Mutual Intelligibility in the Romance Languages

Whether or not I am a reliable source for the question of mutual intelligibility has been questioned in a debate on Wikipedia. It’s been suggested that I am an amateur linguist – that is, I am not a real linguist. This is not true. I am in fact a real linguist. My credentials are that have an MA in Linguistics and have worked in the past as a professional linguist for an Indian tribe in a paid position.

Here is an excellent link on the question of mutual intelligibility between Spanish and Portuguese, the subject of a prior post.  If you Google the question, you get all sorts of hits for the question, so it is obviously something that people are very interested in.

But here’s a guy who actually tested it out experimentally. In the test, Spanish had 58% intelligibility for Portuguese speakers, and Portuguese had 50% intelligibility for Spanish speakers. This stands to reason, given popular stories about Spanish speakers being able to ask directions of Portuguese speakers, but not being able to understand the response. Portuguese is harder for Spanish speakers than vice versa. Combined gives us a figure of 54% intelligibility between Spanish and Portuguese.

The test attempted to factor out exposure to the other language and decided that Spanish and Portuguese have about 45% inherent intelligibility (comprehension of those speakers not previously exposed to the other language). That sounds about right. Keep in mind that Spanish and Portuguese have 89% lexical similarity.

Based on that, you would think that they can understand each other, or that they are dialects of a single language. But lexical similarity is almost always going to be higher than intelligibility, so that 89% figure is quite misleading. For instance, Frisian and English have 61% lexical similarity, but in the Frisian video in the prior post, I could not make out a single word in five minutes. It appears that 60% lexical similarity and $1.89 will get you a Slurpee at a 7-11, but little in the way of understanding another language.

We also learn, here, that no one can understand French except the French. Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, Romanians, no one can understand the darned French. This makes sense to me. I can’t understand a word of the local French-speaking tourists, and I had a semester of French. They always talk like they are holding their noses.

This is interesting in light of the fact that Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian have 89%, 75%, 75% and 75% lexical similarity with French. But all those similar words aren’t worth a hill of beans when it comes to understanding a Frenchman.

Spanish speakers have a better understanding of Italian. Italian and Spanish have 85% lexical similarity, and that is worse than the 89% for Spanish and Portuguese.

That’s for spoken communication. For written communication, French and Italian can understand each other a lot more. The same is true with Spanish and Portuguese. They can understand the other language when written much better than when spoken.

What is interesting is that everyone accepts that Spanish, Portuguese and Italian are separate languages, despite 54% intelligibility for Spanish and Portuguese.

However, in the cases of Austrian/Bavarian, Swabian (spoken around Stuttgart) and Mainfränkisch (Moselle Franconian, close to Luxembourgeois), these three languages are only 40% intelligible with Standard German. Their status as separate languages has infuriated lots of Germans who just consider them to be merely dialects of German, or “cheap slangs” of some type or other. Yet they have a better case for being separate languages than Spanish and Portuguese do.

Romanian also seems to have some understanding of both Spanish and Italian. Romanian speakers say that they moved to Italy, could immediately pick up a fair amount of the conversation, and picked up Italian very fast. Romanians have ~65% intelligibility of Italian when spoken and possibly 85-90% when written. They can understand written Catalan better than Spanish and spoken South American Spanish better than Castillian Spanish.

Vice versa, Italians living in Italy run into Romanians regularly and say that they can understand Romanian quite well. Spanish speakers say that they can understand a fair amount of Romanian, and Romanians can understand even more of their Spanish. Spanish and Italian have 71% and 77% lexical similarity with Romanian.

Catalan may be about 60-70% intelligible to a Spanish speaker, and that is with 85% lexical similarity. Oddly enough, Spanish speakers seem to understand Galician better than Portuguese speakers do. Spanish speakers can probably understand 85% of Galician. That doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how it is. Standard Galician is said to be pretty Hispanicized these days.

Looking for a nice dialect continuum across Europe where you can keep on understanding people everywhere you go? Try this, starting at Portugal:

Portuguese, Mirandese, Fala, Galician, Asturian, Aragonese, Spanish, Catalan, Gascon, Occitan, Auvergnat, Provençal, Franco-Provençal, French, Gallo, Picard, Jersey, Guernsey, Walloon, Romansch, Friulian, Ladin, Lombard, Ligurian, Piedmontese, Emiliano-Romagnolo, Venetian, Italian, Neapolitan, Corsican, Sicilian, Sardinian Gallurese, Sardinian Logudorese, Sardinian Sassarese, Sardinian Campidanese, Latin, Moldovan, Romanian, Megleno-Romanian, Istro-Romanian, Macedo-Romanian.

References

Jensen, John B. 1989. On the Mutual Intelligibility of Spanish and Portuguese. Hispania 72: 848-852.

