On one ELL user's (he's a native English speaker from the USA) profile page I read "Also conversant in Japanese" which surely means that he can to some extent communicate in that language.

At the same time, from all the online dictionaries I looked up for the collocation "be conversant in a foreign language" only Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English provides the definition "able to hold a conversation in a foreign language", marked as American English. In the others, there's no meaning of "capable of making conversation (in a language)" for "conversant".

So the question is this:

Is the phrase "be conversant in a foreign language" used beyond the USA? In the USA, is it really common and does it mean "competent in a foreign language" (general command of it, reading and writing skills included), or it refers to the ability to understand and make oneself understood (to some extent--fairly/good, etc.) in a conversation only?

2 Answers 2


It is an "Americanism". The meaning of "conversant" = "familiar with" used both in the British and American dialects.

I'm conversant with C and C++, but I specialise in Java.

The process by which a word picks up additional meanings from similar sounding words is called "assimilation". The idea is that the meaning shifted: "I'm conversant with French" = "I am familiar with the French language" became assimilated with the idea "I can hold a conversation in French". This assimilation occurred in American English, not British English.

In the particular case of "I am conversant in Japanese" probably means he is able to speak at some level, but not read or write at a similar level. He might read all the kana, but only the simplest kanji. But the expression is not precise enough for one to say how strong his Japanese is.


I'm inclined to think that talking about being "conversant in English" is almost prima facie evidence that one is not that linguistically competent!

First, here's the evidence that the standard preposition after conversant is with...

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That pattern is pretty much the same with any "subject" except ...in English

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...where the only plausible explanation for people switching from conversant with English to conversant in English involves the excessive conflation of conversant and conversing / having a conversation in [a language].

The two words are etymologically related, but not that much!

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