First: a quick reality check. Before I start diving into discussions of language (and language design), please understand that your humble author has no academic background in linguistics or communication, nor historical anthropology applying to the subject, nor even any background in teaching or education. I write for (i.e. "design") games. The games I design for (tabletop RPGs) seek to emulate specific particulars of my choosing, and they try to do so with an eye towards playability, balancing "fun" and "practicality," and my tastes for these two elements may well run counter to other folks' tastes.
In the case of language fluency, what I want to emulate is based largely on a combination of "adventure fiction" and personal experiences, not necessarily in that order.
Your humble author is pretty much crap at learning foreign languages. Here's the brief history: took French class in the 8th grade and got straight A's. Took three years of Japanese in high school and got a B'ish average, yet retain ALMOST NOTHING despite actually traveling/living in Japan for three weeks or so (I did manage to acquire a girlfriend who later came to the U.S. and had an interest in marriage, but she was fluent in English). Took a year of French at University where I bottomed out in my third trimester (I believe the mark I received was a "D+") due to me skipping a LOT of class to be with my romantic interest of the time (another train wreck story). Took some night classes in Spanish at the local community college, years later, in order to get enough grounding in the language to fake holding a conversation with my Mexican in-laws (this AFTER a couple years of marriage and certain spousal threats relating to my inability to communicate with the family). And that's about it, education-wise...unless you count a couple-four CDs used to "try" learning foreign languages: Russian (that was for a different girl), German (for travel), Czech (for travel), and Italian (?? I think...for fun? Maybe, but we did travel there as well eventually. Regardless, I speak NO Italian).
These days, I'm fairly fluent in Spanish, but that's after 20+ years of marriage to a woman from Mexico (we've been together since '98), annual or twice annual trips to Mexico (where all the friends/relatives reside), three years or so living in Paraguay, several excursions to various Spanish-speaking countries (Panama, Guatamala, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Spain). I knew NO Spanish before I met the wife, other than what was on the menu at a Tex-Mex joint...at least, nothing but bad words (picked up working in restaurant kitchens).
"Fairly fluent" means the following: I can hold a conversation with someone in Spanish, though generally not a profound or deep one. I can follow (comprehend) a conversation between native Spanish speakers, so long as they are not A) speaking too fast, B) using a lot of "slang" or specific terminology, C) talking about anything particularly complex. I can communicate with native Spanish speakers enough that they understand (more-or-less) what I am trying to communicate to them (the reverse does NOT always hold true). I can teach simple concepts in Spanish (on par with what you'd teach a small child up to the age of 5 or so); we raised our kids to speak Spanish as their first language, and could only do this by only speaking Spanish in the home.
Oh...and I can generally follow movies in Spanish, even without subtitles (though it's easier with...yes, even with subtitles in Spanish).
My reading comprehension is actually better than my listening/speaking ability because reading is a slower process, allowing me time to distinguish recognizable root words, make sense of syntax and context, and because writing is (generally) more formal in composition than the way people talk. Also: no accents in writing. I can distinguish (some) cultural accents these days, and some accents are so thick they don't even sound like Spanish at times. This was an issue for us when we liven in Paraguay...even my wife only understood two-thirds of what people were saying the first year we were there.
My wife, unlike me, is amazing at learning languages (except French. Terrible, terrible French). She is fully fluent in English (with an extensive vocabulary) and "fairly fluent" in Italian. She can get by in Portuguese, and picked up Czech pretty quickly (though I doubt she remembers any now). She left the German stuff to me (when we were in Germany) but I doubt she'd have much issue with it, seeing as how closely related it is to English. But then, her work and education are in the field of communications (and she LOVES to travel).
In Dungeons & Dragons, knowledge of a language is a binary switch: your character either knows how to speak "troll" (or whatever) or she doesn't; degree of fluency doesn't enter into the equation. In D&D, the number of languages you speak is the resource that is counted, and it is tied directly to a character's intelligence attribute: the higher your character's INT, the larger the quantity of languages known and understood.
Which doesn't jibe with my experience. Your O-So-Humble Scribe (me) is a pretty smart guy...on a day of extreme modesty, I'd probably rate myself a 15 on the ol' INT scale. But despite years of effort (especially the last ten or so) my ability to speak ANY language other than Inglais has met with a LOT of frustration...you can be smart all day, and it just ain't easy (at least, nor for me). On the other hand plenty of folks (especially those raised outside the USA) speak multiple languages just as a matter of course. Native Paraguayans, from the most educated professor to the lowliest laborer, speak two languages fluently: Spanish and Guaranii. And those with ANY degree of education (i.e. anyone with some family money) speaks unaccented, fluent English (care of The American School) and probably some Portuguese as well (due to the country's history and cultural exchange with Brazil). "Intelligence" is not the issue; so far as I can determine, the main drives of "fluency" (i.e. the ability to communicate in a language) come down to use, opportunity, and access. Roughly in that order.
These days, I only rarely use my Spanish language, except for the habitual phrases and sentences I use (yelling at my children, buying chicharon at the Mexican grocery store), and as a result I'm quite "rusty." My kids are worse: since the pandemic, they've cut the Spanish class from our school (one of the reasons we were sending them there) and sometimes they forget even phrases like "merry Christmas"...at least, until their mother takes them aside and lectures/communicates with them for a couple hours in Espanol. Usually that's enough to knock the rust off. For me, my Spanish improves remarkably after a week in a country where I'm surrounded by the language, my fluency "amping up" to two or three times its normal level...but never more than what I've had the opportunity to learn.
