To converse with the world’s denizens in DnD 5E, characters must utilize Languages. The DM determines the importance of Languages in a campaign; however, they can always add a nice bit of flavor to your character.
Languages are simply the different types of speech used by various peoples and creatures of a world, whether a Homebrew or a canon world like Forgotten Realms or Eberron. For the sake of brevity, I’ll cover the base Languages found in the Player’s Handbook and most basic campaigns.
How do you choose a language?
In general, the vast majority of normal society can speak the Common language. All Player Characters can speak Common by default, as it’s less a language and more of a handwave to say there is no language barrier.
That being said, other languages can be gained from your character’s race, background, class, and feats. Standard languages are typical languages spoken by the various inhabitants of a world, particularly ones that are playable to some capacity. Exotic languages are spoken by rarer creatures that are usually not playable. You will need your DM’s permission to have an exotic language.
Your Race will determine what languages your character speaks by default, while your Background may give you access to additional languages.
Below is a list of Standard and Exotic Languages and who their native speakers are and Race- and Class-specific Languages.
Your chosen background further determines initial Languages. Every character starts with knowing Common, then depending on which Background you prefer, you may get allowances for several additional languages. Make sure to run your language choices by your DM before starting the campaign.
Here is a list of bonus language choices per Background option (from the Player’s Handbook):
Acolyte – Two of your choice
Charlatan – None
Criminal – None
Entertainer – None
Folk Hero – None
Guild Artisan – One of your choice
Hermit – One of your choice
Noble – One of your choice
Outlander – One of your choice
Sage – Two of your choice
Sailor – None
Soldier – None
Urchin – None
Using a combination of your Background, Race, and Class, you can end up having your character be fluent in several languages that could be incredibly beneficial to your party as a whole. If your character can speak Draconic, it could make encounters with Dragons be fascinating. Exotic languages may require approval from your DM, of course, but even having multiple Standard languages could prove to be a great asset.
Changes with 5E
The Fifth Edition made minor changes to language rules. Initially, Wizards of the Coast separated the Primordial languages into different languages per Elemental. Now, these languages—Aquan, Auran, Ignan, and Terran—are combined under the Primordial tag and are considered different dialects of the same language. Creatures of the elemental planes that can speak one language natively can generally understand speakers of the other dialects. However, your DM may decide whether or not a Player Character can.
Because Languages are so straightforward, they are often overlooked or under-utilized when building your character. They are generally limited, but if you are interested in rounding out your character’s Language knowledge, there are alternative options to getting access to even more.
If you decide to play as a Bard, Sorcerer, Warlock, or Wizard, you can have access to the spell 1st Level spell “Comprehend Languages.” This spell allows you to understand any spoken and written language for one hour. For more information on the mechanics of this spell, you can look at the entry on DnD Beyond.
These same classes and Paladin also have access to the 3rd Level spell “Tongues,” which will allow for a targeted casting on another creature. This will give any creature the ability to understand and speak a language known by the party, like Common.
If you don’t want to focus as a spellcaster, you could always take the Monk class. At Level 13, you gain the ability “Tongue of the Sun and Moon,” giving you the ability to understand and speak any language. The caveat is that level 13 is pretty late into most campaigns so that this ability won’t be available until later.
Without taking race and class into account, there’s always the option of taking the feat “Linguist” to gather more language knowledge. This feat boosts your Intelligence by 1, to a maximum of 20, and lets you learn three languages. You can also gain the use of ciphers, which you could use in some exciting ways. Perhaps your character is a paranoid wizard terrified of losing their spellbook, and the cipher would be the perfect chance to protect the coveted Grimoire.
These are great alternative options if you want more language abilities than the standard allotment.
Ultimately, Languages are often underused despite the interesting flavor they can add to any given campaign. The DM must determine their usage, but if you are planning to DM a campaign of your own, you may be interested in looking into them more. You’ll also find languages in extended materials such as Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and the Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica.
Utilizing language in a campaign could be an entertaining way to build your character. Or, even placing a language handicap on the party could lead to interesting (and possibly dangerous) adventures! As always, it’s essential to work together and have fun!