LINGUIST List 7.1097

Thu Aug 1 1996

Disc: Multilinguality

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <dizdartam2000.tamu.edu>


Directory

  1. Dick Hudson, multilingualism
  2. Karl Teeter, Re: 7.1083, Disc: Multilinguality
  3. LVN, Re: 7.1083, Disc: Multilinguality
  4. Rick Mc Callister, Re: 7.1083, Disc: Multilinguality
  5. Deborah D K Ruuskanen, Re: 7.1083, Disc: Multilinguality

Message 1: multilingualism

Date: Wed, 31 Jul 1996 11:31:19 BST
From: Dick Hudson <dicklinguistics.ucl.ac.uk>
Subject: multilingualism

I was pleased to see Robert Johnson's strong reaction to the reports
of individuals who speak numerous languages, like Cardinal
Mezzofante. The reason I raised the question of multilinguality in the
first place was precisely because these claims seem to challenge a lot
of our professional assumptions about how languages can/should be
learned. As RJ says, how could someone learn 50 languages to native
speaker standard? Is there enough time in a life to do it, or enough
brain-space to hold the result?

And yet the reports we've had on the list sound quite sober to
me. Moreover, I've heard (through colleagues) that some of our
colleagues, who are alive and talking now, can cope pretty well with
large numbers of languages - certainly more than ten. I wish we could
get more concrete evidence from some of them, but I think they all
tend to be unimpressed by their own virtuosity - to the extent that
none of them seems to have sat down and counted the number of
languages they can speak fluently. Suppose we could find someone alive
and well who can speak, say, twenty languages fluently. That's
already well outside the capacity of the ordinary language-learners
that RJ knows, and once we've accepted twenty, why not fifty?

I don't agree with RJ that we can reject these stories out of hand as
pie-in-the-sky, but I do wish we had more solid, checkable, evidence
to quote. 

Richard Hudson Department of Phonetics and Linguistics,
University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT work phone
+171 419 3152; work fax +171 383 4108 email dickling.ucl.ac.uk;
web-site http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/home.htm
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Message 2: Re: 7.1083, Disc: Multilinguality

Date: Wed, 31 Jul 1996 08:52:28 EDT
From: Karl Teeter <kvthusc.HARVARD.EDU>
Subject: Re: 7.1083, Disc: Multilinguality
Dear Robert and friends: Not really so "pie in-the-sky" after all to
some of us who have known colleagues who could also speak seemingly
endless number of languages, such as the late Paul Garvin, who not
only did that but had different foreign accents in his English for
every mood. We really neednot waste our time evoking behaviorist
learning models to show how "impossible" such a situation is,
especially when we know that in some twentieth century cultures
andsocieties, including large parts of Central Europe, part of growing
up was learning to be able to convince native speakers of any language
that you could converse with them. If some other friend of Paul's
wants to point out that in fact the great bulk of his languages were
Indo-European, let me cite another esteemed colleague, the late Robert
Austerlitz, who could also do it in Ainu, Japanese, and various
obscure Paleo-Siberian languages. Yours, kvt
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Message 3: Re: 7.1083, Disc: Multilinguality

Date: Wed, 31 Jul 1996 23:01:59 GMT
From: LVN <hipusa.pipeline.com>
Subject: Re: 7.1083, Disc: Multilinguality

>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?

I'm not a "linguist" per se, but learn and utilize languages for my
work. As a matter of fact, this is the first time I've tried to
really look at this concept. I don't have concrete numbers, but
having spent a year, full-time, learning Russian and seven months,
full time, learning Spanish, both in an academic environment, with
natives, I feel somewhat confident (ie., I don't have proof beyond
experience) with what I'm about to say. I do agree, however, that a
near-native level is probably near impossible in all 50 languages.

Having attained a decent level of reading, writing and speaking in
both Russian and Spanish, and using the standards you give (20,000
word vocab), I think there's a good possibility of it. If an
individual were to become proficient in four "unrelated" languages,
say Russian, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic, plus already having a
command of English, they would find it increasingly easier to pick up
closely related language. I can easily read and understand a majority
of Latin- and Slavic-based (originally from a Latin base, also, I
believe?) materials, though I haven't taken the time to them. If I
had the drive to do so, I believe it would be a matter of time.

For example, as a Russian speaker with a 100,000 word vocabulary, I
can easily already have a vocabulary of five to 10,000+ words in
Ukrainian. As a Spanish speaker, I can do the same with Italian,
French and a number of other languages. The same goes for Chinese and
Arabic. If you already have a grasp of the grammar in all four
languages, the additional intricacies and vocabulary will come easier.
If you can do this with four languages, and five "related" languages,
you're already speaking 35 languages in short order. Not only do you
have five diverse languages, but you also have learned three new
alphabets / character sets. If you add Latin as an overall
foundation, you've probably made it even easier to almost double the
vocabulary, using various roots to identify and learn meanings.

