Mutual Intelligibility in the Romance Family

It is often stated that speakers of the Romance languages can all understand each other. I’m not really a fluent speaker of Spanish, but I can speak it ok. I have known some Brazilian Portuguese speakers, and they definitely could not understand Spanish well. And the Latin American Spanish speakers I knew insisted that they could not understand Portuguese.
I’ve known some Italian speakers too. I tried speaking Spanish to them in order to communicate with them, but that was a pretty useless exercise. The Italian speaker I know right now admits he can’t understand Spanish.
I find this whole theory to be ridiculous.
It’s been shown that even Asturian has only 80% intelligibility with Spanish, and Asturian is almost as close to Spanish as a language gets. Surely it’s lower with Spanish and Portuguese.
Even Galician, as close to Portuguese as you can get, has only 85% intelligibility with it.
The “dialects” of Italian are so distant that many of them are separate languages altogether. Why? Because they are unintelligible. And that’s right there within Italic itself.
Franco-Provencal has only partial intelligibility with French, and that’s quite close to French as you get.
Bottom line is the whole notion of “Romance speakers can all understand each other” can be put to rest.
On the net recently, I found these excellent comments on the debate.

The supposed mutual intelligibility of Spanish and Portuguese is greatly exaggerated. Spanish/Portuguese speakers can mutually STRUGGLE through very basic conversations (and usually while speaking very slowly, changing their normal speaking accent, and utilizing lots of hand motions to aid communication), but not much more than that without study.
The phonology of both languages is dramatically different.
And Spanish and Italian are almost not at all mutually intelligible. Too many words, and constructions are TOTALLY different. People need to stop repeating this lie of Spanish/Italian mutual intelligibility…
…I live in an Area (Newark NJ), that has a lot of Portuguese immigrants, and local Hispanics are perplexed by the language they speak, and do not even recognize it at all, and much less understand it.
You’ll hear Puerto Ricans and Dominicans say things like: “What language was that? Was that Russian?”
Portuguese often gets mistaken for some kind of obscure Slavic language by Spanish speakers who have never been exposed to it…
…Most people who have never had contact with Portuguese won’t have the slightest inclination of what a Portuguese speaker is saying, and if so, very little…
…Italian and Spanish are not that closely related, and as a general rule are NOT mutually intelligible at all.

Indeed, I would say that that about sums it up. I can understand a fair amount of Spanish on a video, but I recently watched a video of Wally Gator dubbed into Brazilian Portuguese (the old Hanna Barbera cartoons are insanely popular to this day down in Brazil) and I could barely make out a damned word.
One thing that I noticed is that if you know one Romance tongue, you can pick up another pretty fast. I dated a Brazilian woman once and I used to speak to her in Spanish while she spoke to me in Portuguese. Within mere days, I was picking up the Portuguese, with the help of a dictionary of course. I’m now learning some Italian through interacting with an Italian translator of my work. It’s so much easier since I know Spanish.
I suspect that the other much-daunted “intelligibility chains” between the great languages are pretty much like the above with Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.
Note that in the same linked web discussion, there are some individual speakers of Spanish or Portuguese who claim that they can easily understand the other language. This is why linguistic evaluation of mutual intelligibility is such a minefield. Different informants give you all sorts of different responses.
One of the big problems with mutual intelligibility testing is that when dealing with closely related dialects or languages, speakers can pretty quickly start to understand the other tongue after listening to it for a while. I’m not really sure what to do in cases like this. You would have to ask the experts like the folks at Ethnologue who run around doing intelligibility testing of speakers all over the world.
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11 thoughts on “Mutual Intelligibility in the Romance Family”

  1. Dear Robert
    I agree with you totally, but I would like to add that Spanish and Portuguese look much more similar that they sound. For instance, Josef is José in both P and Sp, but only the o is pronounced the same in both languages. Spanish has 5 basic oral vowels and no nasal vowels, but P has 7 oral vowels. In addition, P has 5 nasal vowels, 5 nasal diphthongs and 3 open oral difhthongs that Sp does not have. The result is that the mutual intelligibility is much greater in writing than in speech.
    Below are some sentences in P, Sp and English.
    A criança brinca com os seus brinquedos
    El niño juega con sus juguetes
    The child plays with its toys
    A menina comia feijão com uma colher
    La muchacha comía frijoles con una cuchara
    The girl was eating beans with a spoon
    O cão estava deitado no chão perto da cadeira
    El perro estaba acostado en el piso cerca de la silla
    The dog was lying on the floor near the chair
    O macaco preto pulou pela janela
    El mono negro saltó por la ventana
    The black monkey jumped through the window
    O garoto do pedreiro sumiu ontem
    El muchacho del albañil desapareció ayer
    The bricklayer’s boy disappeared yesterday
    A namorada do pesquisador mora longe dele
    La novia del investigador vive lejos de él
    The researcher’s girlfriend lives far from him
    A estrada está cheia de buracos
    La carretera está llena de agujeros
    The road is filled with potholes
    O alfaiate esqueceu as suas canetas
    El sastre se olvidó de sus plumas
    The tailor forgot his pens
    O lixeiro ficou com os lucros
    El basurero se quedó con las ganancias
    The garbage collector kept the profits
    Você jogou o lixo no quintal do açougueiro
    Echaste la basura en el patio del carnicero
    You threw the garbage in the butcher’s backyard
    Ninguém se lembra de tudo o que aconteceu
    Nadie se acuerda de todo lo que pasó
    Nobody remembers everything that happened
    Não gosto de pêssegos
    Los melocotones no me gustan
    I don’t like peaches
    A velhinha foi esfaqueada pelo ladrão
    La viejecita fue acuchillada por el ladrón
    The little old lady was stabbed with a knife by the thief
    Have a good day. James

