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One of my players' characters, a Circle of the Moon druid (PHB, p. 69), recently got to level 6; she can now use Wild Shape to turn into a Giant Elk.

The description of the giant elk says that it can understand certain languages (including Sylvan and Elvish) but can't speak them.

She can only understand them while Wildshape is active, right?

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The answer will lie in whether a Language counts as a Skill Proficiency.

Wild Shape

Your game statistics are replaced by the statistics of the beast, but you retain your alignment, personality, and Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores. You also retain all of your skill and saving throw proficiencies, in addition to gaining those of the creature. If the creature has the same proficiency as you and the bonus in its stat block is higher than yours, use the creature’s bonus instead of yours. If the creature has any legendary or lair actions, you can't use them.

You can’t cast spells, and your ability to speak or take any action that requires hands is limited to the capabilities of your beast form. Transforming doesn’t break your concentration on a spell you’ve already cast, however, or prevent you from taking actions that are part of a spell, such as call lightning, that you’ve already cast.

As DM, I do consider Language as a Skill Proficiency, and so your original Language Proficiencies are retained, in addition to gaining those of the creature's. You know your base languages, as well as the creature's, while in Wild Shape.

If the DM does not consider Language a Skill Proficiency, then the Wild-Shaped Druid can speak and understand only the Beast Form's known languages because her game statistics are replaced by the statistics of the beast, with several exceptions that do not include languages, and part of a stat block is an entry for Languages. In fact, from this point-of-view, her party mates will not be able to communicate with her except thru the Animal Handling skill while she is in Wild Shape.

Take note that in either case, a Beast Form is usually unable to speak Humanoid languages because of the structure of their vocal organs (e.g. tongue, mouth, etc.). Also, once the Wild Shape goes away, you revert to your original game-statistics, which no longer include the Beast Form's languages. So, it is safe to say that the question of the Beast Form's languages lies only within the time frame of the active Wild Shape. ;)

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    \$\begingroup\$ It might be worth mentioning that Jeremy Crawford stated in a tweet that, if the creature you Wild Shape into can speak, you can speak in the languages you know while Wild Shaped. He unfortunately makes no mention of the beast's languages, as the question he answered didn't touch upon it. A followup question could reinforce the point you've made :) \$\endgroup\$ – DaFluid Nov 16 '15 at 8:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ The second paragraph is incorrect - later on in the PHB it says "You retain the benefit of any features from your class, race, or other source and can use them if the new form is physically capable of doing so". Clearly, understanding a language is a feature. \$\endgroup\$ – Merudo Apr 12 at 18:12
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No. In fact she can't understand them at all

Does Polymorphing into a dragon let you speak Draconic? The ability to change shape allows you to adopt a monster or animals stats, but language is something you learn.

An ape has the mouth to form words, but still doesn't immediately know any human languages, just like how you don't become better with a sword if you polymorph into a warrior. Language is not part of any physical or mental characteristic, and wildshape clearly tells you EVERYTHING that you gain from shifting.

Your game statistics are replaced by the statistics of the beast, but you retain your alignment, personality, and Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores. You also retain all of your skill and saving throw proficiencies, in addition to gaining those of the creature. If the creature has the same proficiency as you and the bonus in its stat block is higher than yours, use the creature’s bonus instead of yours. If the creature has any legendary or lair actions, you can't use them.

No mention of languages, because it's not something you can get just by having the right parts, it's learned information.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Languages are part of the "game statistics" that get replaced. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Aug 3 '18 at 13:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Languages are included in the "statistics of the beast". \$\endgroup\$ – Merudo Apr 12 at 18:13
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Rules-as-written, you retain your existing languages and can understand the languages of your new form, for the duration of Wild Shape.

Rules-as-written, you assume the statistics of your new form, which includes languages. (A DM may find this illogical and is free to rule otherwise.) You retain your class, race and other features, which includes languages.

Gaining the languages of your new form

As per the rules on Wild Shape:

Your game statistics are replaced by the statistics of the beast, but you retain your alignment, personality, and Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores.

As per this question, a creature's "statistics" include the Language section of their stat block, as defined by Monster Manual p.6-11.

Retaining existing languages

You also retain your existing languages:

You retain the benefit of any features from your class, race, or other source and can use them if the new form is physically capable of doing so.

All races in the Player's Handbook gain certain langauges, including Common, as a feature of their race. The source of these languages is explicitly stated to be one's race, (PHB p.17, under Languages):

By virtue of your race, your character can speak, read, and write certain languages.

For example, under Dwarf Traits, p. 20:

Languages. You can speak, read and write Common and Dwarvish.

The dwarf's ability to speak both Common and Dwarvish are explicitly stated to be features from their race, and would therefore be retained in Wild Shape.

The same specifically occurs for languages gained by class (e.g. a druid learning Druidic, a cleric of the Knowledge domain, a ranger's favored enemy). "Other source" is not strictly defined, but I would not find it unreasonable for this to include languages gained through background or training.

Jeremy Crawford also confirmed that a druid in Wild Shape retains the languages they know, and can speak them if their new form is able to speak.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ As this question is primarily asking about understanding these languages, it doesn't matter if the animal you take doesn't speak it. Basically with your answer we know that RAW a druid who doesn't understand sylvan or elvish could wildshape into a giant elk and then understand it. \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Reefman Aug 3 '18 at 2:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good point. Updated my answer to include this. \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Aug 3 '18 at 11:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Saying that "Your game statistics are replaced by the statistics of the beast", and "a creature's statistics include language", do you imply a Druid lose their ability to speak and understand Common when wildshaped? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Aug 3 '18 at 12:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @QuadraticWizard I still think it is a bit of a stretch."Class feature" and "race feature" are special terms in 5e. Other special terms are "language proficiency", "tool proficiency" and "skill proficiency". 5e distinguishes between them, language proficiency is not a race feature. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Aug 3 '18 at 12:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Correction to my previous comment: All PHB races gain the ability to speak and understand Common as a race feature, so you retain this. I have updated my answer to cite the rule covering this on PHB p.17. \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Aug 3 '18 at 14:52
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Skill Proficiency and Language are two different things in 5e

5th edition distinguishes between these things:

  • Skill proficiency
  • Tool proficiency
  • Language

An example from the PBH, "Customizing a Background":

To customize a background, you can replace one feature with any other one, choose any two skills, and choose a total of two tool proficiencies or languages from the sample backgrounds.

Wild Shape Druid class feature explicitly allows you to retain skill proficiencies, not languages

You also retain all of your skill and saving throw proficiencies, in addition to gaining those of the creature

5th edition also distinguishes between "class featues" and "race features" from "language". They are different game terms. Language is not a race feature.

Moreover, "Languages:" entry has a special meaning in a monster's stats block — it means languages typically speaking by these specimen. For example, there are a few creatures with the "Languages: Any", this doesn't mean any creature of this type can speak any language in the world.

A Druid can't understand a new language while Wildshaped. There are spells for this though, like Speak with Animals.

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