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Learn One Romance Language, Learn Them All?

Each of the major Romance tongues requires its own period of dedicated study, but knowing one can certainly help you navigate the rest. Here's a closer look at how much bonus knowledge you get by learning one of them.

Spanish: it’s basically a happy medium between Portuguese and Italian, am I right?

Well, not exactly. But as anyone who’s ever desperately asked around for "café," "café," "café" or "caffè" would know (that’s French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, respectively), there’s quite a bit of crossover when it comes to Romance languages.

So is it "five for the price of one," then? Each of the major languages is very much its own distinct field of study, but you get a whole lot more than just a basic handle on Spanish when you begin your Español studies. You also gain the ability to understand bits and pieces of Italian, French, Portuguese and Romanian, as well as an accelerated learning curve for whenever you do decide to study a second Romance tongue.

The Vulgar Origins Of Romantic Language

All of the Romance languages derive from Vulgar Latin, or the colloquial form of Latin spoken by the lower classes. The Latin language had its heyday during the Roman Empire, and from there, it separated into various dialects. After the collapse of the Empire around 476 CE, or during the Middle Ages, these dialects then began to take on the shape of the distinct languages we know today.

The major (national) tongues include French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian, but smaller languages like Catalan, Galician, Sardinian, Piedmontese and Neapolitan also populate the family.

To be sure, the Romance languages didn’t just separate, never to hang out or intermingle again. They actually continued to influence each other and borrow each other’s linguistic clothes. When French was the dominant language of culture and diplomacy during the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, Portuguese absorbed the guttural "r" of the French language, though it had historically been pronounced in the manner of Spanish and Italian.

Romanian is probably the most "different" of all the Romance tongues, which has a lot to do with the fact that Slavic and Germanic tribes took over the territory after the Roman Empire collapsed, and the language took on certain aspects from those cultures. It was even written in Cyrillic until the 19th century, but it was latinized once more thanks to nationalist imperatives.

The Mathematics Of Mutual Intelligibility

It’s easy enough to perceive the commonalities between Romance languages. But just how much Spanish can you understand if you speak French, and how close together are Italian and Portuguese?

In a paper titled "On the Romance Languages Mutual Intelligibility," linguists Alina Maria Ciobanu and Liviu P. Dinu of the University of Bucharest attempted to measure the mutual intelligibility (or the overall capacity for speakers of various languages to understand each other) of Romance languages.

To do this, they considered etymology, cognates (or words in different languages with a common ancestor), and orthographic distances (a measurement of how similar or dissimilar words are based on spelling, usage and a host of other factors). Overall, they concluded that Romanian is the least intelligible language for speakers of other Romance tongues, and that Spanish and Portuguese share the most similarities, with Spanish and Italian being the second closest.

Ethnologue also features lexical similarity coefficients for each of the Romance tongues, or quantifiable percentages that tell you how similar the languages are. For instance, Italian and Romanian are 77 percent similar, but Italian and French have 89 percent of their language in common.

Language 1 Versus… Catalan French Italian Portuguese Romanian Spanish
Catalan 1 - 0.87 0.85 0.73 0.85
French - 1 0.89 0.75 0.75 0.75
Italian 0.87 0.89 1 - 0.77 0.82
Portuguese 0.85 0.75 - 1 0.72 0.89
Romanian 0.73 0.75 0.77 0.72 1 0.71
Spanish 0.85 0.75 0.82 0.89 0.71 1

Data via Ethnologue; chart via Wikipedia

But What Do The People Say?

It’s all well and good to look at the numbers, but knowing that Spanish and Catalan have a lexical similarity of 85 percent doesn’t necessarily paint a picture, or give you a good sense of how you’d fare in Madrid with a strict knowledge of Catalan.

Here’s a slightly more anecdotal take from various users on Quora, which, although highly subjective, still offers a sense of how native speakers of various Romance languages feel about their linguistic cousins.

For instance, one native Spanish speaker said he always had the easiest time with Brazilian Portuguese. In his view, European Portuguese and Spanish speakers can understand each other pretty well, so long as they speak slowly and clearly to one another. And though it sounds similar to Spanish, Italian takes a bit more effort for Spanish speakers to understand. In his view, a Spanish speaker could pick up odd words from Romanian and French, but not necessarily complete sentences.

Meanwhile, a native Portuguese speaker said he had a very easy time learning Spanish, and he can generally understand spoken Italian, but he doesn’t find French to be very intelligible, even if he can make out about a third of the words. Additionally, his Italian friends seemed to have more trouble understanding him than vice versa. Finally, he said Romanian is as difficult for him as any non-Romance language.

From an Italian’s point of view, Catalan and Occitan are the easiest to understand. Written French is partially intelligible, and Spanish and Portuguese are also easiest to grasp when written, though he thinks it’s possible for Spanish and Italian speakers to have a basic conversation. Meanwhile, "Romanian is another world."

One Romanian woman said she has the easiest time grasping Italian despite very little exposure to the language, and she found Spanish very easy to learn. She finds Portuguese to be the most difficult for a Romanian to learn and understand.

And lastly, a native French speaker pointed out that some words are pronounced the same way in Portuguese. Written Catalan is possible to read despite never having studied it, and Italian can be somewhat comprehensible, even though it’s very phonetically different from French.

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