Should an elf or wizard be able to hold a jovial conversation with a couple orcs when they spend most of their free time "in town?" Should the gnome illusionist using a change self spell be able to pass as a native speaking kobold? Personally, I don't think so...unless the character is some serious student of the language/culture. And yet, in Seattle I know many folks of non-American birth, switch seamlessly between their native tongue (still spoken in the home) and the English language that is all around them. Though many (including my wife) will at times complain of a loss of fluency in their original language due to living and working on foreign soil.
[actually, when we first returned from living in Paraguay, I would accidentally slip into Spanish quite often the first few months we were back. I don't do that anymore]
SO...how to model this in game terms? Well, what's the (game) objective here...besides making a more nuanced game world for the players to live in? For me, I want to give the PCs some options that will aid them in their navigating the challenges...specifically hostile NPCs...through the time honored means of negotiation and deception (or both). And because this is a game, the system needs some abstraction. Here's how it works:
For any language, there are four degrees of fluency:
- Non-fluent (0 points): the character cannot communicate in the language. Oh, a person might be taught a word or two ("Breeyark," "yes/no," "please"), but the character will not understand what the language speaker is saying; communication is only one way, or very rudimentary and bolstered by gesture (point at food, point at mouth, etc.).
- Moderately fluent (1 point): character is "fairly" fluent...about the same as what I describe for my ability to speak Spanish (see above). Complex ideas cannot be conveyed, but basic conversations - both ways - are possible. Topics of conversation will be limited to the character's general interests, perhaps chitchat (food, treasure, directions, danger, etc.) not profound philosophies, deep matters of the heart, or intricacies of political situations.
- Fully fluent (2 points): character can communicate as well as befits a person of his or her station (type and level of education, intelligence, profession, etc.). The character cannot pass as a native speaker, and will exhibit a marked accent; subtleties of conversation (including humor and condescension/disdain) may be missed, but the character should "get it" most of the time. Character will have insights into the culture, but may still be thrown for a loop by rare words, new slang, or unique concepts.
- Native speaker (3 points): character speaks as well as someone born to the culture; the only limitations being the character's particular class/stature/station in life (this can be eyeballed based on a character's class, level, and CHA score). Appearance will be the only mark of a character's "foreignness," and perhaps not even that if the culture is sufficiently diverse enough to include members of the character's species. Character will be familiar with customs, clothing, food, etc. of the culture and will understand idioms, expressions, and subtleties as much as INT/WIS allows.
Characters start the game with 4 points worth of languages so long as their INT is at least six, otherwise they have only 3 points worth of languages. Elves and dwarves receive one bonus point (total of 5) so long as their INT is at least six. This number is modified by the character's Intelligence score as noted in the PHB for "number of additional languages spoken." For example, a halfling with a 13 intelligence would have 7 points to spend; a dwarf with an 18 intelligence would have 12 points; an elf with a 4 intelligence would only have three points, the same as a human of 4 intelligence.
Some languages (in my game world) share the same root "language family" such that a native or fully fluent speaker counts as moderately fluent without the need to expend additional points. These include:
- Dwarf to Gnome (and the reverse)
- Goblin to Kobold (and the reverse)
There may be others. "Bugbear" is not a goblin in my world. Hobgoblins are a larger form of goblin, but otherwise the same species (see dialect, below).
Creatures/characters of the same species share the same language but may have different "dialects." Native speakers may communicate as fully fluent when communicating with a speaker of a different dialect. Some examples from my world include:
- Humans (those West of the Cascades versus those to the East)
- Elves (wood elves versus high elves, etc.)
- Giants (hill, frost, stone, fire, etc.)
[Drow, if such exist (I haven't yet decided) are far enough removed culturally to be considered a different language family, rather than a different dialect. The same would probably apply to svirfneblin, derro, and duergar]
Mechanic-wise, characters should receive a bonus to reaction checks of +1 if fully fluent and +2 if a native speaker. Characters who are non-fluent should receive a -2 penalty when attempting to communicate (moderately fluent character receive neither bonus, nor penalty). These are in addition to the normal adjustments for CHA and circumstance (a group of adventurers with blades drawn are going to be seen as a threat regardless of their communication skills!).
Can fluency be lost? Yes, of course. So long as a character has the chance to use their conversation (either talking to NPCs, practicing with fellow party members, or residing in a "base town" where the language is spoken), fluency may be maintained at the purchased level. It takes 2d6 months for fluency to diminish (call it seven months) from non-use; fluency will never diminish more than one step, and never below moderately fluent. Former fluency level can be regained after immersing themselves in the language for 1d3 weeks.
[folks who want even more nuance can add a somewhat fluent category under moderately fluent; this degree of fluency is never purchased but may be fallen to from non-use. It carries a -1 reaction penalty]
Now, I'd bet there are some folks out there, reading this and saying "Eh? Who cares? Why add this needless complexity to the D&D game?" And, of course, you don't have to. You don't have to use weapon proficiencies either (B/X doesn't). Heck, if you really wanted to simplify the game you could remove all coinages besides gold pieces, lots of "simpler" fantasy board games get by with nothing else (games like Dungeon!, Dark Tower, Talisman...).
For me, some amount of complexity (no more than I can handle) makes for a richer, deeper gaming experience. For other folks it just adds to an already dizzying array of overwhelming rules. To each their own. But I think this is kind of neat, and I plan to put it into play pretty much immediately.
Next post, I'll talk about literacy.