“Oh, do you speak [X]?”

A little over a week ago, I went into the university library to pick up the copy of Using German Vocabulary that was waiting for me. As I work at the library as a reference assistant, the lady at the counter knows me. Seeing what book I was checking out, she asked: “Oh, do you speak German?”

Umm. Good question. One which, alas, I’m not really sure how to answer. I paused briefly, and then said, “Well, yeah, some – but.. well.. yeah.”

German is the foreign language I’ve been learning the longest, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been learning it in a from-here-to-there way – quite haphazard. And so when someone asks me, “Oh, do you speak German?”, the best I can say is “Yes, some” – which is truthful, but it certainly sounds rather lackluster, considering how many years I’ve been at it! I have an extremely difficult time gauging where exactly on the spectrum of “knowing German” I’m currently at. How far along do you have to be to be “allowed” to simply answer “Yes!” to “Do you speak [X]?”

Does anyone else have trouble with this, or am I just a peculiar one?

By |2008-01-12T19:43:43+00:00January 12th, 2008|German, Language Journal, Language Learning|17 Comments


  1. Ashalynd January 13, 2008 at 5:03 pm - Reply

    I have very similar situation with French… have been learning it for quite a time, but still don’t dare to speak it with the natives when it goes about serious things.

  2. Josh January 13, 2008 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    Ashalynd: Yep, I do the same thing (even though I know it’s perhaps a bit silly).

  3. anka January 21, 2008 at 5:37 pm - Reply

    I mostly say that I know a language, when I manage to speak and think in the same pace, meaning, that the language I use does not obstacle the free flow of thought I verbalize. It will sound geekish, but since we are among friends, It is a kind of enlightenment experience, and the more you know a language the more often it comes.

    and german simply works like that. it is much more structured than english, and I for one thing find it hard or virtually impossible to “float” while using it. mostly because there are so many things to remember: verbs at the end, split-verbs (dunno what you call them in english)… and you still get it all wrong.

    then again

    niemand hat gesagt, dass es leicht ist, Polyglotte zu werden.

  4. Josh January 21, 2008 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    I like that view, Anka. πŸ™‚

    In regards to German being difficult to “float” with – while I had never thought of it in such terms, I know exactly what you mean. Even when writing German, if I’m writing too quickly, I often forget to put the verb prefixes at the end of the clause, simply because by the time I’ve reached the end, I’ve forgotten the prefix altogether. Twain’s The Awful German Language may be over the top, but it still holds truth.

  5. anka January 22, 2008 at 3:27 am - Reply

    It’s all your fault: now instead of studying for the end of term exams I’ll be listening to project gutenberg The Awful German Language!

  6. Josh January 22, 2008 at 10:02 am - Reply

    Anka: Hah, I accept all blame. πŸ™‚ At least it’s just a rather lengthy article, rather than a book; hopefully you’ll be down with it in time to turn back to your studies!

  7. GeoffB January 24, 2008 at 6:47 pm - Reply

    On the “Do you know…?” question, it’s not just you. This has long been a pressing issues for polyglots figuring out how many languages they speak. The easiest thing is to take a test or rate yourself against the CEFL guidelines. The hard part is if you’ve been studying off and on forever but still aren’t competent enough to give yourself a rating you can be proud of.

    I tell people that I’ve dabbled enough in German to translate Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Wittgenstein (true) but lack the specialized knowledge necessary for more complex tasks like discussing the weather or ordering breakfast sandwiches. It’s not a very good answer, but at least it discourages embarrassing follow-up questions.

  8. Ryan January 31, 2008 at 12:24 pm - Reply

    I suppose that I’m a little uptight about this issue. I’ve dabbled in Italian and French but never claim that I speak them even though, in some circumstances, I can converse in these languages. I say that I’ve studied them but that I don’t know them well. Like you said, it’s a lack-luster response but it’s honest and it won’t get me into trouble.

    What if the person asking speaks that language fluently and then starts rattling it off? I did that once to someone who claimed to speak Portuguese. I switched to Portuguese and the person’s eyes got huge. Whoops! One of my Portuguese professors also told me about a situation where a girl applied for a job, claiming to be fluent in Portuguese, and it backfired in the interview. It’s generally best to downplay our abilities in a language that we’re not totally confident in.

  9. Josh February 1, 2008 at 8:59 am - Reply


    The hard part is if you’ve been studying off and on forever but still aren’t competent enough to give yourself a rating you can be proud of.

