What it means to speak a language: foreign languages, second languages, and bilingualism

What does it mean to “speak” a language? It’s actually a pretty complicated question.

Foreign language, second language, bilingual–there are actually no widely accepted definitions of any of these terms.  To put it another way, there are lots of definitions of these terms, but none that everyone agrees on.  Here are the ones that I learnt in college–just one set of possible classifications among many:

  • Foreign language: you know something about the language, perhaps because you studied it in school, maybe even quite a bit.  However, it’s not something that you’re comfortable using.
  • Second language: you use a language routinely in at least some aspects of your daily life, and are reasonably comfortable with it, but it’s not a language that you speak natively.
  • Bilingual (or more): you speak two (or more) languages natively.  They’re both “mother tongues” that you learnt in childhood (up to, say, your teenaged years).

Linguists don’t see “speaking” a language as a binary, yes-you-do-or-no-you-don’t thing.  Rather, they think in terms of what you might call contexts and capabilities.  For example:

  • Could you understand someone speaking the language to you with his mouth full?  When he’s drunk?  When you’re drunk?
  • Can you speak the language naturally in very informal situations?
  • Can you speak the language naturally in very formal situations?
  • Can you understand someone speaking the language in a regional dialect?
  • Could you teach computer programming/judo/knitting/whatever in the language?
  • Are you comfortable with the language’s slang?
  • Can you understand a toddler speaking the language?
  • Can you understand an old person with no teeth speaking the language?
  • Could you understand computer-synthesized speech in that language?  An announcement over a crappy speaker in a train station?  Someone trying to talk to you over the background noise in a bar?

The European Union has its own set of classifications, and you won’t find the terms “foreign” or “second” language anywhere amongst them.  The Common European Framework of Reference, as it’s called, defines 6 levels of skill in a language that is not your own.  Tests for these 6 levels involve multiple parts: spoken language production, spoken language comprehension, written language production, and written language comprehension.  In contrast with the linguist’s way of seeing things, notice that the Common European Framework of Reference is 50% about the written language, while linguists generally don’t care about written language that much, one way or the other–it doesn’t show up anywhere on my list of examples of contexts and capabilities.

Given the Common European Framework of Reference’s four aspects of language skill, what do language skills look like to them?  Here’s the CEFR’s “global” description of their 6 levels (from A1, the lowest, to C2, the highest), taken from this document:

Screenshot 2016-02-11 17.57.35
Picture source: screen shot of http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/elp/elp-reg/Source/Key_reference/Overview_CEFRscales_EN.pdf.

That’s just the global description of their six levels, though.  Let’s look at the specifics of spoken language use corresponding to the six levels:

Screenshot 2016-02-11 18.00.23
Picture source: http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/elp/elp-reg/Source/Key_reference/Overview_CEFRscales_EN.pdf.

All of these various kinds of contexts get broken down further.  Here are the global descriptions of reading comprehension at the six levels:

Screenshot 2016-02-11 18.02.29
Picture source: http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/elp/elp-reg/Source/Key_reference/Overview_CEFRscales_EN.pdf.

That gets broken down further into reading correspondence, reading instructions, reading to orient oneself, and reading to digest information and arguments.  Here are the details on a couple of those:

Screenshot 2016-02-11 18.04.30
Picture source: http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/elp/elp-reg/Source/Key_reference/Overview_CEFRscales_EN.pdf.

What should we take home out of this wealth of detail?  This: the answer to the question “do you speak English/French/Spanish/Kukú/whatever” is not yes or no, at least from a linguist’s point of view.  Rather, speaking a language is a matter of having a constellation of skills that you can exercise across a wide spectrum of contexts and conditions.  So, if you decide to irritate me by asking me how many languages I “speak,” I’m going to say: one, my native language of English.  Then I’m going to politely excuse myself and go freshen up my drink, ’cause I’m pretty sure that you don’t want a lecture on contexts and competencies.

Here is some vocabulary from the French Wikipedia page on the Common European Framework of Reference.  Definitions from WordReference.com.

Le Cadre européen commun de référence pour les langues – Apprendre, Enseigner, Évaluer (CECRL) est un document publié par le Conseil de l’Europe en 2001, qui définit des niveaux de maîtrise d’une langue étrangère en fonction de savoir-faire dans différents domaines de compétence.