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77 Comments

Filed under Europe, Linguistics, Regional

77 responses to “Mutual Intelligibility in the Romance Languages

  1. heg

    The holahoax explained for dummies

    In1980 there was 14,5 million jews in the whole world and ten years later there are 12,9 million jews in the wholw world. – a mini-holohoax, a quarter of the ww2 holahoax in ten years.

    AJC is American Jewish Committee

    About us: American Jewish Committee (AJC), established in 1906 by a small group of American Jews deeply concerned about pogroms aimed at Russian Jews, determined that the best way to protect Jewish populations in danger would be to work towards a world in which all peoples were accorded respect and dignity.

Over 100 years later, AJC continues its efforts to promote pluralistic and democratic societies where all minorities are protected. AJC is an international think tank and advocacy organization that attempts to identify trends and problems early – and take action. Our key areas of focus are:

    http://www.ajc.org/site/c.ijITI2PHKoG/b.789093/k.124/Who_We_Are.htm

    AJC main

    http://www.ajc.org/

    Quote from the Global Jew Mafia: “The size of world Jewry at the end of 1988 is assessed at 12,979,000, or slightly below 13 million. ”

    http://www.ajcarchives.org/AJC_DATA/Files/1990_13_WJP.pdf

    Qoute from the GLOBAL jew mafia: “THERE ARE NO PRECISE DATA on Jewish population in the various countries.”

    DISTRIBUTION BY CONTINENTS
    The estimated world Jewish population at the end of 1979 was 14,527,150. O

    http://www.ajcarchives.org/AJC_DATA/Files/1981_13_WJP.pdf

    This is straight from the GLOBAL jew mafia, in 1979 there was totally 14,5+ million jews in the whole world, and then ten years later there was LESS than -13 million jews in the whole world.

    That is more than a quarter, more than 1,5 million dead jews in less than ten years – a mini-holohoax.

    Now, if the GLOBAL jew mafia cant keep it straight for even ten years in the 80s – how the (any word) can the jew mafia tell dead sure that six millon jews perished during ww2?

  2. James Schipper

    Dear Robert
    It s not the least bit surprising that there is little mutual intelligibility between French and the other Latin languages because phonetically French is the odd man out. It has more vowel sounds than the other ones and its stress pattern is quite different. Whereas in the other Latin languages the syllable stress can be on the last, second last or third last syllable, in French it is always on the last syllable, unless the last syllable has a schwa in it.
    In addition, French words are often a syllable shorter than in the other Latin languages. For instance temps = tiempo is pronounced tã. It looks similar but it sounds quite different. Compare homme, pronounced om, with hombre and uomo, cheval with caballo and cavallo, eau with acqua and agua, coup = koo with golpe and colpo, sang = sã with sangre and sangue, doight = dwa with dedo and ditto.
    Another factor is that French, like Portuguese, has nasal sounds. It is likely that it is the presence of nasal sounds which makes Portuguese less intelligible to Hispanics than Spanish is to Lusitanians.
    Still, it is not that hard for the speaker of another Latin language to learn French. I taught myself to read French and to speak it respectably solely from knowing Portuguese.
    Regards. James

  3. Reader

    I wonder, to what extent are the peculiar features of French and its status as the “odd man out” among the Romance languages due to Celtic influence?

  4. I always that that was some kind of Germanic influence, but perhaps I am wrong? Something strange definitely happened to French. It’s based on Vulgar Latin, but it was on top of Gaulish, and that was not a normal tongue for that area. I think Gaulish is the source of a lot of French’s oddness.

    • “I always that that was some kind of Germanic influence, but perhaps I am wrong”

      A combination of both Germanic and Celtic influence perhaps? To start you have the great mass of the population speaking a Celtic language, with vulgar Latin displacing these dialects over the course of several centuries.

      Then you have the Germanic Franks conquering (and effectively founding) France and presumably their language would have been the mainstay amongst the elite for some centuries before giving way to the more common Romance dialect of the masses – more or less the opposite of what happened in England following the Norman invasions where the elite Romance language was eventually replaced by the common Germanic.

      • John M.

        I don’t know if there is a clear “magic bullet” explanation as to how French arrived in its present form. If you read a medieval French text, such as La Chanson de Roland (whose earliest manuscript is from the 11th century), you’ll see that while some traits of modern French (like the frequency of final consonants instead of vowels) can be observed, there are quite a few terms that are more similar to other Romance languages than their modern French equivalents are. For example, that text uses “jo” instead of “je”,”Deu” instead of “Dieu” and either “li” or “el” instead of “le.” Also, the term “mult” is repeatedly used as an intensifier adjective, (much like the Italian “molto”) whereas it has all but died out today in French. So the evolution of French away from other Romance languages was far from completed at this time – and yet, by then, both the Gaulish and Frankish languages were long extinct in France.