    That’s exactly where I feel I’m at with German.


    I’ve dabbled in Italian and French but never claim that I speak them even though, in some circumstances, I can converse in these languages.

    Yeah, exactly. With German, I can speak well enough to get by in a German-speaking area if I needed to, but my speaking would be very rough indeed. I’m studying Russian and French, but I wouldn’t dare say I speak any of either – I just don’t know enough beyond set phrases to feel confident with them.

    Funny tales about the Portuguese. πŸ™‚

    Also, glad to see another language blogger commenting here; I’ve subscribed to your blog.

  10. Syral February 3, 2008 at 5:37 am - Reply

    Yeh, I find I’m like that with Japanese, been at it here and there and it’s added up but i’m not fluent at all. I say YES to speaking French. WHY? because I can say anything I need to say, 95-100% grammatically correct. I also have a vocabulary i estimate to be well over 6000 words. A 6-year old has around that, and you would certainly say that a 6-year old native speaker speaks that language.

    Peace out.

  11. Jack February 25, 2008 at 3:16 pm - Reply

    Speaking of ‘complexity’, I have a hard time too with the (incredible) complexity of Russian inflection. It does indeed inhibit the flow — but then again, isn’t that the very definition of ‘fluency’ ? — that things “just plain flow”.

  12. Josh February 25, 2008 at 5:23 pm - Reply

    Jack: Yeah, whenever I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll open up one of my Russian books to the grammar tables in the back, which show all of the declension patterns. I’m going to have a hard time just memorizing all of them, which is to say nothing at all of those endings coming to me quickly and effortlessly when I try to speak the language.

    Hopefully I’ll get there eventually.

  13. luke March 8, 2008 at 10:36 am - Reply

    yeah i get the same thing with thai … i’ve been studying it for 2.5 years now, can hang out and talk with my friends in thai all day but still find words that i don’t know. what’s interesting is that i know lots of obscure words that many of my thai friends don’t even know, but sometimes it’s the slang or words from thai dialects that stump me. thai also has lots of words that don’t really have an meaning but are used because they rhyme with words that do have meaning ….

    so where i’m going with this is that i do tell people i can speak some thai, but it does sound lackluster … especially since i am studying at a university where i’m the only american (the rest are all thai, with a handful from laos, burma, japan).

  14. Zero April 13, 2008 at 3:12 am - Reply

    Yeh, to ask ‘do you speak X’ is a little ambiguous. Most English speakers don’t even understand the different fluencies a language can be spoken at, and so are completely ignorant.
    Also the question ‘how long have you been learning X’ is also pretty irrelevant, and the inferences drawn from these numbers cannot be accurate.

    person a: 5 years x 20 minutes a day
    person b:1 year x 9 hours a day + lived in the X target language’s country

    person C: How long have you been learning X?
    A: I’ve been learning X for 5 years.
    C: (wow you must be very fluent)
    B: I’ve been learning X for 1 year.
    C: (you mustn’t really know that much then, you’re still a beginner)

  15. Josh April 13, 2008 at 6:37 pm - Reply

    Hey Zero,

    Your remark about English speakers not understanding the different fluencies a language can be spoken at is quite true. A lot of people seem to think that there’s some magical line in language learning – before you’ve crossed it, you’re not fluent, after you’ve crossed it, you’re fluent. I wish!

    I’ve had people ask me things like “Oh, you’re learning German? When do you think you’ll be done learning it?” I don’t know – never? Isn’t there always something more to learn? πŸ™‚

  16. anka April 14, 2008 at 3:21 pm - Reply

    my other favorite situation is when people say: “well, that’s some impressive english, how did you do it?” I mostly respond with something around the lines of “well, (duh), you know, twelve years of hard work still unfinished”

    just as if there was a some way of learning a language other than hard work. the person who understood the notion best was, amusingly enough, my capoeira professor. he told me that it works the same with martial arts.

    hence badass zen polyglots. someone ought to write a graphic novel about them πŸ™‚

  17. Josh April 16, 2008 at 7:35 am - Reply

    Anka: Yeah. I’m really quite sick of all of the “learn a language in 4 days, EASILY!” nonsense. It gives people the wrong idea about how language learning works. There aren’t any special keys that you can get that magically unlock thousands of words; you just have to learn them, typically one slow word at a time.

    I’d read such a graphic novel. πŸ™‚

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