Everything You Know About “How Many Languages Can a Human Learn and Maintain?” is WRONG. Here’s Why…

Possibly one of the emotionally charged topics in the language learning world (and one that no one has good answers to, myself included) is the topic about how many languages a human being can learn.

We will never know the answer to that questions for way too many reasons. Here are some of them:

  • While most language enthusiasts haven’t thought about it (or have been put in a position to think about it), the language vs. dialect debate is getting increasingly muddy. Should the Caribbean English Creoles count as separate languages? The ISO 639-3 codes seem to think so. But would governments think so? How about universities? And obviously different areas where this question is more relevant will approach it differently (such as Jamaica and Italy, two completely different countries).

 

  • There is no definite way to quantify or even qualify proficiencies (except for, maybe, extended interviews on tape or eyewitness accounts of polyglots at conferences or gatherings). Even test results aren’t safe, given how many people may pass them and proceed to forget everything. (And if people can forget their native language, this is certainly also a possibility).

 

  • Human history and, by extension, history of human languages, is too long and too varied to take all the variables into account. I may have said this before in another one of my articles, but in some places like Western Africa or Melanesia, speaking ten languages is seen as normal. In many areas of the west, especially former British colonies, ten languages is seen as nearly superhuman if not in fact outright disbelieved by some people. This is despite the fact that there is no dearth of polyglot videos on the internet.

 

  • In addition to that, different areas of the world and different time periods would measure fluency differently. Mezzofanti, considered by some the greatest polyglot of all time, obviously had no usage for words pertaining to computers in any of his languages given as they did not exist when he was alive. He probably didn’t need to discuss complicated matters of science, either. Also (and this is another thing a lot of languages gurus don’t even realize because the languages they tend to choose) not all languages on the planet have that vocabulary. (In the event that you would talk about it, you would possibly use loanwords, primarily from a colonial language, or even switch into English or another colonial language periodically. However yes, there are some languages that have that vocabulary even though you think they might actually not.)

 

We will never know the answer to how many languages a human being can possibly know, and I highly encourage you to distrust ANYONE who tries to come up with an answer to the question. Because in attacking the question, they get the methodology wrong for all sorts of reasons.

 

Here are some of them:

 

  • Only taking into account their language experiences and those of their friend circle, which tend to be overwhelmingly skewed mostly towards politically powerful languages of Europe and sometimes Asia. Dialect continuums are not accounted for. If you think that Italian and Spanish are the equivalent of closest languages there are, give it some more thought. The Persian Languages are even closer, as are the “BCS” languages (Bosnian, Croatian and Serbia) not also to mention my own pet languages, the Melanesian Creoles (of Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama). Not all language counts are created equal, and this point alone would be capable of disqualifying the question altogether, but I’ll go on.

 

  • Not realizing that technology has changed and will continue to change. Mezzofanti didn’t have Memrise and many of the memory tools that I use on a daily basis. Technology has the capability of turning us into superhuman versions of our ancestors. An average person who has trained with contemporary first-person shooter games (which I never play, by the way) would have significantly better reflexes and hand-eye coordination than pretty much ANY soldier that fought in the Second World War. They would be considered SUPER SOLDIERS back then (this was a factoid I picked up from the 2016 Games for Change Conference). But for some reason almost no one considers that a similar thing is also happening for language learning and skill acquisition.

 

  • Using Ziad Fazah’s “Viva el Lunes” performance in order to automatically disqualify anyone who claims to speak 50+ languages. For those unaware, I’ll summarize it in one sentence. Liberian/Lebanese Polyglot who won Guinness Book of World Record’s title for most multilingual person goes on Chilean television, is tested and struggles even with basic sentences in most of his languages. But to dismiss any claims of that nature just because of ONE incident is a logical fallacy, and while I haven’t met anyone who has significantly pulled off that number, I wouldn’t automatically revert to skepticism. Just because of one person who may have likely overestimated his abilities doesn’t mean that we as a species should hold ourselves back. Who knows? There may be someone who may actually speak 59+ languages and who actually CAN show the skills. You never know!

 

I get it. A lot of people have deep insecurities, including many in the polyglot community. The temptation to knock others down or be dismissive only shows defensiveness and maybe a poor attempt to hide your own imposter syndrome. This is why I’m willing to consider anyone’s language proficiency based on claims alone (note I said “CONSIDER” not “definitively judge”, because there is no way to really do that.)