  5. john

    Spanish and Portuguese understand each other much better than Italians and Spanish or Portuguese and italian. I’m a Spanish speaker from Colombia where our spanish is considered the best in South America. Believe me, Portuguese from Brasil or Portugal or Angola is much easier for us Spanish speakers to understand than Italian. Our almost identical vocabulary promotes high intelligibility. Similar phonetics mean nothing if the words used by Italians are vastly different than spanish. Portuguese accent is unique, but we understand them anyway because they mostly use the same, or very similarly spelled words as spanish speakers.

    • Juan

      As late as this response may be, I really had to say something. Your comment of Colombian Spanish being the “best in South America” is just wrong. No matter what, no form of Spanish is “best” there are simply different varieties of Spanish. One could argue the Spanish of Spain is “best” simply because that is where it originated and thus closer to a “truer” Spanish. I am not of this belief. But the thing with language is that it changes. Language is always changing. So yeah I just really had to say that.

  6. rob

    I will tell you, for an spanish speaker, phonetically it is more pleasant to hear italian reather in songs or on a conversation, than hearing french and or portugese from brazil. I think Spain and Itally were during the roman empire and middle ages very close in regards to t he origins of both languages, Spanish change much with t he invasion of the arabs to the iberian peninsula, the “f” become “h”, the “J” sound deviate from all romantic languages. Reading Italian, French, Portugese, for an Spanish speaker it’s easier, understandable in 80, 75, 85% repectively.

  7. Saim Inayatullah

    I would think French-speakers would be able to understand the other langue d’oil languages (i.e. Norman, Picard, Walloon) and even Franco-Provencal (halfway between Occitan and French) to a pretty good degree. I dunno about these smaller language groups understanding French because I doubt there are any of these speakers with no exposure to French these days.

    • French speakers cannot really understand any of the real lanuges d oil very well. Not at 90% level anyway. Of course all of these other speakers can now speak French too I think.

      • John M.

        They may not understand them at a 90% level, but there definitely is some mutual intelligibility. French is my second language, and from that I can understand Picard to a decent degree, and read it (granted, I may have to sound some of the words out) fairly successfully I imagine it ‘d be easier still if French were my native language. I think the relation between French and the other Oïl languages has to be at least as close as that between Spanish and Portuguese.

  8. Marcelo Bruno

    I am a native speaker of (Brazilian) Portuguese with no formal training in Spanish and I can understand roughly 90 % of what a Spanish speaker is saying just on the basis of lexical similarity. On the other hand, I understand spoken French better than Italian, even though Italian is lexically closer to Portuguese. I guess that is because I had two years of French in High School. French looks considerably different form Italian/Portuguese/Spanish because the original Latin words from which modern French words evolved underwent major phonetic changes and were considerably modified in the process. For example, at first sight, it is not obvious that French “voir” is a cognate of Italian/Latin “vedere”, but if you have some knowledge of the historical evolution of the French language, it is easier to spot the similarities with other languages.

  9. Leo

    Hey! Robert! My name’s Leo. I find your website very interesting. You see, I’m a native speaker of Spanish, a amateur linguist and a neophite Romanist. Here’s my theory on the mutual intelligibility of the Romanic languages: To me, given their common ancestor- Latin-, there are two subgroups:
    A) The languages that preserve the common latin pronunciation- therefore can mutually understand each other:
    Spanish
    Italian
    Catalonian
    Galician
    Asturian
    Romanian
    Provençal

    B) The “Deviant” languages that have lost most of the latin pronunciation- Therefore, they can only be understood by their speech community only:
    French
    Portuguese

    Galican and Portuguese are- to me- two different dialects of the same language; However, while Galician has preserved the Latin pronunciation, Portuguese has lost it!
    I’d love to hear your opinion.-

    Leo.-

    • I understand Spanish fairly well. But I really can’t understand spoken Italian or particularly Romanian very well at all, I must say.

      To me, Galician and Portuguese are separate languages. I have some data from the Spanish-Portuguese border area where even the Portuguese is so close to Galician that some think it is Galician, and my info is that the Galician and Portuguese speakers on the borders cannot completely understand each other when they speak. In fact, they tend to resort to a common language, Spanish, to make themselves understood.

      I would add Leonese and Aragonese to your list at the top.

  10. pcongre da pole

    I find John Jensen’s study about spa-por intercomprehension to be very interesting, but it should be noted that it only takes into account American Spanish and American Portuguese, which have had a much more similar evolution than European Spanish and European Portuguese.
    Cheers!

  11. French, especially in the Northern part of France (langue d’oïl) has certainly has had some germanic influence: Old Norse (Normandie), Frankish, and Saxon. It also heavily influenced the vocabulary. The Celtic influence is unclear at the linguistic level, but it has influenced the vocabulary to some extent.
    To me, Catalan has always been an interesting “in-between” of French and Spanish.

