“Do You Speak French?” The Art of Talking about Languages

“Do you Speak French?”

Can someone please help me to answer this question?

Hello. My name is Cate, and I’m a language nerd.

Have you ever been asked something like “Do you speak French?“, and been overcome with an overwhelming desire to run really fast in the opposite direction?

Have you found yourself standing there speechless with the thoughts “Define ‘speak’… do you mean like a native?.. or conversationally?… or just did some classes at school?

It gets weirder as you add languages to your learning schedule. At the start of 2018 I could have answered completely in just one sentence…

“Well, I’m an interpreter for Auslan, and I can speak Dutch conversationally, and this year I am planning to pick up my school-learned French again to help me learn Langue des signes française (French Sign Language, or LSF).” 

Not too bad. However…

Here we are approaching the end of the year, and my language learning has taken on a life of it’s own.

I haven’t studied much LSF. But I did start learning the Greek alphabet to prepare me for learning Greek next year. And last week I started a one month intensive in German.

And the weekend challenge LanguageJam that I did a few weeks ago has added a low level study of Icelandic.

So now the problem comes…

“What languages do you speak?”

[Cate begins to count them off on her fingers] “Native in English, an interpreter for Auslan, quite conversational in Dutch, basically conversational in French, nearly able to hold a conversation in German, just started learning Icelandic, LSF and Greek….”!

(And as their eyes grow wider with each language, Cate’s emotions now vacillate between actually having some pride in her multilingual abilities, and a deep seated fear that she has once again demonstrated just how much of a weirdo she is!)

Or do I answer only with languages I can “speak”… but at what level?

I can follow most basic conversations in French these days. But I’m probably only actually understanding 50% of the actual words, and working out the gist from context. And my spoken language is very stilted, still.

I wouldn’t yet even mention Greek or probably even Icelandic.

But what about German? I am following my self-created Language Hack and should be able to have basic conversations by the end of the month).

And what about next month’s intensive, which will be Afrikaans?

And more to the point… does my inquirer really even care?

Not really, I don’t think.

I’m sure that it is probably just my Asperger-tendencies of having to be very specific with my information. Because heaven forbid I not tell the truth, and the whole truth, so help me God!

I’m absolutely sure I could answer “Oh, just a couple!” and they would happily and simply say “Wow!”, and go on their merry way, never again wondering what languages I speak.

Fortunately in Australia this type of conversation doesn’t happen often outside of Language Exchanges… and in those we usually just wear the flags of the languages we want to practise.

Have you every had these sort of ridiculous debates with yourself? If you have any helpful tips for me, I’d love to hear them. Leave a note in the comment section!

Cate is a language enthusiast sharing her language learning journey here. Apart from her native English (albeit 'Strine'*!), as an adult she has also learned Auslan (Australian Sign Language) to approximately a C1 level, Dutch to around B1/2, French to around A2, and has a smattering of other languages.

B.A. (Anthropology/Marketing), Grad. Dip. Arts (Linguistics), Grad. Cert. Entrepreneurship & Venture Development, (CELTA).

Auslan Interpreter (NAATI), and general Language Nut.

*For more information on 'Strine', visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strine