  • le cadre: a great word, with lots of meanings.  The most common ones that I’ve run into are “framework” (the sense in which it’s used here, as well as in cadre juridique, “legal framework,” which for no reason that I can explain I really like to say), and “frame,” as in a picture frame.
  • la maîtrise: lots of meanings; in this case, “mastery, knowledge, command.”
  • en fonction de: as a function of, or depending on, or geared to, or in accordance to, in accordance with.  Any of those would work in this sentence.

The Famous Linguist List, or protecting the stupid versus rewarding the smart

Competition for things like university admission or a job can be brutal and public in France. Here’s how that works.

This is soooo French.  I’m applying to take the DALF test–the standardized test of French language proficiency.  I’m looking at the registration information on the web site, and I see this:

Screenshot 2016-02-11 09.29.46
Notice the third line: “results displayed on our premises in the hall of the main building.”  Picture source: screen shot from http://www.alliancefr.org/en/individual-students/diplomas-and-tests.

This would be unthinkable in the United States today.  Publicizing test results would be considered a terrible invasion of privacy: someone might be embarrassed, right?  When I was a college student, the list of students was posted on the wall outside the classroom, with everyone’s grade.  By the time I graduated, the names were gone, replaced by your Social Security number.  When I was in grad school, the Social Security numbers were replaced by student ID numbers.  By the time I was teaching college courses, the student ID numbers were no longer allowed–I handed everyone the name of some famous linguist along with their blank final exam, and then posted grades outside the lab, using everyone’s famous linguist code name.  (Many times I discovered linguistics department faculty members looking at the grade sheets to see if they were included with Saussure, Bloomfield, Labov, Chomsky, and the like.)  By the time I finished graduate school, posting grades in public was not permitted at all.  Today, we’re not even allowed to email them–what if someone hacked your email account?

In France: totally different story.  Wanna know if you got into the university of your choice?  Go look for your list on the name of accepted students posted on the wall, like everyone else.  Wanna know who applied for a job at the National Center for Scientific Research this year?  Check their web site.  (If you’re French: note that the fact that one has applied for a job is considered very privileged information in the American system.)  Wanna know who’s going to get an offer?  Check the web site at the end of the competition, where you’ll find the lucky few, listed in order of the Center’s preference.

I don’t have any particular preference for either system.  I guess that one way to look at it is that in some sense, the American attitude protects the stupid, while the French attitude rewards the smart.  Both of those seem like admirable goals.  Some relevant vocabulary–definitions from WordReference.com:

  • le concours (examen): competitive exam.  It’s also used to refer to the competition for a job, e.g. at the National Center for Scientific Research, or at INSERM (the French equivalent of the US National Institutes of Health), or similar organizations.
  • le concours (compétition): competition (e.g. le concours canin, “dog show”).
  • le concours (participation):  cooperation, support.
  • concourir: to compete or to take part in a competition.
  • concourir à: to contribute to (e.g. a project).
  • apporter son concours à: to make your contribution to, to provide support for.  (I have some good news and will be using this phrase in an email today, but more on that later.)

 

 

Why I had to hide the TV from my cousin: Taxi driver riots and the Parisian hotel industry have the sharing economy/l’économie collaborative in common

taxi driver strikes 2015
Riot police at the scene of an anti-Uber protest by French taxi drivers. Picture source: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-33267581.

One morning last summer my adorable cousin Kimberly and I sat down to breakfast.  The TV showed a scene from Paris–a car overturned, tires burning, men milling about in the center of a road.  I carefully maneuvered myself so that she wouldn’t see it–I didn’t want her to get scared, and since she doesn’t speak French, I knew that if I could just block her view of the TV, she wouldn’t understand what the announcer was saying.

The story was about the taxi driver riots that were taking place in Paris that summer.  Taxi drivers pay 200,000 euros a year for a license to operate in France.  Uber drivers pay nothing.  The taxi drivers were protesting against this imbalance, which allows the Uber drivers to out-compete them, hands down, and the taxi drivers could point to a 30-40% drop in revenue over the past two years as evidence.  France is into nothing if not fairness (the motto of the country is Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité–liberty, equality, fraternity), and this struck the taxi drivers as patently unfair.  The government basically agreed, and Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve requested a crackdown on Uber by the police in Paris.  The struggle between Uber and the taxi drivers continues–Uber continues to operate with greater or lesser interference in various parts of the country, last year two high-ranking Uber executives were arrested, Uber drivers have begun protesting (the national sport of France, after soccer and flirting) against the government, and today Uber shut down services in Paris for four hours in support of the driver protests.