    • lexdiamondz

      Actually, I wouldn’t say that French is all that heavily influenced by any Germanic languages is terms of vocabulary or pronunciation. Only about 550 words of frequent usage (out of 40 000 in a typical dictionary) in French are of Germanic origin, and many of the pronunciation shifts that occurred in French, occurred in the last two to three centuries, well after the Germanic invasions and they don’t reflect Germanic speech patterns at all.

  12. EGsk

    As a French speaker (Paris):

    Before I started learning Castilian (Spanish), it was relatively easy to understand, at least the way it’s spoken in Spain. I was able to pick up a few words, and understand the gist of what someone is trying to say to me. I now have a basic understanding of Spain’s Spanish.

    Living in the United States, in a city with a considerable Mexican community (Chicago), I have a lot of difficulty understanding spoken Mexican Spanish, or at least the way it’s spoken by working-class Mexican immigrants here in Chicago. I’ve heard that Mexico has several dialects, depending on region and even social class, but the Mexican immigrants here in Chicago are difficult for me to understand, both as a French speaker, and as someone learning Spain’s Spanish. When I visited Argentina, I had trouble understanding Argentine Spanish as well. I know that most native-Spanish speakers can understand each other perfectly fine (like standard Br English and standard Am English), and I’m only beginning to learn the language, But as a French speaker, Spain Spanish was a little easier for me, even before I started learning Spanish.

    Catalan is very easy to understand written, but I cannot understand a single word spoken, unless they speak very slowly. I can browse an article written in Catalan, and understand a large portion. Written Castilian was also similarly easy for me to understand before I started learning it.

    Italian is very difficult for me, both written and spoken, I don’t understand a word.

    Portuguese…I only have exposure to Brazil, and I can understand a bit of written Brazilian Portuguese, but not a single word of spoken Brazilian Portuguese.

    Canadian French: I have met Francophone Canadians from northern Ontario, where there’s a considerable French-speaking population for centuries. I have found them easy to understand. Quebec, OTOH, is very difficult for me to understand; the nasal sounds are exaggerated, and there seems to be a bit of an American/Canadian-English twang on Quebec’s pronunciation of French. French-speaking Ontarians, OTOH, have always sounded (to ME, at least), closer to standard France French in pronunciation.

    I have met people from Senegal and Haiti -who speak French in addition to their native language (Haitians’ mother tongue is Haitian Creole, not French)- and those people speak French flawlessly articulate, with beautiful pronunciation that falls easy on the ears.

  13. Michael

    Reading through ethnologue’s entries for Italy, I noticed that they talk a lot more about the intelligibility between Italian and the various local languages than the intelligibility between the local languages themselves. How much is actually known about this? Could one draw a map of who understands whom without reverting to Italian?

  14. Robert Lindsay said, “To me, Galician and Portuguese are separate languages. I have some data from the Spanish-Portuguese border area where even the Portuguese is so close to Galician that some think it is Galician, and my info is that the Galician and Portuguese speakers on the borders cannot completely understand each other when they speak. In fact, they tend to resort to a common language, Spanish, to make themselves understood.”

    If this is true, then Mr. Lindsay has contradicted himself. He said in an earlier comment that Spanish and Portuguese are not that intelligible with one another because Spanish has kept the ‘Latin pronunciation’ whereas Portuguese ‘deviated’ from the Latin pronunciation. If this is true, then why would a Galego and Portuguese resort to a common language being ‘Spanish’ to ‘make themselves understood?” This is a contradiction in terms
    since Galego and Portuguese, as Mr. Lindsay asserts, are ‘dialects’ of the same language.

    No matter how you slice it educated speakers of Portuguese and Spanish, irrespective of differences in pronunciation, can converse with each other rather effortlessly. No other 2 pair of Latin languages are as close. This is fact backed up by tons of empirical evidence.

    • They resort to Spanish because that is one language that they both speak. It’s a common language.

      Spanish and Portuguese are simply not fully intelligible, at least in the lab. The intelligiblity figures are 54% in the lab, and that’s the only way to measure it. If you go on the Net and read around, you will find many instances of Portuguese and Spanish speakers saying that they can’t really understand the speakers of the other languages very well.

      • Mr. Lindsay,

        I think intelligibility in many cases has to do with who is doing the talking, and who is doing the listening, education level, etc. I am the son of Colombian parent’s and I was born in Canada. Yet, I have never had any trouble at all communicating with any Portuguese speakers I have met whether they are from Portugal, Brazil, Angola, etc. In my opinion, the only Portuguese speakers that can be a little tricky to fully understand are the ones from Sao Miguel island in the Azores. But then again I have friends whose parents are from there so I am use to the accent already.

