Sometimes a foreign language makes you do a double take.
There’s something familiar about it you just can’t place.
You haven’t studied it, but you’re able to understand a little.
What’s going on?
Well, so-called “foreign” languages aren’t always as foreign as you’d expect.
In fact, some are even somewhat comprehensible even if you haven’t studied them.
This might come as a shock, but don’t let your jaw hit the floor too quickly—there’s a good reason for understanding a language you’ve never studied: mutual intelligibility.
Briefly put, mutual intelligibility is when speakers of one language can understand a related language to some degree.
Yes, some languages are mutually intelligible. So if you’ve studied one, you may very well understand some of another. While you probably won’t pick up everything, you might pick up more than you think.
But how does this help you?
Why Should You Be Aware of Mutually Intelligible Languages?
First of all, once you make yourself aware of mutually intelligible languages, you might realize that you understand more languages than you thought. Nothing feels better than abruptly realizing that learning one language has prepared you to understand many.
Furthermore, understanding this connection can make it easier to learn an additional language. If you choose to study a language that’s mutually intelligible with one you already know, chances are you’ll have to put a lot less work in than if you were learning a language from scratch.
So if you’re asking yourself, “what language should I learn?” a mutually intelligible to one you already know may be an excellent option. If you’re learning multiple languages at once, pairing similar languages is a great way to maximize your studying. After all, memorizing words is a lot easier if they’re the same or similar across languages.
Finally, understanding mutual intelligibility gives you helpful insight into the history of a language. Sets of similar languages usually are a result of shared origin, so knowing a little more about mutual intelligibility can help you understand this origin.
With a little more understanding of language origins, you can also start to see root words across languages. Over time, you might be able to guess words you haven’t learned just based on roots you are familiar with.
What You Should Know About Mutually Intelligible Languages
Linguistic distance is the relative degree of difference between languages or dialects. How this is measured varies, but mutual intelligibility and vocabulary overlap often play a role in these calculations.
This term is similar to linguistic distance in that it can reflect how similar or different languages are. However, lexical similarity focuses on exclusively overlapping vocabulary to determine similarity between languages.
Mutual intelligibility refers to whether speakers of one language can understand speakers of another language. This understanding can be in spoken or written communication. Mutual intelligibility also occurs in a wide variety of degrees, ranging from none, to partial, to full mutual intelligibility.
Between some languages, there can also be imbalanced mutual intelligibility, known as “asymmetric intelligibility.” This occurs when speakers of one language can understand a related language to a greater degree than speakers of the related language can understand the other.
Frequency of exposure is one of the main causes of this. If speakers of one language have more exposure to its related language, they’re likely to pick up more of that language.
Traditionally, dialects differ from languages in that dialects are regional variations of one main language. Usually, they’re at least partially mutually intelligible with the main language they stem from.
That being said, the line between a language and a dialect is fuzzy at best. For instance, Portuguese and Spanish have a relatively high degree of mutual intelligibility, but they’re technically separate languages.
The Chinese language, on the other hand, is comprised of a number of dialects that aren’t always mutually intelligible.
These Mutually Intelligible Languages Will Make You Do a Double Take
It’s important to note that mutual intelligibility is highly subjective. Between sources, you might find some claiming that two languages are mutually intelligible, while other sources claim those same languages aren’t.
Because mutual intelligibility comes in varying degrees, it’s hard to determine how much overlap there needs to be for something to be mutually intelligible. Therefore, this list will focus on common languages widely thought to be at least partially mutually intelligible.
If you’re interested in assessing the similarities between languages, elinguistics.net offers a fun tool to play around with. Here, you can enter any two languages to calculate the similarity between their basic vocabulary.
The lower the number, the more similar the languages and the greater likelihood of mutual intelligibility. It’s important to note, however, that these are entirely computer-generated and the degrees of similarity don’t always match calculations from other sources.
There are distinct regional variations of Arabic. However, many of these dialects are at least partially mutually intelligible. Rural variations are usually less mutually intelligible.
While common speech from urban areas isn’t always mutually intelligible across regions, speakers from these regions can often use a more formal form of Arabic to speak with each other. Additionally, some Arabic speakers may be familiar with Egyptian Arabic through the media, so they may rely on this to bridge any language gaps.
Tunisian Arabic is also considered mutually intelligible with Maltese, particularly with regards to idiomatic expressions.
Scots (one of three native languages spoken in parts of Scotland) and English are considered mutually intelligible. However, speakers of Scots usually have an easier time understanding English than vice versa because they have a greater exposure to the language through the media.
English speakers usually haven’t heard much (if any) Scots, so they’ll understand less of it. In writing, however, Scots looks a lot like English (albeit with some spelling variations). In fact, the two languages are so similar that some have proposed Scots is a dialect of English rather than a distinct language.
For more on the relation between Scots and English, ielanguages.com has a helpful article.
French has a reasonable degree of lexical similarity with Italian, Sardinian, Romansh, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish, making it partially mutually intelligible with these languages.
According to language reference site Ethnologue, French has 89% lexical similarity with Italian, 80% similarity with Sardinian (spoken on the Italian island of Sardinia), 78% similarity with Romansh (spoken in parts of Switzerland) and 75% similarity with Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish. That’s a lot of Romance language bang for your learning buck!
German is partially mutually intelligible with Yiddish and Dutch.
Because they use different alphabets, German and Yiddish are only mutually intelligible when spoken. (You can hear the similarities here). Yiddish speakers usually have an easier time understanding German than vice versa, largely because Yiddish has added words from other languages, including Hebrew and Slavic languages, which makes it more difficult for German speakers to understand.
In writing, German is also somewhat mutually intelligible with Dutch. However, Dutch speakers usually understand more German than the reverse because they study German in school.
Italian is partially mutually intelligible with French, Catalan, Sardinian, Spanish, Ladin and Romanian
Ethnologue estimates 89% lexical similarity with French, 87% similarity with Catalan (spoken in Southern Spain), 85% with Sardinian, 82% with Spanish, 78% with Ladin (spoken in Northern Italy) and 77% with Romanian.
Portuguese has varying degrees of mutual intelligibility with Spanish, Galician, French and Italian.
It has a very high degree of mutual intelligibility with Galician (spoken in Northwestern Spain), which is a language that’s sort of a cross between Portuguese and Spanish. Portuguese also has a high degree of mutual intelligibility with Spanish.
While not usually considered “mutually intelligible,” there’s also enough similarity between French and Italian that speakers of Portuguese may understand a little of these languages.
Russian is partially mutually intelligible with Russyn, Ukrainian and Belarusian.
Jeff Lindsay estimates that Russian has 85% intelligibility with Rusyn (which has a small number of speakers in Central and Eastern Europe). Russian is also 85% mutually intelligible with Belarusian and Ukrainian in writing. However, Russian is only 74% mutually intelligible with spoken Belarusian and 50% mutually intelligible with spoken Ukrainian.
Russian speakers are also likely to understand some Bulgarian, along with other Slavic languages to a lesser extent.
Spanish has varying degrees of mutual intelligibility with Galician, Portuguese, Catalan, Italian, Sardinian and French.
Spanish is most mutually intelligible with Galician. It’s also highly intelligible with Portuguese in writing, though less so when spoken. The overall lexical similarity between Spanish and Portuguese is estimated by Ethnologue to be 89%.
Spanish and Catalan have a lexical similarity of 85%. Spanish is also partially mutually intelligible with Italian, Sardinian and French, with respective lexical similarities of 82%, 76% and 75%.
So give these mutually intelligible languages a second look. They have more in common than you might think!