This is just one example of how the new sharing economy–économie collaborative–is affecting France.  France’s heavy involvement in the business world, which an American antitrust lawyer described to me as anti-competitive, has had the salutary effect of keeping small businesses alive and well in France during the same period that they have been crushed in the United States by what we call here in America “big-box stores“–Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and the like.  It’s unclear where the sharing economy, with its typically person-to-person transactions, typically carried out through some sort of electronic platform, fits into the French economy, but it’s clear that it is bothering some traditional businesses.  For example, the hotel industry is up in arms about Airbnb, whose second-biggest market worldwide is in Paris, with 50,000 units available; 3.9 million people used it last year, contributing 2.4 billion euros to the French economy.  Complaints come from the hotel industry, which claims unfair competition due to the fact that Airbnb hosts don’t have to charge taxes (Airbnb has now started to collect them from renters), as well as from regular citizens, who point out that so many properties around the country are now being rented out on Airbnb on a full-time basis (the law allows 120 days a year) that it has severely cut into the housing market for French citizens, which is already tight as hell in Paris.

The économie collaborative was this morning’s theme on the radio show that I listen to on the way to work in the morning.  Here are some of the words from the story that I had to look up:

Economie collaborative, est-ce le bon terme ?

Économie collaborative: le terme n’est pas tout à fait adapté à ce qu’il recouvre. En anglais on parle de “collaborative consumption” d’une part, et de “sharing economy”, économie du partage d’autre part. C’est se souvenir que l’économie collaborative s’inspire de la mouvance libre et du don. Or l’économie dont il est question dans tous ces rapports s’est largement émancipée de cette origine et utilise aujourd’hui les codes classiques de l’économie capitaliste. Voilà en quoi le terme d’économie collaborative peut prêter à confusion.

  • recouvrir: to cover, to include.
  • s’inspirer de: to draw one’s inspiration from.
  • émanciper: to liberate, to emancipate.
  • la mouvance: movement, shifting, dependency, circle of influence.
  • or: but or yet, when introducing an opposition, specifically.  Here it’s the opposition between giving (le don) and capitalism.

Postscript: After posting this, I got the following feedback from the antitrust attorney who I mentioned above.

FWIW…I think the Uber and air bnb issues are very different from mom and pop v big box.  In the former,  essentially the same thing is being offered to the consumer, but the government has created an unlevel  playing field that prevents the taxed and regulated providers from competing effectively.  The playing field may not be level in the other arena either, but (1) the govt isn’t causing that…economies of scale are and (2) mom and pops offer something different than big box retailers…the products might be the same,  but service is different.  Mom and pops go out because not enough people  care about service to pay for it. The masses care only about money. The playing field isn’t level in the mom and pop/big box scenario, but market forces and customer choice have created that disparity rather than governmental regulation.  Very different.   I hate hearing people gripe about mom and pops struggling as they walk into Home Depot because it’s cheaper or they can get something faster than when pop had to special order for it. If most of society cares only about cost,  there’s no place for independents and it is not the fault of the big boxers.

 

 

 

 

The other side of life under the Ancien régime

Why are there so many stepmothers in French fairy tales, and why are they so mean?

jacquerie
Peasants hacking a knight to death during a “jacquerie,” or peasant revolt. Picture source: http://filpac-cgt.fr/spip.php?article6304.

Referring to the Ancien régime, the early modern French period of monarchy before the French Revolution of 1789, Talleyrand‘s autobiography contains the following:

Celui qui n’a pas vécu au dix-huitième siècle avant la Révolution ne connaît pas la douceur de vivre et ne peut imaginer ce qu’il peut y avoir de bonheur dans la vie.

One who did not live in the 18th century before the Revolution does not know the sweetness of life and cannot imagine what one can have in terms of happiness in life.  Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord: Mémoires du Prince de Talleyrand: La Confession de Talleyrand

This might be totally true for the aristocracy of the time, and perhaps also for the bourgeoisie–we’re talking powdered wigs, salons, and the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.  However, for the peasantry, life under the Ancien régime was horrible.  Malnutrition was rampant.  As Robert Darnton points out in his The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history, in the many French fairy tales in which someone is granted three wishes, it’s quite common for the person in question to wish for food, and often not particularly special food, but just bread, wine, and a little something else.  Many French folk tales involve parents getting rid of their children in one way or another due to not being able to feed them.  The first chapter of Darnton’s book is an extended analysis of French fairy tales of the period and what they can tell us about the French mind before the Revolution, and it’s not a pretty picture–“the world is cruel, the village nasty, and mankind infested with rogues…”  Despite the general suitability of France for farming, the agricultural techniques of the time failed to get as much out of the land as they could have:

