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How many languages do you know?

Being able to speak a second language is somewhat extraordinary for some people. It is because the advantage of knowing a second language really matters. It widens our horizon, increases our skill, and broadens our network. Thus, bilingual people are always seen better in terms of having the opportunity to greater access to information than what monolingual people are.

Most of the acquaintances that I have met always ask about how many languages I know. This is indeed a simple but a difficult question to answer. Imagine you know several languages, how would you answer that question? Would you answer by giving any numbers? I thought to do the same, but hold on, there something you need to consider. Nobody is perfect, even in their own languages. Thus, how would you define fluency? Which judgment would support you for knowing a certain number of languages?

Trap question

I always think of it as a trap question. The response could be praise for your linguistic capability or on the contrary, your friends and acquaintances might make fun of your enthusiasm about languages. For some people, learning many languages is useless because first, they think languages are difficult. Second, they think that knowing English is sufficient enough to let them know about this world.

Nevertheless, we need to respect whatever their opinion is towards language learning. The fact that knowing a foreign language(s) is quite important nowadays doesn’t give enough incentives to motivate them to learn languages. I always answer this question with reasons because giving simply any numbers doesn’t make sense without any supporting reasons. These reasons could be when you started to learn the language, how you use it every day, and whether or not you can understand news articles.

I still remember some friends laughed at me about my interest to learn many different languages, whereas knowing English and Chinese Mandarin is already considered enough for them. Some also laughed when they knew that I was learning Esperanto, the most widely spoken constructed language that many people are still skeptical about. But look! I have known many Esperanto friends from around the world, and I can write articles and teach in Esperanto too!

Knowing more languages actually gives us more advantages, such as more access to information, more chance to know people from other countries, or even to have more logical thinking. The last advantage is very important for me because I do programming, and logic plays a big role in programming.

The answer is...

The safest way to respond to this question without giving disappointing answers is by explaining how you encountered and decided to learn the language, and how you use the language every day. Everyone has different expectation towards your language ability. When you say that you know a language, do you mean that you know basic conversation, like asking direction or ordering food in the restaurant? Or can you debate about the economic crisis in your target language?

I always answer by mentioning two of my native languages — Medan Hokkien and Indonesian, my study in an international program for Bachelor and Master degrees where English is the primary language, my stay in a Mandarin-speaking country, my ability to chat in Spanish and Portuguese, my part-time job teaching Esperanto, and my reading ability in French.

So, it gives you the idea of how my level is. I might be good at certain topics but weak at the other. Therefore, I still continuously keep on using these languages, not only to read or chat but also to learn other languages. I make them an inseparable part of my life. That is how we grow up learning our mother tongue language.

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