        I also know many Italian speakers, but for the life of me I am still unable to appreciably grasp what they say, and I am only marginally comfortable if I have to speak Italian. Whereas understanding and speaking Portuguese feels totally comfortable to me, Italian does not, even after many years of exposure to it. The Portuguese language simply feels natural to me. The slightly different accent of the Portuguese language poses no difficulty at all because approx. 90% of our vocabulary is the same. The similar accent of Italian is not that important, because Italian speakers use many, many words that are unfamiliar to Spanish and Portuguese speakers. Italian grammar is distinct from ours as well. Portuguese and Spanish speakers usually phrase their sentences in much the same way. So, similar sentence structure, plus almost identical vocabulary, and very similar grammar, makes the Portuguese and Spanish languages easily intelligible to speakers of both. Most of my friends from many other Spanish speaking countries, including Spain, say the same thing. My family members also agree with me.

        I think one needs to interact with the Lusophones / Hispanophones on the streets because that’s where the real ‘lab’ is. It also really, really, helps when you come from a Latin background, because it allows you to better understand some of the subtle shared characteristics of the Portuguese / Spanish languages that might be missed by most Anglophones for example.

  15. Dougal

    In reply to the previous writer, I must say your tone is completely contradictory. You omitted to mentiion SYNTAX……………. which is very different in Spanish (Spanish being far simpler than Portuguese). Also, Your allusion to an almost complete mutual intelligibility of the two languages is absurd. Pronunciation is so obviously different that a whole process of codification is required (like a spy decoding an encrypted message) before any spontaneous dialogue can take place. So stick that up your bum. My parents are natives of galopadonia and speak niemiersch at home (a rare dialect of Bestiole only spoke in the western peninsula of Rumonie). They cant even understand each other, so stick that up your bum!

  16. Anthony Bellew

    Hi Robert,
    Can you link me to your source(s) for your mutual intelligibility ratings? This information is quite relevant to my current research in computational linguistics.

  17. To start, that Dougal sounds like a goofball. Anyone who says on a language forum such as this one to ‘stick that up your bum’ can’t be taken seriously. And Robert, your comment about ”There should be a link to the Spanish-Portuguese study. The rest is just native speakers guessing”, sounds like a weak and unfair attempt on your part to discredit the opinions of others. Just because you have an MA in linguistics doesn’t make you an unfallible expert on language matters. If anything, a person with a P.hd. in linguistics would certainly seem more credible to me. As a previous writer correctly pointed out, sometimes the ‘real’ labs are, as he put it, ‘the streets’. Much of my graduate sociology graduate research was conducted ‘on-the-streets’. When you mingle with the speakers of languages, in this case Portuguese and Spanish, you gain a very different perspective, certainly different than what your academic labs statistics show. For the record, I am a native Spanish speaker from Spain. In Europe, Portuguese and Spaniards have no trouble at all communicating with one another – we consider ourselves brothers, historically, culturally and liguistically. This is fact. Additionally, I actually studied in New Jersey where there are tons of Spanish and Portuguese speakers. I have many friends who speak these two languages, and I have heard them conversing rather effortlessly with one another all my life. What are you going to tell me, that I’m imagining things? Please. You might be tempted not to post this, but please do the right thing and do post it. Judging from some of the earlier posts, I can assure you that there will be many future responders who will agree with many of the things I have said.

  18. maria olalia

    Great site Robert. Many interesting posts. I was born and raised in Venezuela and have been living in Toronto for 20 years. In Toronto we have a huge Portuguese and sizeable Hispanic population. I have been working with lots of Portuguese since I arrived in Toronto. I must say that from the very beginning when I arrived I never had any problems understanding my Portuguese friends and co-workers. Communication was very easy with them no matter where from the Portuguese speaking world they were from. In my opinion Portuguese and Spanish are not 100% mutually intelligible because obviously they are each their own laguage, but I must say that in my opinion they are pretty close to 90% mutually intelligible. They are the same languages in many ways, but with different accents. Still, the accent differences are not a barrier at all because we say things in pretty much the same way, sentence structure, words and grammar. Italian on the other hand, while similar in some ways, is a different animal and not very intelligible to us Hispanics. With Portuguese we do not necessarily need to study it to understand it. And they understand us perfectly. But Italian we would need formal study to understand it properly.

    • Hi Maria. I am a Portuguese guy originally from Lisbon, Portugal, and I couldn’t agree more with you. Quite often as I’m driving along in my car listening to different Spanish radio stations I can’t help but think to myself wow, it’s like I’m listening to my own language with a twist (mostly accent), because I understand practically everything that is said. I feel a close kinship between myself and my Spanish speaking friends and the other Spanish speaking people I know. And it’s true, Italian is definitely harder to understand, and unless you spend lots of time with them you wont be able to communicate enough. With Spanish, even as a kid, Spanish always felt very natural to me. Up until I left Portugal, we Portuguese and Spanish always understood one another very well speaking in our own language.

