About LLS:

Throughout my career, I have received thousands of questions regarding languages and I have finally decided to answer them objectively with no strings attached. If you have any questions or feedback, please leave your comments below.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

How many languages can a human being really speak?

This is probably one of the few topics which really reveal how ignorant some people can be. Before I start explaining why, I would like to begin this article with a simple proverb:

- "If you don't use it, you lose it"

If you have ever heard this saying in the past, you are aware that it applies not only to languages but to anything else as a matter of fact. Let me ask you a question? Do you remember 3rd grade high school mathematics? If I were to give you a trigonometry exam right now, would you pass it with flying colors? What if I gave you a week to review the basics before the exam, would you pass it then? People don't realize that rumors, gossip and jealousy often sidetrack logic and reason.

Speaking thousands of different languages; fact of fiction?

The truth:

A person cannot know 50 languages or even 15 and keep them active and fluent at all times unless that person is a miracle of nature. This isn't the only dilemma at hand, because the most important question remains; what does it mean to know a language? How well do I need to speak it in order to claim that I know it? 

Today, I will try to create a scale to establish realistic expectations for anyone who wishes to be a polyglot.

Firstly, let’s define "the level at which one can claim to know a language". According to the EU language assessment grid, languages are divided into the following categories. 

The EU Language Assessment Grid.

Since I don't wish to get into exact details I will sum up the levels and their descriptions as to support my article with ease.

A simple overview of the levels:

A1- The person knows introductory phrases, recognizes basic words and structures.

A2- The person can say simples sentences and recognizes more familiar situations such a personal information and surrounding environment

B1- The person can speak more cleary on common and familiar matters and deal with most situations.

B2- The person can interact with a good degree of fluency.

C1- The person speaks fluently.

C2- The person speaks perfectly.

The "B1" level determines whether you can speak a language:

I believe that "B1" level should be the determining point whether someone can speak a language. For a person to reach proficiency it takes years and years, and I doubt that a gifted person could learn dozens of languages and maintain them fluent forever.

I am pretty sure that "B1" level can be reached in a matter of months as I have done it myself in the past. The only thing that seperates a total beginner from a "B1" level are 1000 vocabulary words and 200 hours of oral practice.

I once met a polyglot: 

A good way to support my theory would be to take Switzerland which is fortunate enough to have 4 official languages; German, French, Italian and Romanesh. I met a girl a few years ago who was from Switzerland and she could fluently speak German, Italian, Spanish, French and English. She had just begun learning Polish and it seemed to go very well for her. She was a literature student and spent most of her life traveling from one country to another. She had school in German and Italian at home (her parents were from Rome). During elementary and high school she had obligatory English and picked French as her second language. A few years later, she became fluent and started roaming around Europe as her diplomat parents were mingling with the high society.

More info about switzerland at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Switzerland

At the time, this was my evaluation of her language skills:

German C2 (I assume its perfect, since she attended school in German)

Italian C2 (Her mother language)
Spanish B2
English B2-C1
French B1-B2
Polish A2

Is it all hype?

My life experience forces me to conclude that a person could perhaps speak 5-10 languages fluently but not perfectly. A person could even perhaps speak 10-15 languages communicatively (B1) and know the basics of dozens if not hundreds. The good thing is that, once you have studied a language, it’s always easier to get back on track and relearn what have forgotten in a matter of weeks. There are also additional factors we must consider such as similar language roots (Latin, Slavic) which facilitate retaining languages of the same family and, of course, the environment which plays a major role especially if you are a traveller. The polyglot in question could be a linguistics professor brushing up his knowledge on a daily basis, who knows?

To conclude the article I would like to present some famous polyglots who claimed to know many languages and see for yourself if the rumors aren't all hype.

This guy knows 16 languages and i believe him.

Cardinal Giuseppe Gaspardo Mezzofanti claimed to speak hundreds of languages.

Harrold Williams from New Zealand claimed to speak 58 languages.

Ziad Fazah who is still alive claims to know 59 languages.

This guy thinks he knows 59 languages.

Learn a language in 3 months?

Interestingly enough, a guy called Benny who started learning foreign languages at the age of 21 claims to speak 10 languages which I find more believable than what I usual hear from people. Several factors lead me to believe that it's true. Apart from that, he has marketed a method which allows him to learn a language in 3 months which isn't all that if your only trying to reach "B1", without mentioning that he constantly travels and; that’s all he does! On his website, he even says that he doesn't have "a stable job" but works wherever he travels.

Don't bother buying his "Language Hacking techniques" because unless you are a drifter like he is, you won't have anywhere to practice all those foreign dialects. If you take a closer look, you can actually see that apart from English and Irish, he groups languages together in big families as to improve learning speed. Once you know Spanish; Italian is just a few months away.

Read about Benny at: http://www.fluentin3months.com/pro-language-hacker/


Don't be fooled! If you are a sedentary working man like me, there are certain truths we must face. 

If you had all the time in the world, If you were motivated and well prepared, If you could relocate to a different country every couple of years and If that were all you did? How many languages do you think you would know by now?

In my opinion, with the proper environment and predispositions, a person can speak dozens of languages but not fluently. I had some German, Russian and Swedish here and there, and I am pretty sure that I could say, read and understand everyday speech, but I wouldn't go as far as to call myself a hyperpolyglot.


Creative Commons License
LanguageLearningShortcuts! by Peter Masalski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://languagelearningshortcuts.blogspot.com/.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available athttp://www.pmls.pl/Disclaimereng.htm.

No comments:

Post a Comment