Recently, I ran across a reference to EuRom5, a book for studying French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan, using one as your base and developing your intercomprehension skills to gain a reading knowledge of the other four. I’d read about it before, and I suspect I’ve even bought it before. But I ordered it and started reading the introduction. This lead me to Wikipedia’s discussion of Plurilingualism. Plurilingualism stands in contrast to multilingualism in that the idea is not to learn multiple languages individually, but to relate different languages sufficiently that you can get by in certain tasks. In multilingualism, substituting the Italian word into your Spanish conversation and hoping it’s the same is a failing; your mastery is incomplete. With plurilingualism, the same move is a success: your knowledge may be imperfect, but it doesn’t prevent you from completing the linguistic task at hand.
I find the distinction between plurilingualism and multilingualism to be an important one, because I think it captures where a lot of borderline polyglots are. We are probably multilingual for two or three languages: they really are separate entitities with separate contexts and separate feelings when speaking them. But as we add other languages, they represent extensions of our knowledge of our strongest language in the family less than a complete and separate mental construct. And for most of us, that’s okay. It’s largely a matter of how seamless your linguistic and cultural aptitudes need to fit where you’re speaking a different language. A court interpreter or the guy translating contracts needs to be solidly multilingual, with full comprehension of the linguistic and cultural nuances present in each language’s version of the discourse. An international traveler or someone reading for pleasure, not so much.
This brings us to a bit of a detour. I recently read this bit, “How I came to read Latin extensively” and it feels like it’s the kind of thing a plurilingual would enjoy. Latin specialists may write articles about the importance of an author using one word instead of another or using the subjunctive in an unexpected place. For most of us, though, experiencing Latin as something you read and enjoy, instead of something you copy out and translate line by line, is plenty. You can find out how he did it at the link and simultaneously get a better sense of how to develop intercomprehension for reading in languages you lack the time or inclination to master.
With a refined sense of what you can do with intercomprehension and plurilingualism, it feels like it may be possible to learn all the languages, at least a little bit. Good news for language addicts everywhere.