…seigneuralism and the subsistence economy kept villagers bent over the soil, and primitive techniques of farming gave them no opportunity to unbend.  Grain yields remained at a ratio of about 5-to-1, a primitive return in contrast to modern farming, which produces fifteen or even thirty grains for every seed planted.  Farmers could not raise enough grain to feed large numbers of animals, and they did not have enough livestock to produce the manure to fertilize the fields to increase the yield.  This vicious circle kept them enclosed within a system of triennial or biennial crop rotation, which left a huge proportion of the land lying fallow.  They could not convert the fallow to the cultivation of crops like clover, with return nitrogen to the soil, because they lived too close to penury to risk the experiment, aside from the fact that no one had any notion of nitrogen. …The backyard garden often provided the margin of survival…For most peasants village life was a struggle for survival, and survival meant keeping above the line that divided the poor from the indigent…Ab0ut 45 per cent of the Frenchmen born in the eighteenth century died before the age of ten.   –Robert Darnton, The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history

Why are there so many stepmothers in fairy tales?  In France, marriages among the peasants ended by death, not divorce, and 20% of widowers remarried.  (In contrast, only 10% of widows remarried.)  This could be disastrous for his kids, as the stepmother might bring children of her own, meaning more mouths to feed and more people with whom to split any inheritance.  Taxes were incredible, as were the rents and cuts of the crop that were taken by the hereditary feudal lords –a pretty horrible life.

Here are some useful words for talking about peasants of the Ancien régime:

  • le croquant: peasant.  The word is in the first edition of the dictionary of the Académie Française, which appeared in 1694.
  • la jacquerie: peasant revolt.  There were a lot of these between 1358 and 1707.

 

That time I was an asshole, plus a few words about being bilingual and about not being bilingual

Walking out of class one day, I said something horrible and teasing to someone. He burst into tears and my teacher slapped me across the face, hard. I deserved it.

monolingual and bilingual brains
The vast majority of what we know about language and the brain is actually stuff that we know about language and the brain in monolingual speakers of English. This is a shame, because there are more multilingual people than monolingual people in the world. Picture source: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01401/full.

Walking out of class one day in high school, I said something horrible and teasing to the fattest kid in the class.  He burst into tears and my teacher slapped me across the face, hard.  I walked out of the classroom with my facing burning red-hot from the fact that I knew that I’d just been a total asshole as much as from the fact that I’d just been whaled on, hard, by our teacher–a huge big deal in our culture, where teachers were the absolutely most respected people in the community.  As I walked out of the room, the kid sobbed to our teacher–not in English, the language that we’d been speaking in class all morning, but in Yiddish.

Bilinguals have two native languages.  They don’t have to translate from one to the other–they’re both just there, like English is for me.  In a truly bilingual community, people aren’t necessarily conscious of which language they’re speaking at any particular moment.  Which language they’re speaking isn’t random, though–in a truly bilingual community, language choice and language switching–linguists call it code-switching–are highly rule-governed behaviors.  And, those rules of code-switching are just like almost every single “rule” that you know about your native language(s)–speakers are not consciously aware of them, and typically can’t figure out what they are even if they try.  (Can you explain how you know when to use the word the?  Do you understand why the word anything is negative?  Can you explain why sometimes you have to switch a preposition to the beginning of the sentence along with its verb when you ask a question, and why sometimes you absolutely can’t switch the preposition to the beginning of the sentence along with the verb when you ask a question?)  In our high school, for the many people who were bilingual in English and Yiddish (I wasn’t one of them), English was for intellectual inquiry, while Yiddish was for emotional things.  Perhaps not in the sense of meaning in linguistic semantics, but in the broader sense of meaning in semiotics, the fact that the kid switched to Yiddish meant something.

