LINGUIST List 7.1083

Tue Jul 30 1996

Disc: Multilinguality

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1., Re: 7.1074, Disc: Multilinguality

Message 1: Re: 7.1074, Disc: Multilinguality

Date: Fri, 26 Jul 1996 11:11:45 CDT
From: <>
Subject: Re: 7.1074, Disc: Multilinguality
Dear list,

I wonder how seriously any of you linguists are taking any of this discussion
on multilinguality. Having taught language for several years and having
studied a few, I find this whole thing about knowing 50 languages to be
absolutely preposterous. Do the people who speak of Mezzofanti actually
believe that it could be true? Have any of you ever sat
down to calculate the complexity and enormity of learning to speak a language
at a near native level? Let's assume a base of 20,000 vocabulary words, which
is of course way too low for most languages, and multiply by 50, if we want to
be half as prodigious as Mezzofanti. That would be a million vocabulary words. 
How would one expose himself to a million vocabulary words in 50 different
languages? I assume he had to be exposed to all of them at least once. Let's
assume that he remembered every word he learned and also make the assumption
that he understood the semantics of every word he learned when he learned it. 
(Both completely absurd assumptions). In order to learn the vocabulary of 50
languages as described above, someone like Mezzofanti would have to learn a
word a minute 12 hours a day for 4 years. Does anyone feel like that is
feasible? Add to this the complexity of grammar, which I seriously doubt these
'true believers' understand in the least, and the signifigance of collocational
patterns in every language and you have a truly gargantuan undertaking. 

I teach students who have studied English several years before coming to my
class and many of them are quite good in their own limited way, but none of
them can write a paragraph in even one foreign language - English without
making one 'mistake' whether it be in the use of a preposition or an article or
some grammatical co-dependency. Furthermore, if you get these students out of
their academic environment with all its academic-ese, then they are far more

These pie-in-the-sky claims are made all the time in every field so I don't
know why I expect linguistics to be different. I guess I should be thankful
it's not worse.

And to think, Mezzofanti did it all with a dictionary. 

Robert Johnson
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