  19. Colin Chamberlain

    Hello Mr. Lindsay. I just found your site by chance. I really dislike hypocrisy. This regarding that guy Dougal’s comment “stick that up your bum”. That was totally uncalled for. You were quick to ban the other person, whose posting was not rude, and quite interesting I might add. But why didn’t you ban Dougal? His comment was rude. At least be consistent. Best, Colin.

  20. Congratulations on losing all credibility by banning dissenting opinions, Mr. Lindsay.

    • I do not ban dissenters. They are banned for violations of “hostile tone” in the comments threads. I have many regular commenters who disagree with me all the time.

      PS you are banned.

      HAND!

  21. Pingback: Intercomprensión Latoc: Leer y entender Papiamento

  22. Mr. Gerbear is right. You, Mr. Lindsay, have indeed lost all credibility. You have banned people recently who posted some very good viewpoints – they didn’t deserve to be banned. For a so-called ‘academic’, you are way too sensitive. It seems that you have a difficult time accepting valid points of view that don’t square with your particular opinions.

  23. M. Maingt

    What Rodrigo said was very interesting to me. I grew up speaking Spanish and I have always found Continental Portuguese easier to understand than its Brazilian variant. This may be because I grew up accustomed to European Spanish. Most Portuguese speakers I have met I cannot communicate with in Spanish – mostly Brazilians. I find many Portuguese speakers understand Spanish just fine, but they cannot speak it hardly at all. I mean to say that if I ask a PT speaker a question in SP they are unable to respond most of the time. I sometimes wonder if PT speakers can actually understand Spanish as well as they think that they can. I’m sure most PT speakers can understand Spanish better than the other way around, but when I hear PT speakers say how well they understand/speak Spanish, when speaking to them there seems to be an inconsistency between their actual and perceived abilities with the Spanish language.

    I also agree that Italian is a bit difficult. I found learning French to be much easier. I understand more of spoken Italian than French – at least I did before studying either language. I too feel a kinship with Portuguese speakers as a Spanish speaker. I have studied Portuguese as well and I find the language to be even more difficult than Italian, but I have studied PT to a greater extent because I find it more useful. However, as an English speaker I think SP and FR are easy easier to learn than PT and IT, perhaps because of the history of communication with those languages.

  24. Pingback: The lopsided mutual intelligibility of Spanish and Portuguese | Spanish Linguist

  25. Rafael Camacho Alves

    M. Maingt your post was interesting. Here are my thoughts. As a Spanish speaker originally from Colombia, I find Portuguese (from Portugal, Brazil and Africa) to be the easiest of the bunch – French the hardest, but Italian is a bit hard too. I never studied Portuguese, but somehow I found Portuguese naturally easy to understand, not perfectly, but to a large extent. And they do understand us, even if they choose not to respond in Spanish. They are proud of their language, rightfully so (240 million speakers, and 6th most spoken tongue in the world), and do not feel compelled to respond in Spanish if they don’t want to. Spanish speakers are actually quite lazy when it comes to giving an effort to speak other languages. They foolishly expect that everyone has to reply in Spanish. Still, I think Portuguese and Spanish speakers are blessed to have a huge initial advantage with one another’s language. They get tons of vocabulary for free, and the grammars are almost the same – the syntax between the two languages is quite similar as well. I love the Portuguese speakers and many are my friends.

    • M. Maingot

      I find what you said about Spanish speakers being very lazy when it comes to working on other languages, much like Anglophones. As far as Brazilians not responding in Spanish, the impression I have had a number of times is that their perceived ability to speak Spanish may not be as good as they think when speaking with a native/fluent speaker. It’s the impression that I get when I’m speaking to anyone in any language that is trying to understand but gets lost at a certain point. In some cases, I think that they may be able to understand but don’t have enough understanding of verbs and whatnot to respond properly. Or it may be as you suggested. I think listening comprehension is the hardest part of any language (for me), but getting past that I actually have found French to be quite easy. Not that any language is easy, but I found it to be easier than Portuguese or Italian. Go figure.