I’m not bilingual.  My native language is English.  Spanish is a second language to me, but I would never say that I “speak” Spanish–it’s not a native language, but rather one that I learnt as an adult.  French is getting there, a little bit more so every time that I spend a few weeks in Paris.  The processes by which you learn a native language as a child and the processes by which you learn foreign or second languages as an adult are utterly different.  For me, as for many people with multiple second languages, it’s very difficult to use both at the same time.  Once a year I go to Guatemala for a week to do volunteer work, sometimes immediately after spending time in some country other than America, where I’m struggling with a language other than English or Spanish.  This means that I have to make a concerted effort to switch–not to switch from English, but to switch between second or foreign languages.  How to do it?  I don’t know of any research on this subject (which doesn’t mean that there isn’t any).  Basically, I switch my radio and my flash cards.  A couple weeks before I go to Guatemala this summer, I’ll start listening to the news in Spanish on my way to work in the morning, instead of in French, as I normally do.  I’ll put away my French flash cards, and pull out the pile of Spanish medical vocabulary flash cards that spends the rest of the year collecting dust.  I’ll immerse myself in Spanish as much as I can in a city that has Spanish-language radio stations, TV stations, and newspapers.  Equally importantly, for those two weeks, I’ll cut myself off from French–I’m not bilingual, and I can’t effortlessly switch between languages.  Most especially, I can’t easily switch between second languages–I can switch between English and French or between English and Spanish far, far more easily than I can switch between French and Spanish.  (That’s not to say that I can’t–I have a Mexican friend who has lived in Paris for 25 years, and we switch between French and Spanish all the time.  But, it’s clearly way easier for her than it is for me.)

Here are some words for talking about bilingualism in French.  The French text is from the French Wikipedia page, and the definitions are from WordReference.com.

Le concept du bilinguisme comprend deux types de variabilités :

  • Le bilinguisme de l’individu : capacité du locuteur d’alterner entre deux langues selon des besoins de contexte sociologique où deux langues sont couramment utilisées sur un même territoire
  • Le bilinguisme de communauté : la coexistence de deux langues officielles dans un même état<1.

Il consiste théoriquement dans le fait de pouvoir s’exprimer et penser dans deux langues. Les individus bilingues sont également imprégnés des deux cultures . Le bilinguisme constitue la forme la plus simple du multilinguisme, qui s’oppose au monolinguisme (fait de parler une seule langue).

The concept of bilingualisme consists of two types of variabilities:

  • Individual bilingualism: the capacity of the speaker to alternate between two languages according to the needs of a social context where two languages are used fluently in the same region.
  • Community bilingualism: the coexistence of two official languages within the same state.

In theory, it consists of the ability to express oneself and to think in two languages.  Bilingual individuals are equally steeped in two cultures.  Bilingualism constitutes the simplest form of multilingualism, which is opposed to monolingualism (the state of speaking only one language).

  • le bilinguisme: [bilɛ̃gɥism] bilingualism.
  • comprendre: to include, to consist of, to comprise.
  • l’individu (n.m.): individual.
  • la communauté: community.
  • couramment: fluently; commonly, frequently.
  • imprégné: many senses, including soaked, steeped, or permeated with.

Incidentally: the part about bilinguals being immersed in two cultures isn’t necessarily true.  Societies can be bilingual without members of the society belonging to some other society.  For example, many Hasidic groups in the northeastern US are pretty insular (from other Jews, as well as from everyone else), but also bilingual in Yiddish and English.

I’ll leave you with a little secret–something that linguists will talk about with each other, but not with non-linguists.  It’s called the “foreign language buffer.”  There’s no evidence that it exists, but I don’t know of a linguist who doesn’t believe in it in their heart.  Go ahead and ask a linguist about the foreign language buffer–but, don’t tell them that I let you in on the secret of its existence.  I’ll also leave you with the fact that I’m 54 years old, and I am still ashamed about teasing that kid.  Be nice to people–that’s a much better thing to have to remember in your old age.

 

A language is a dialect with an army and a navy

A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.  –Max Weinreich

romance dialect continuum
The western end of the Romance dialect continuum. Picture source: http://ito.userweb.mwn.de/grndkurs/uebungen/uebung11.htm.

Back in graduate school, I did research on a small language spoken only by about 30,000 people in one town in what is now South Sudan.  I was the first (and so far only) person to ever work on that language, so I am the world expert on it by default.  (This is a shame–the language and the people deserve a far better “expert” than me.)  The Wikipedia page on the language varies drastically in content from time to time, but its contents are usually mostly taken from the blurb on the back cover of the book that I wrote about it.

As I said, the contents of the Wikipedia page get drastically edited.  One of the most common things that the various editors duel about is whether the title of the page should be “Kuku language” or “Kuku (dialect of Bari),” where “Kuku” is the name of the language, and “Bari” is the name of a related and much larger language spoken by about 500,000 people spread over the region.

