Like every self-respecting polyglot, I will one day have to record a video where I actually show off my impressive language abilities. As part of Challenge 44 though, I will stick to text form for now and share the level and background of every language that I speak and which languages I still plan to learn and why.
I’m born in Germany but to Croatian parents and actually with a Croatian (or probably Yugoslav?) passport. Only at the age of 5 or so did I get German citizenship. We used to speak only Croatian at home when I was a kid. This led my parents to believe that I didn’t know a word of German when I was dropped off for the first day of kindergarten. Turns out they were dead wrong and I could not only speak German but also read it. This ancient thing called TV (what we used for procrastination before the internet) had taught me German.
I never learned Croatian as such. Instead, all my knowledge of it dates back to my childhood. I can read and write in Croatian perfectly fine since it’s written as it’s spoken. Over time, my level went down a bit since it’s become less and less of a presence in my life. I’d say I can probably speak it at C1 level these days. Without an accent and fluently, but not as well as someone that would have been in school in Croatia. I also sometimes don’t use all the funny Croatian words that Croats make up to replace loanwords from other languages. Just like I don’t know Croatian months but use the latin names like every normal language does.
After successfully learning German from the telly, I had the green light to go in school in Germany. That’s really all there is to say about the language. It’s my real native language, even though it’s not the first one I learned. Usually the language you spend the better part of your school life in is the language you speak best. Since I grew up in Bavaria, I also acquired a nice little Southern German accent that will immediately give away where I’m from. I can also speak Bavarian dialect thanks to growing up around people that spoke it, but I tend not to.
I’ve always had a fascination with English and I can still remember getting my first English book in fifth grade (and I tend to push away most memories from school). I was imagining how I’d be able to speak English one day and imitated the rarara sounds, cause that’s what English sounds like to you when you don’t speak it. My grades in English were always good but never excellent. I learned it in school but in my teenage years I started watching series, movies and sports with English commentary and that’s where I probably picked up my excellent understanding of it and also laid the foundation for good listening comprehension in other languages.
I eventually did my A-levels in English and at this point I was fully fluent. When I went to Ireland to study abroad for the first time, I didn’t need an extra English course. But little did I know that I’d get one that I didn’t ask for, because understanding people from Cork is bloody hard and will even be a challenge for native speakers. Later, I also studied two years only in English. To get admitted to that degree, I had to pass the IELTS and got 8.0 without preparation. So my English still wasn’t “perfect” at that point. After wrapping up those degrees, English ended up being one of the languages that I can teach. I did another English test at some point, that time the CPE (C2 test of proficiency) in order to check my level. Going into it without prep again, I passed it with A’s across the board, so my English was finally maxed out.
Nowadays, I can say that I am as comfortable speaking English as I am with German. I can learn other languages from English and often take notes in English instead of German. It has become my de facto co-working language. When I watch movies, I understand 99% unless it’s something excessively hard like Tom Hardy in the revenant or someone speaking a hard-to-understand accent from the North of England.
My full history with Russian can be found in my post about how I learned Russian. In short, I learned Russian because I’ve always been fascinated by it and its proximity to Croatian. It also seemed more useful than Croatian. So I took Russian for a semester in uni but had to stop because of my exchange year. Later, I ended up enrolling in that degree that lead me to Russia and where I learned Russian. The finishing touches were put on in many months of arduous self-study and living in the language.
It’s the third language I speak at C2 level and these days, I probably speak it a bit better than Croatian. If I went for a few weeks to Croatia, that would probably even out though. I can understand probably 95% in a movie (hard to say since I rarely watch movies from Russia) and read books without a problem. There will be words here and there that I don’t know, more so if it’s classical literature, but it doesn’t interrupt my reading flow. However, I read slower than in English or German, so it’s inefficient and I stopped reading a lot of books in Russian.
I can also speak with very little accent and write in different tones, though there will be a few mistakes if it’s a more complex text. Overall, my Russian is now at the point where I don’t have to make any conscious effort anymore, just like with the other languages.
As with Russian, I have a full post about learning Spanish. At the moment I am trying to reach C1, but I am finding it quite hard and have noticed that it’s inefficient to try to get to C1 in a language if you aren’t in the country. It would be way easier and quicker to get to C1 actually being in a Spanish-speaking country. Therefore, I won’t push languages past B2 anymore in the future unless I plan to spend more time in the country. The extra effort is massive but the return isn’t worth it in this case.