  26. Olaf Fritz

    On the topic – mutual intelligibility between German dialects – I would tend to say from experience as a native speaker, that it should be rather presented as dialect continuum, with distance being the decisive factor. The continuum is more pronounced in North – South than East-West direction, and with distance, intelligibility decreases. A Frisian dialect will definitely not be understandable to a Bavarian person, and vice versa. These however are extremes.
    In the case of the depicted dialects – Swabian, Franconian and Bavarian, the distance is much closer, and people from these areas will understand each other quite OK. The difference is mostly in the word endings, which these Germans can identify from experience. I consider it more like a vocabulary extension. The bonus is that you are able to say, from which region of Germany the person you are speaking to is, without difficulty.
    Another fact is, that there is only one written German form, which is standard German. Most people are able to pronounce or to revert back to standard German. This is not meant as an argument for the above, but if you take the standard German word as a stem word, then most dialects can be easily derived. You just add the “local” ending.
    I would say that the Swiss German dialects are the most ancient ones, which didn’t change much over time, due to geographic isolation, whereas the northern German dialects are the most evolved ones. I would consider Dutch as a separate language from German, some Germans will also consider Swiss German as a different language depending on your distance.

  27. Stefan

    Hello everybody,

    I’m a native speaker of Romanian and I also speak very well English, French and German.

    I just came back from my holiday in Mallorca and written (Mallorcan) Catalan was far easier for me to read than Spanish.

    Spanish from South America seems to me easier to understand than the European variety.

    Also I usually understand about 88% of written Italian and about 60-70% or more when spoken. I encounter about 1-2 unknown words every 3-4 phrases of written Italian. Some are like Romanian words, some are like French ones and when combined I just understand. The other way round is more difficult because of words of slavic origin that we have in our vocabulary (not many, but enough to confuse others).

  28. Joe

    “and Romanians can understand even more of their Spanish”
    it’s hard to separate ‘innate intelligibility’ from ‘societal intelligibility’: multiple Spanish TV programmes are shown in Romania (with subtitles), and have been for some time – while the numer of Romanian programmes on Spanish screens is approximately zero

  29. Alfonso

    I am a native Spanish speaker. I explain my experience in Portugal and Italy.
    When I was in Portugal (Lisbon), European Portuguese was very difficult the first day. I speak English and Spanish. I didn’t know which language to use, but I spoke in Spanish (it is more similar) and they answer in Portuguese. I was listening the radio all day in Portuguese and listening Portuguese people. The last day on holidays there, I understood almost all.
    In Italy (Rome) is strange. The language is less similar than Portuguese in theory but, the phonetics is almost the same. So, I spoke in Spanish and they in Italian and we understood each other, at least the general meaning. I spoke in Spanglish when they didn’t understand some words and it was effective.

  30. I had a similar experience too, but I still found it harder communicating with Italians. Similar accent, but hard grammar, and lots of vocabulary I couldn’t figure out.

    Like you, by the last day of my week in Lisbon I understood almost perfectly the Portuguese – and of course, they understood me perfectly from the first day there.

  31. French and Italian are far more closer in writen vocabulary than Spanish and Italian. But Spanish and Italian have similar pronouncations but not all though.

  32. Pingback: Lenguajes indoeuropeos - Page 6

  33. Hello, let me tell you that this is a very interesting topic! I am a native speaker of Romanian, Italian and Spanish, believe it or not. I was born and raised in Romania- my mom was Italian Argentinean and my dad is Romanian.
    I am a linguist by profession, but lately have been working mostly in retail. I live in Canada, and dealing with a lot of Spanish and Portuguese speaking customers. I have no problem communicating with Portuguese speaking people, may they come from Portugal or Brazil. In fact, they prefer me to most of my Spanish speaking co-workers, as my Spanish is the castellano rioplatense, which uses the “voseo” and lots of J ( dz). However, the ones who speak Portuguese with the Acores dialect…I’m lost 70 % of the time! To me, the Acores Portuguese sounds a lot like French.
    As one who speaks 3 languages natively, let me tell you the first thing that happens- you mix them soooo much at times, without intending to do so! Especially when speaking castellano rioplatense which is by itself mixed with lots of Italian…
    My parents met each other by a twist of fate and started communicating through Italian-(my Mom), and respectively Romanian-(my Dad). My Mom’s parents had come to Argentina from Rome, Italy; therefore, her Italian was flawless, textbook classic. They understood each other almost perfectly. Throughout the years, they developed this type of common language between the two of them, mixing Italian and Romanian in a way that worked wonders for them. It sounded a lot like a certain dialect spoken in the North of Italy, Tuscany. In Romania, it is very common to eat a certain type of cornmeal dish (Romanian mamaliga), specific for the North of Italy, called polenta. None of the other Romance people (beside Italians) eat this staple food but Romanians. We all concluded that probably that’s where Romanian got its roots from thousands of years ago, with the colonization of Dacia Romana.
    My personal opinion is that even though Romania was isolated (and still is) geographically from the rest of the Romance speaking world by a “sea of Slavic peoples”, it preserved even more the main characteristics of the vulgar Latin it received during the 2-8 century AD. That’s why, I consider that Romanian can be related mostly to Italian than any of the other main remaining Romance languages.
    I agree with my fore-posters, Spanish is very similar to Portuguese, and if both spoken correctly (no dialects), there is a very high similarity; I would say about 65-70% spoken.
    There is only one thing I would like to mention though, Spanish and Portuguese have received a lot of Arabic influence over the course of hundreds of years with the Moorish occupation. This aspect sets the two languages apart from the rest.
    Cheers! R.

