How much can a Spanish speaker understand of a conversation in Italian? Is it easier learning Swedish if you already speak Danish? And does anybody understand Basque? Languages are classified according to their relation with other languages, beginning with families, which consist of hundreds of languages, and branching out into smaller…well, branches. So Urdu belongs to the Indo-European family, but also belongs to the Indo-Iranian, Indo-Aryan and Central Zone groups. The further along the branches, the more closely related the languages are.
Mutual intelligibility is how much speakers of one language can understand speakers of another off the bat, without having to learn anything. Theoretically, you should be able to understand a certain amount of the languages or dialects that share the same group as your native language.
A bit of romance
The Romance, Romanic or Latin languages number just over twenty and include French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. This group of language evolved from Vulgar Latin, as in the Latin spoken by the common people, rather than a rude and swear-y Latin.
Spanish and Portuguese speakers have been shown to understand each other about 50% of the time. Being able to half follow a conversation isn’t bad for not having learnt a word of the language. It is harder though for Spanish speakers to understand Portuguese than the other way around.
Same, but different
However, mutual intelligibility is not the same as lexical similarity – this is how similar the words of any given languages are. Keeping with the example of Spanish and Portuguese, these two languages have a lexical similarity of 89%. That’s a lot of similar words and yet only 50% understanding between the two. So two languages can have a lot of similar looking words, but put a speaker of each in front of each other and tell them to talk and they’ll both be scratching their heads.
Spanish and Portuguese speakers do have an easier time of understanding each other when they’re reading each other’s language written down. This is true for other languages too and probably has something to do with the degree of lexical similarity between them.
Lonely, I’m so lonely…
Some languages don’t belong in a group with any others and are called language isolates. These include the Basque language from the region of the same name in northern Spain and southern France, some Asian and African languages, many native languages of Australia and islands in Oceania, even more languages native to North and South America and even some sign languages. Presumably, they have little or no mutual intelligibility or lexical similarity with other languages. The large majority of these languages are endangered and some are extinct. Imagine having no one who understands you?
Can you easily follow along with a conversation or read a piece of text in another language?