  2. Mutual intelligibility of Spanish and Portuguese is a complete myth. I can only assume it arose among people who thought the two languages looked similar on the printed page, but had limited experience hearing one or both spoken. As has been noted, dialects within languages are not mutually intelligible, so why would entirely separate–though related–languages be so?

  3. I’m illiterate in three languages. But seriously: I had 3 yrs. of HS Spanish, and 2 more yrs. in college, all As, but I can’t understand the Guatemalans and El Salvadoreans when they jabber away at me. Two years of college German, and I might get the jist if you speak slooooowwwwwwllly. I’ve lost a lot of the vocab in the intervening yrs. too. I don’t know Yiddish except to the extent that it is mutually intelligible w/ German, which it isn’t much, but more so than Spanish and Portuguese. I have a nodding familiarity w/ the Hebrew and Cyrillic alphabets. That about covers it.

  4. Wow, that’s great Mort. For some reason, I was sure that you only spoke English and didn’t know a word of another language. But you’ve studied German and Spanish. Cool. I wouldn’t study German if you paid me.
    Lately I’ve been studying Italian and French a bit on my own and it’s kind of fun. I’m getting into it.

  5. If you recall, I did pretty well on those “guess the language” things you were having a while back. But I don’t feel that I *know* Spanish and German. HS and college is really too late to learn a language.

  6. Yes, I think you are correct.
    However, I can speak Spanish ok, and frequently converse with Spanish speakers in Spanish. I even had an Argentine gf once and we basically communicated in Spanish. So I can hold my own. But I have a hard time reading it. I can sort of read it, but not the same way I understand English.
    Also, I can’t really understand the spoken Spanish that I hear at Mass or on TV or the radio very well. I can understand it partially, but that’s not good enough. Nor can I understand much of the rapid fire Spanish I hear around me all day and all night. I’m *still* learning Spanish, and I had 4 yrs of it in high school and 2 more years in college. I’m definitely not a fluent speaker.
    Some people are very good at learning languages and continue to learn them throughout life. But with the Hmong here in the Central Valley, the ones over 40 hardly know any English and often don’t even bother to learn. The Hmong have a saying in their culture that says after 40, it’s too late to learn a language, so they don’t bother.
    I forgot that you were good at the Spot the Language thing. And I am quite impressed that you know your way a bit around the Cyrillic and Hebrew alphabets!

  7. Spanish and Portuguese are very close – vocabulary, grammar, structure. These two languages are still the closest major Romance languages today. Almost any sentence in Spanish or Portuguese can be understood by a speaker of the other, because 90% of the lexicon of each language is the same. Maybe word choice will vary sometimes depending on the context, but, there is always a high probability that the word/s used exist in the other language.

  8. Hello,
    From a native Spanish speaker (Chile), I have travelled to 3 Portuguese speaking countries, Brazil, Portugal and Mozambique. In all cases I found it permisible to speak Spanish, I understood enough to know what was baing said, and I was understood as well.
    It certainly isnt seamless, but it is close enough if its spoken at a slower pace and clear. While I would not be comfortable having a long chit chat, it is certainly close enough to be understood with short sentences, all is needed is a few simple rules and building up a ear for it, which does not take long.
    As for Italian, I agree. Spanish and Italian are not Mutually Intelligible. While there is an obvious closeness, and familiarity with words, there are enough words that differ that make communication nearly impossible. This is not the case with Portuguese as the vocabulary is alot closer, even if the pronounciation is harder. I find Italian pronounciation to be easier, but Italian vocabulary differs alot more. With Italian one can pick out words and half construct what is being said, but no more then that. In a nutshell, Italian and Spanish are close and obviously related and familiar, not close enough to make them intelligible.

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