Grammar, syntax, etc also carry over into many of these languages with
minor differences.

English, as you probably know, is a category IV language - one of the
hardest in the world to learn, with spelling rules and grammar that is
sometimes hard to explain, and pronunciation often makes no sense to
almost anyone. Add a vocabulary of probably a million-plus "native"
words alone and it's downright scary.

Other Latin-based languages are much simpler, grammar is not very
complex and vocabulary is much more limited. Spanish, for instance, is
a level II - very simple and comprehensible. Some Slavic languages are
the same. They don't like people - even themselves, to taint their
language.

Anyone else have the same experience? Feel totally against this?
This has always been an intersting area for me, so I'll listen to pros
and cons!

Dave Hipple
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Message 4: Re: 7.1083, Disc: Multilinguality

Date: Wed, 31 Jul 1996 18:18:40 CDT
From: Rick Mc Callister <rmccallisunmuw1.muw.edu>
Subject: Re: 7.1083, Disc: Multilinguality
Actually, it is quite possible but it all depends on which languages
you learn, what you consider to be a language and what you consider
knowing a language. To give you an example: I speak English and
Spanish like an educated native speaker--that's 2 I know for sure. I
have had graduate courses in Portuguese and Italian and have little
problem conversing with native speakers--that's 4. I read
[non-literary] French without much difficulty and have been to
Montreal where I was able to converse with a varying amount of
difficulty--that makes maybe 5. So much for the languages I've studied
at the advanced level. Now, I can also understand Catalan, Gallego,
Valenciano and perhaps Provencal and maybe Sardinian at the same
level. that makes maybe 10. Now, let's add Sicilian, Neapolitan,
Venetian, Romano, Ligurian, Milanese, Franco-Provencal, Bable,
Gascan and other "dialects" and call it maybe 20. How about Scots,
Gullah, West Indian Creole, etc.? They're not languages, you say? Well
there about as different from one another as Spanish is from
Portuguese. Let's call it 30. Now, I've also studied Arabic, Latin and
Swahili. And I'm sure I could pick up German, Dutch, Flemish and
Afrikaans without too much difficulty if I went where they are spoken
or if I applied myself even I've never studied them. My point is that
if you learn a key language in a numerous language group, then you'll
pick up the others without any great effort. Also, consider that the
more languages you learn, the easier it is to learn others. It's not
always so much as constantly learning new vocabulary as learning an
intuitive knowledge of changes in grammar and phonology among related
languages. Also keep in mind that Western European languages probably
share 50% of their vocabulary as cognates. So, when I learned
Portuguese, I learned Portuguese phonology, the couple of additional
grammatical features and saw non-cognates to Spanish as "exceptions"
or new vocabulary. You might say that I really speak "Portanhol" but
it works. After all, Brazilians claim "o espanhol e o portugues mal
falado" and Hispanics say "el portugues es el espanol mal
hablado". I'm sure that Mezzofanti did more or less the same. Just
think what he would have accomplished if he were a Tuttofanti :>



>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 langua= ge >at a near native level?
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Message 5: Re: 7.1083, Disc: Multilinguality

Date: Wed, 31 Jul 1996 10:08:04 +0300
From: Deborah D K Ruuskanen <druuskancc.helsinki.fi>
Subject: Re: 7.1083, Disc: Multilinguality
Re: Multilinguality with Dictionaries

Well, actually, everyone knows that translators just use dictionaries
and sit down and make word substitutions. Why, ANYONE who knows a
smattering of English can translate if they only had the TIME! Just
ask any professional translator the number of clients s/he has had who
believe this. And of course, since a secretary with a word processor
can clean type and spell check six to eight pages an HOUR, surely a
translator does not need ALL DAY to do the same amount of pages of
translation! If you watch a translator, all they do is read the
foreign language and type the translation up on the screen, right?
While I personally know at least two translators who, given a grammar
and a dictionary of an unknown language, or even lacking the grammar -
they COULD make a reasonable translation INTO their mother-tongue
(English in one case, German in the other), well these two hardly do
anything else than translate, and they have the "translation method"
down pretty well. HOWEVER, the claims that these multilinguals could
converse and write in their foreign languages, sorry, but I find them
completely fantastic. BUT I'm going to get Schlieleman (spelling?)'s
autobiography just to find out what the method actually WAS, to see if
it might be relevant to the teaching of translation. Fascinating. or
as Spock (wonder how many languages HE had) might have said
"interesting". 

- Deborah D. Kela Ruuskanen \ You cannot teach a Man anything, 
Leankuja 1, FIN-01420 Vantaa \ you can only help him find it
druuskancc.helsinki.fi \ within himself. Galileo
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