 

  • Using data about famous polyglots that have been dead for centuries (or even those that are STILL ALIVE) in order to draw conclusions as to what human beings in the 21st century can do. Really? In the case of the ones that have been dead for hundreds of years, they’re not relevant to our brains and our technology and our learning abilities NOW. Maybe they could be used in order to speculate about limits before the technological revolutions that happened during my lifetime, but we’re changing now and most people who answer the “how many languages is it possible to know?” question don’t acknowledge how contemporary technology sets our time period apart.

 

  • Different vocabulary thresholds for different languages. One person whose opinion I very much value said that a vocabulary of about 16000 words were required to reach a C2 level (the highest possible level, considered equivalent to a highly educated native speaker) in a language. But here’s the thing: in Bislama (an English Creole that is the primary language of Vanuatu), there are literally about 4,000 words (excluding proper nouns, which would bring the count up to 7,000) IN THE ENTIRE LANGUAGE. So if you speak with one-quarter of that amount with some languages, you get a near-native vocabulary, an advantage not afforded to languages like French and Swedish with significantly larger vocabulary lists (Swedish’s list of loan words from English ALONE is likely larger than the comprehensive vocabularies of the Melanesian Creoles COMBINED). And before you say “well, that’s just concerning Creole languages”, the same variety of comprehensive word counts can also be found the further away you get from the developed world AND the further you delve into languages without as much political support.

 

If there is a definitive limit for amount of languages learned, even to a high level, we will never know what it is, in part because of all of the factors that I lay out here.

 

It’s an interesting mental exercise that, let’s be honest, is usually used to discourage people and create skepticism so that some people can have their egos buttressed, but it’s one with no definitive answer (in the Talmud, we end such debates with the word “teyku”, meaning “let it remain unresolved”. And that’s what we’re going to have to go with this debate as well.)

 

What do I intend to do? Well, for one, I’m going to try my best and learn many languages, some to fluency, others to degrees of curiosity, and I fulfill MY vision. Because if you constantly live in the fear of judgment of others, you’ll never live your full life.

 

And that’s something you deserve to do! Don’t let ANY discouragement get you down!

come back when you can put up a fight

I really need to start using new pictures of myself.

4 Reasons You Should Learn a Provincial Language from India

“I Speak English, Hindi and *pause* … a couple of Indian Languages”

If you have met someone from India and the topic of languages comes up, you may hear a sentence like this.

As the proud owner of an India Phrasebook, I am happy to say that I usually follow up the question with “which ones?”

So Many Languages, So Small a Book. And My Time Budget is even smaller.

And then I remember the one time I met someone from West Bengal at a video game design mixer. I asked him if Bengali was similar to Assamese (one of India’s languages that actually sounds like it is from Southeast Asia despite the fact that it is Indo-European). Stunned, he asked me three times how on earth a Jewish boy from Connecticut would have any knowledge of Indian local cultures at all

“You’re like one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!”

It is very far from the first time. And then there was the one time I correctly identified someone as a Malayalam speaker (I just guessed), and after a minute of a dropped jaw, I was told, stunned. “Oh. My. God. ARE YOU PSYCHIC?!!?”

Just knowing the names of the local Indian Languages set you apart. I’m probably the only member of my extended family that can name more than five Indian Languages.

As for Indian Languages I’ve studied…well…some Tamil…not very much at all…some Gujarati…not too much…and some Oriya…even less than both of the two of those put together.

Of the one that I am focusing my effort on (as far as Memrise.com is concerned), it is Gujarati (for the time being) still haven’t had a conversation in it (I’ve used a few sentences with native speakers!), but given as today is Gujarat Day and Maharashtra Day (which is actually the same day, when the “Bombay” state was divided into two pieces, and is celebrated in both provinces as their provincial day), I’m going to write this piece.

 

  1. India is a Fusion of Many, MANY Peoples and Recognizing that Will Earn Favor and Smiles. The Best Way to Recognize it is to Learn an Indian Regional Language.

 

Hindi and English do function as languages that tie most of the country together, but each area of India comes with a regional flavor (and many other sub-regional flavors) that many outside of that area of the world overlook.

I still remember the times when I needed someone to explain me what “Tamil” or “Marathi” was. In high school, I thought that Hindi functioned in India the way that English did in the United States. I had no clue how deeply important and used the regional languages were (and continue to be).

As of the time of writing, I don’t even list Gujarati or Tamil as languages that I know. At all. Given that my list is a bit large at the time (both in the languages learned and the languages to-be-learned department) I feel the pressure to abandon them.

