is, apparently, a dialect continuum through the Netherlands and into Germany. The dialect speakers in the Netherlands can understand standard dutch. The dutch dialect speakers in Germany can understand standard High German but speakers of these very similar dialects find it difficult to understand each other across the border.

    This is not so remarkable considering that for the U.S, ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Twin Town’ were subtitled.

  13. I speak Malay and therefore I can speak Indonesian. I speak three Sinitic languages (Mandarin, Cantonese and Southern Min/Taiwanese) but none of these are mutually intelligible. Being able to read Chinese characters, I can also read Japanese kanji and Korean hanja although I have no idea how they are pronounced in Japanese or Korean. I speak and read some Swedish so I can also read some Danish and Norwegian.

  14. Mutual intelligibility between related languages has always been a linguistic fascination for me. I speak English and Spanish fluently, and can get by a little in Portuguese, Italian, and to a much lesser extent French. As far as reading, I know that reading a Portuguese paper is almost no problem for me. Writing, I can do OK with help from a dictionary as the lexical similarity between Spanish and Portuguese is 90%..if it’s not a perfect cognate, chances are there is always a matching construction. Speaking and listening..another story. Brazilian Portuguese I understand pretty well, almost completely depending on how fast the Brazilian is speaking. Galician, same thing..I consider that almost like Portuguese with a more Spanishlike pronunciation. BUT..Euro Portuguese..I REALLY need help understanding..I get maybe every 4th or 5th word. As a Spanish bilingual rep for an Rx company, I had many perfectly understandable conversations in a mix of Span and Port. I have done with Italians as well..but while the sound structure and individual word lexicon is similar, the grammar in Italian is much more Frenchlike. Spanish speakers understand the words just fine..until it comes time to form a plural (“dos casas” as opposed to “due case”, for example).

    It is also interesting to think, had the French not exerted such an influence on England so many centuries ago, how much English speakers would be able to understand Dutch, Flemish, and Frisian, and even German, Swedish, ect to an extent. Modern English is almost half Germanic, half Romance, due to the conquests of the past.
    great blog!

  15. Turkic languages , which are very interesting
    and closely realted , are supposed to have a
    remarkable degree of mutual intelligibility, despite the vast area over which they are spoken. I met a Turk who once visited Uzbekistan , and was surprised at how well he could understand Uzbek. It seemed like
    just a Turksih dialect to him.

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