This isn’t that surprising to me.  From the perspective of linguistics, there isn’t actually a formal definition for language and dialect that would let you make a principled distinction between the two.  The most common criterion that you hear people talk about is mutual intelligibility: if speakers of two varieties of something can understand each other, then they’re two dialects of the same language; if they can’t understand each other, then they’re two separate languages.  However, there are a number of issues that make the mutual intelligibility criterion not actually work out in practice.

  • Intelligibility can be unidirectional.  There are situations where speakers of variety A can understand speakers of variety B, but speakers of variety B can’t understand speakers of variety A.
  • There are dialect continua.  A “dialect continuum” works like this.  You’ve got a place, A-ville, where the people speak differently from the people in the adjacent place B-ville, but they understand each other just fine.  The people in B-ville and the people in the adjacent place C-ville understand each other just fine, and so on, up to Z-ville.  However: get the people from A-ville and Z-ville together, and they can’t understand each other.  Just in Europe alone there are a number of dialect continua: a Romance dialect continuum, a Germanic dialect continuum, and a Slavic dialect continuum.  There is an Arabic dialect continuum, a Chinese dialect continuum, and many others.
  • Mutual intelligibility is often a matter of degree.  (American) English is my native language.  I can understand some speakers of English from the south of England almost completely.  I can understand most speakers of English from the northwest of England to a limited extent, but definitely not entirely.  Are my variety and the variety of the northwest English speakers mutually intelligible?
  • Even within speakers of a single variety, judgements about mutual intelligibility might depend on who you ask.  My baby brother and I speak essentially the same variety.  My baby brother never understood people who spoke the local variety of English in the Tidewater area of Virginia, despite many visits there.  I had almost no trouble understanding them.  Is our variety mutually intelligible with the Tidewater variety, or not?

The use of the mutual intelligibility criterion is also made difficult by the fact that judgements about whether or not two varieties are mutually intelligible are typically affected by issues that seem to have less to do with language than they do with social factors.  It’s not uncommon for people who are trying to maintain some political or social unit to claim that they understand some other group with whom they’re trying to maintain that unity, while people from a group that is trying to break away from that unity claim that they don’t understand the other.  For example, around the time of the dissolution of the Yugoslav Republic after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, it wasn’t uncommon to hear speakers of Serbian say that they could communicate with speakers of Croatian just fine, while speakers of Croatian would talk about how incomprehensible Serbian is.  Social context: the Croatians were in the process of seceding from Yugoslavia, while the Serbs were trying to keep it together.  It’s also not uncommon for a lower-prestige social group to say that they understand the way that members of a higher-prestige social group speak, while members of the higher-prestige social group say that they don’t understand the way that members of the lower-prestige social group speak.  There doesn’t seem to be anything linguistic going on here–it’s an issue of social structure and power.

What’s a linguist’s take on all of this?  Linguists like to say that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.  (The observation is credited to Max Weinreich.)  What does that mean?  It means that you tend to call something a language, rather than a dialect, when the people who speak it have some sort of political autonomy.  It’s not a linguistic criterion at all, but rather an issue of social structure.  “Chinese” is actually many different languages, and they are most definitely not all mutually intelligible–not by a long shot.  But, many Chinese have a very strong national identity, and they all share a written language, and Chinese speakers who can’t understand each other will widely insist that they speak the same language.  Bulgarian and Macedonian speakers do understand each other, as a rule; however, Bulgarians will often mention (at least to me) how very similar the two are, while Macedonians insist that Macedonian has a language of its own that is most definitely not Bulgarian–it’s a different country, right?

As recently as 1900, 50% of the people in France didn’t speak French.  What did they speak?  Some people spoke (and some still speak) things that are clearly different languages, such as Breton (a Celtic language) and Basque (a language that is not related to any other language that we know of).  Other people speak things whose identity–a dialect of French?  a related Romance language that is not, however, French?–might depend on who you ask.  Here’s some vocabulary related to the whole language-versus-dialect issue.  (My definitions, derived from the French Wikipedia page on dialect continua.)

  • le continuum linguistique: dialect continuum.
  • le dialecte: dialect.
  • intercompréhensible: mutually intelligible.
  • le patois: a “regional language.”

So: the next time someone says to you at a cocktail party but that’s just a dialect, right?  …feel free to give them a lecture on the subject, or to just politely realize that you need to freshen up your drink and then go find someone else to talk to.