At the moment I can tell pretty well how much worse my Spanish is compared to my next-best language. Although I am fluent and can speak without problems and many mistakes, I have to reach for words quite often when the conversation becomes more difficult. I also have to concentrate on picking the right tenses, paying attention to prepositions and flat out don’t know how to say something at times. My understanding is pretty good and I can follow a series or a movie without subtitles but there will be plenty that goes over my head. My understanding of accents other than Iberian Spanish is also worse though not by much. Basically, if there is more than one person from Spain that I have to focus on, I have to focus really hard.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to a “real C1” level, where I am able to speak the language effortlessly and without giving my brain a workout, without spending time in a Spanish-speaking country. Most probably yes, but it’ll be slower than I anticipated. I’m determined to achieve that because I’ve always wanted to be able to speak Spanish.
Now we’re entering non-fluent territory. I don’t even count these languages usually, because unless I can speak a language fluently, it doesn’t count for me. But I had two years of Italian in school in fact. I also self-studied it for a while afterwards because I had an Italian girlfriend (though I didn’t bother to speak Italian to her, stupidly). I eventually ditched the language to tackle Spanish but I can still understand it pretty well, probably around B1 level. If I was forced to speak, I could speak, although my Spanish would interfere hard at this point.
I plan to raise my Italian to a B2 level eventually. It’s already there so I figure I might as well. It’s a really useless language and I don’t like learning useless languages, but it does sound very pleasant. Just haven’t made up my mind so far whether it’ll be right after Spanish or not, depends on when I go back to visit the Italian cities I still haven’t seen.
Like many unlucky pupils in Germany, I was force-fed French in school for many years. My marks were always shit because I didn’t like it and, unsurprisingly, I don’t remember much. In 2018, I actually had to speak French when I met French-speaking supporters at the World Cup. It’s funny how much you can still come up with when you are forced to speak the language, because we were able to have a real conversation. This is my worst language by far though and I can’t speak much these days. My understanding is a bit better, I could probably follow along something intermediate with subtitles.
But I do plan to relearn French to fluency (B2) at some point because I am intrigued by visiting Africa and fluent French would come in very, very handy. It’s an annoying language with a pronunciation I dislike but the benefits are just too great and it’s too useful, especially considering the strong foundation I already have.
Still on the list: Portuguese
Portuguese is a layup after learning Spanish, I can already understand a good deal of written Portuguese without ever having learned a word of the language. Brazil is a fascinating country with many interesting things and people to discover, so this one is an absolute no-brainer for me.
I’m not the typical polyglot in the sense that I am not a language nerd. I don’t learn languages only because I like the sound or because I am bored. Instead, I am very utility-driven: I had to learn Italian and French in school, now it wouldn’t take much effort to get to fluency level in these languages and benefit from it when traveling. Portuguese is close as well.
But Chinese…completely different story. I’ve never learned a really hard language. Russian was difficult but only because I went full proficiency. Becoming conversational was actually straightforward thanks to my Croatian. Chinese would be a massive challenge and one I am not completely sure of. It would be incredibly useful because I still plan to live 50+ years and many things will happen in the world in that time. Probably better to know Chinese than not. On the other hand, it’s not a language that you just listen to and read for a bit and then you know it. It’s very challenging and not something that I’d want to abandon at A2 level. Either do it properly or not at all. That’s why I’m still on the fence with this one.
After English, this was the second language and culture that just fascinated me. Learning Spanish was driven by utility but Japan is just a fascinating culture. However, the language is utterly useless and only spoken there. It’s not even close enough to another language to have spillover effects. I’ll likely never live in Japan. The country won’t take over the world. So it makes no sense to learn it from a rational point of view. But I’m still undecided and would like to visit both China and Japan first before making a decision.
Languages I wouldn’t learn: Arabic or languages from small countries
I don’t consider Arabic particularly useful, though who knows whether that might change in Europe in the future…
It has many different dialects and doesn’t appeal to me. You could just speak French to the educated people in these countries.
I’d also never learn a smaller language if there wasn’t a good reason to do so. When I lived in the Czech Republic for a few months, I started with Czech but dropped it when I moved away again. I’d never learn, say, Dutch just because I speak languages from the same language family. Total waste of time in my opinion and that time is much better invested somewhere else.
But maybe you have one that I missed and should consider? Let me know in the comments.