Luckily I’ve stopped caring so much about pressure of any sort, although I’m not actively learning either. (I’m just picking up pieces on apps)

Anyhow, building connections with Indian Languages!

The various little things that I have said have been construed as demonstrations of the fact that I recognize that India is a collection of many, MANY cultures, and that I am very amused by some of them and I want to learn more about them!

In the case of talking to Native Speakers of these languages, it gets them to open up about what life in their province is like, what there is to see, what sort of fun words there are in the language, as well as endless praising of your skills, even if they are the most basic.

 

They tend to be used to people not even knowing that these local cultures exist! And then you come along!

I am very grateful to my Indian friends and acquaintances for their help!

 

  1. The Indo-Aryan Languages, as well as the Dravidian Languages, are similar to each other, sometimes even mutually intelligible!

 

In some areas of Europe (Scandinavia and the Balkans come to mind), languages became discrete entities based on national borders. Denmark and Sweden decided to alter their linguistic orthographies to become very much not like the other one.

 

The entire thing with the Balkan Languages is not something I feel too qualified to talk about at the moment, but feel free to treat yourself to a Google Search about Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. Or Bulgarian and Macedonian.

Have Fun.

Tee Hee.

 

In India, a lot of languages, despite being discrete, actually blended with similar characteristics, as a result of Sanskrit influence. In nearly the whole North of India, similar words for “Thank You” are used, all based on the Sanskrit “Dhanyavaadaha”. Greetings are function similarly, as well as the usage of words from liturgical languages (Sanskrit and Arabic) playing their role.

Often it is common for Indians to learn another regional language when they head to another province of the country. (One person told me “I bet you could learn Kannada in a week with my help”). In the case of Kannada, its closest relatives are the other main Dravidian Languages of Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil (These four are the primary languages of the South of India, distinct from their Indo-European compatriots). Learning any one will get you very close to learning any of the other three to fluency.

The Indo-Aryan Languages in the North, some of which are very similar to each other (like Hindi and Urdu being, as one of my Pakistani students put it, like Swedish and Norwegian) and others less so (Oriya and Gujarati are from opposite ends of the country but still have some similarities) can also be “collected” with similar ease, much like the Romance Languages.

There is the writing issue, which is more of an issue with some languages than others, but interestingly some character sets are close to each other or even identical. (Kannada’s script is also used for Konkani in Goa).

No wonder there is such an internal polyglot culture in India! And it is one that you can contribute to!

 

  1. Regional Media and Culture is more Accessible than ever, and will continue to endow privileges to L2 Learners!

 

India is a tech giant. Just look for apps to learn Indian Languages on the Google Play Store (or IOS). A lot of these apps have fantastic audio, very good phrase selections, and audiences for adult learners as well as for kids!

And that’s just the beginning.

Go into ANY YouTube search or any library in a major city. Look for the film section. Look for films in Indian Languages. I often find films not only Hindi but also every single Indian language I’ve mentioned in this article (although I don’t think I’ve seen Konkani so far).

India is home to the world’s largest film industry! Yes, Hindi and English dominate a lot of it, but that’s not the whole story!

All throughout India, film culture plays an extraordinary role, and coming to know its various regional aspects and flavors will make you think about what role regionalism and regional cultures could play in our increasingly global world, if only more of us were more adventurous!

Your Indian friends will be more than happy to give you recommendations!

Speaking of which…

  1. Native Speakers will be Super Helpful!

I haven’t received a single word of discouragement the way I have with some other languages, least of all from native speakers!

Sometimes I cringe whenever I think of the time that I was in a library in Sweden and was told “why bother learning Swedish if we all speak English anyhow?” (Answers: too many to list, but at the time it was “the letters written by my deceased family members were not going to translate themselves, one, and two…I’m surrounded by books I can’t read yet!”)

India is the world’s largest English-speaking nation, but despite that (or perhaps because of it) the Indians to whom I have spoken speak fondly about their regional cultures, and actively are thrilled with the possibility of you engaging with it!

Coming from a place with many, MANY regional languages, a lot of Indians are keenly aware of the struggle of learning another language! What we need in the struggle is more encouragement! And with a choice like an Indian languages, you’ll encountered plenty of it!

Hawaii Pidgin isn’t an Indian Language. Just letting you know that.

A Happy Gujarat Day / Maharashtra Day to all! I hope that one day I will be able to write more articles on Indian Languages! But first I actually have to … ummm … learn them better!