I’ve been re-watching The Bridge, the crime series in which a Swedish police team and a Danish police team work together to solve crimes that usually involve people in both countries, which are linked by the bridge from the title.
What may seem strange to monolingual speakers is that the characters speak their own language (that is, Swedish or Danish) and understand each other without having to revert to a third language (for example, English or German). This phenomenon is called intercomprehension and has presumably existed forever between people who speak different languages from the same language family or neighbouring local dialects. Being able to talk their first language or their own dialect makes both interlocutors in a conversation feel equally at ease. Intercomprehension is one form of receptive multilingualism.
In the series The Bridge, when differences in the two languages may lead to misunderstanding, the characters sometimes repeat the word in the other language to make sure they have understood correctly, or they ask a clarification question. This is a clear example, from Episode 3 of Series 4.
A Danish man says, ‘Og den ene af dem havde sådan et … et modermærke her’ and points in between his eyebrows. [‘And one of them had one of those … a birthmark here.’]
A Swedish man says, ‘Ett födelsemärke?’ [‘A birthmark?’]
The Danish man nods.
See how the underlined part of the repeated word is different in the two languages? Moder means ‘mother’ and födelse means ‘birth’. Because this difference may cause misunderstanding, the listener repeats the word to make sure he has understood and the speaker confirms he has.
Another form of receptive multilingualism is using a skill called lingua receptiva. This happens when languages aren’t as closely related and interlocutors can’t rely on a ‘natural’ ability to understand each other’s language but have to have learnt some of the other’s language, for example, if a German speaker and a Dutch speaker were to talk to each other in their first language. Learning to understand another language takes less effort than learning to speak another language comfortably, so lingua receptiva is a great skill to learn.