What if there were a Linguistics skill instead of it being based on education or "scholarliness"?
There's a mechanic in AEG's SG1 game where Skill Ranks indicate conversational proficiency for each Language that one writes down. The total ranks added together for all the languages one speaks is used to make a Liguistics check should a new language, or one similar or familiar to a language the character already speaks, be encountered.
That doesn't encompass the same sort of intuition that Jason mentioned, but it would be a better mechanic than "languages" in the more D&D sense and be easier to retro-fit into the existing language system. Right now, characters get a ton of languages unless they have a low INT. 3+INTb plus the automatic language is a minimum of 4 if the character's INT bonus is zero. These are absolutely free of charge too and no proficiency is needed to speak them.
Reading is an entirely different issue. Typically, reading and writing denote an eriudite station, so it seems reasonable that only Scholars and Nobles would have such proficiency. However, that's frankly jsut no fun at all. What you end up with is the Thief character's player arguing for an hour and a half, while the pizza gets cold mind you, that his character should be capable of reading too. (sigh)
I propose this house rule for language acquisition and speaking proficiency as well as litteracy and linguistics (figuring out languages you don't know):
- Characters recieve 3+INTb languages from thier Bonus Languages list for thier race as well as the Automatic language.
- Characters do not need to spend skill points on these languages, but instead recieve Effective Ranks as if they were skills equal to thier WISb each level. This is used to converse when complex ideas need to be conveyed. Simple ideas such as "me" or "you" or indicating an object by pointing at it dont' really require speech. Ultimately it's up to the GM to decide if a concept requires language rather than just rudimentary communication. Haggling, debate or interrogation are some examples where this roll would be necessary.
- Languages can sometimes be picked up on quite quickly and simple ideas requiring more than gestures can be conveyed by using broken phrases and the like. Any chararacter wishing to do this adds all Effective ranks consulting the Bonus Languages list for his race and the race he is trying to communicate with. If they have a language in common on those lists but the PC doesn't have Effective Ranks in that language, then he can use the total of the Effective ranks he does have for any languages uncommon between the two races or his INTb + WISb, whichever is higher, and test using this value as a bonus.
- Following the rules in the book, about 2 months of game time are necessary to pick up a language to the degree of being conversant, so Effective Ranks begin when the PC acquires the new language.
The test DC for any of these is 10+the Effective Rank of the speaker's language.
A: A 3rd level Cimmerian with an INTb of +0 should have his 1 automatic language (Cimmerian) and up to 3 bonus languages (from Nordheimer, Pictish, Aquilonian and Hyperborean). He chooses Aquilonian, Nordheimer and Pictish. His Effective ranks for communicating in those languages with a WISb of +3 would be 9 in each.
B: This Cimmerian wishes to speak to a Hyborian soldier. Thier automatic languages are different, but they both have Effective Ranks in Aquilonian so they can converse normally without needing to make rolls unless something complicated or abstract is needing to be related.
C: This same Cimmerian trying to speak with a Hyrkanian nomad. The have no commonn tongue, but consulting thier Bonus Languages lists for each race, each are exposed to Hyperborean enough to possibly find a few common simple phrases. The Cimmerian has no Effective ranks in this language because he didn't ever pick it for one of his bonus languages or as a new language. His INTb+WISb is higher, therefore, than his effective ranks, so his rolls using 1d20 + 3 versus the Hyrkanian's language skill + 10. The Hyrkanian is the same level and WIS, but chose Hyperborean as a bonus skill and so has 9 effective ranks. His INTb+WISb is lower, so he rolls 1s20 + 9 versus the Cimmerian's skill + 10. Note that these tests are to understand the speaker
rather than to speak the language.
D: If our Cimmerian were to go up a level and make a case to the GM that he learned some Hyperborean, then he'd have Effective Levels of 12 in his original languages and an Effective level of 3 in Hyperborean.