    • Lexical similarity between Spanish and Portuguese is 89%, but intelligibility is only 54%.

      • Robert, with all due respect, I was not contradicting the results of the study, I was just leaving MY 2 cents in this matter, as far as I am concerned, as a Castilian Spanish native speaker. I read the study; it is not that I argue with the results of it, however, studies are not made by native speakers. They are made by peeps who have studied the language- I’ll give it to you, academically, degrees and all that, but REALITY is different.
        I have a MA in English studies, however that does NOT qualify me to argue with a native speaker about the similarities of English to German, even though I speak and understand that language as well.
        We have to draw a line between THEORY and PRACTICE, and consider native speakers opinions when conducting research.
        Cheers. R

        • The Spanish-Portuguese intelligibility studies were done in Latin America including Brazil. The people tested in the studies were native speakers of either Spanish or Portuguese.

  34. Jason Y

    German, Dutch, and Swedish are supposed to be in the same language family as English. How much can English speakers understand them?

  35. 0% of any of them. Although Dutch is sort of odd, since when you hear it spoken, you actually strain to hear it though you cannot understand a single word.

    • Jan

      I’m a Flemish speaking Belgian. Well, Dutch is sometimes difficult (if it’s Fries, forget about it), the Dutch don’t understand Flemish fully, but vice-versa we can, and even emulate their thong. (which surprises them on more then one occasion) – I can go to The low Netherlands and no one suspects I’m Belgian if I emulate their thong. German is also easy to understand and speak, even with the local accents they have. French I was tought at school at 10-years, so no problem, only the southern (France) French accents are sometimes difficult. I Speak Belgian-Walloon French which a lot of (Southern) French interpret as being British trying to speak French, but once I make this clear, no problem. After 14 days on holiday I speak as they do. (street-experience). In Italy I can help myself pretty well after a week or so. (no education) without my wife (which was Italian-born). Even in the remotest places like ex-Yugoslavia (Montengro-village with no asfalt roads), I could make myself clear after being suspected to be a German (very hostile at first – very warm welcome afterwards) Didn’t understand much words, but reactions of people, gestures and watching them argue, told me a lot. Learnt a few words. (pre partition 1987). I Understand and speak English, whatever sort, quite well. TV-exposure here is enormous for a lot of languages and, yes you learn to understand and learn words, expressions, accents, bit by bit. Not being born within the ‘modern range’ of romantic languages, I do not shy away from foreign language channels. If you know the subject, you can learn expressions and words quite quickly. (exept Arab – don’t understand a thing – but then again I understand Yiddish (Antwerp). I’m really interested if a Romanian could understand or decipher old spoken Latin. (being very close languages) Been searching for it, but can’t find an answer.
      Reading Romùanian Newspapers online seems doable (had some Latin).

      • Andrei

        Hi Jan,

        As a native speaker of Romanian, I suspect that the closeness between Latin and Romanian is vastly overstated. First let’s start with the obvious fact that nobody really knows how Latin sounded. Second, even though the Romanian base vocabulary is very much Latin, the use of Latin words is highly non-standard.For example while all other Neo-Latin languages use a world similar to ‘terra’ to express the idea of ‘earth’, in Romanian is ‘pamânt’ – coming from ‘pavimentum’ (paved road). So a radical change in meaning. There are hundreds of such examples where in Romanian worlds of Latin origin have very surprising meanings, meanings which cannot be guessed at all by any other speaker of neo-Romance languages. For political and patriotic reasons, Romanians tend to overestimate their language’s closeness to Latin, Italian and so on, but the truth is that Romanian is the oddest neo-Romance language in Europe, and distinctly different from all the others. Still, Romanian is an interesting language to learn for people with a passion for Romance languages, as it gives you a better understanding of how many language registers existed in Latin. The other major neo-Romance languages will only give you an incomplete image of Latin, as they represent a highly correlated evolution of vulgar Latin, in which major feature appeared or disappeared simultaneously (i.e the case system, the neutral gender etc.). Romanian is something else and you can notice that the moment you dwell in the language.

  36. Lesley

    Re: “We also learn, here, that no one can understand French except the French”

    There’s some occasional similarities between English and French too… ;)

  37. As a native sardinian with a B2 european in romanian language i can confirm that italian and romanian have a very high grade of intellegibility, and even higher for us sardinians because what is not understandable between romanian and italian is between sardinian (particularly sssarese, my native dialect) and romanian.

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