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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