LINGUIST List 7.1105

Sat Aug 3 1996

Disc: Multilinguality

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Karen Davis, Multilinguality
  2. "Victoria A. Fromkin", Re: 7.1097, Disc: Multilinguality
  3. Peter Daniels, Re: 7.1097, Disc: Multilinguality
  4. Charles Rowe, re: 7.1083 disc: multilinguality
  5. Lynne Hewitt, multilinguality

Message 1: Multilinguality

Date: Thu, 01 Aug 1996 13:11:03 EDT
From: Karen Davis <>
Subject: Multilinguality
I am also not a "linguist" in the sense used on this list, that is, a
scientist who studies language (I believe someone suggested "tonguewit"
once? (though I love language and this list)) but I am a "linguist" in
the commonly accepted and government defined meaning, that is, someone
who speaks (in my case, works in) a second language.

I am no polyglot in any extraordinary sense: I am comfortable in two
other languages and can get by in textual work, not spoken, in two
others. However, I know a man who is certified at level three (simply
defined, the ability to formulate and defend opinions) in over a dozen
languages, and who can speak more than that, languages he's simply never
bothered to get certification in. Nor is this serial competency: he
remains competent in all of them, which means that he is, in a sense,
like a native. In fact, upon seeing a teaser for Phenonmenon, the scene
where John Travolta's character is asked "You learned Portugese in 20
minutes?" and answers, defensively, "Not all of it!" I was reminded of
this guy (whose name I do not have permission to give out): he taught
himself most of the languages he knows in remarkably short order.

All of us who know him regard him with some awe, as a phenomenon (as
remarked by Dick Hudson, he doesn't see himself that way). Perhaps we
should agree to regard such people in the same way that we regard
Mozart: they can do it, but other, more ordinary, folks can't.

I couldn't, that's for sure. One of my "marginal" languages used to be
much stronger, and the French I was comfortable with in elementary
school is almost completely gone: I don't claim to be able to do more
than say, 'Yep, that's French all right!' any more.
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Message 2: Re: 7.1097, Disc: Multilinguality

Date: Thu, 01 Aug 1996 12:34:57 PDT
From: "Victoria A. Fromkin" <>
Subject: Re: 7.1097, Disc: Multilinguality
Glad that Karl Teeter talked of Paul Garvin's great talent for languages.
(And he could also speak various dialects of French, Italian etc.) And he
did of coruse speak Hungarian, a non IE language. What seems to me important
to note is that it was a special talent -- which I think must be true of
anyone who learns 2nd, 3rd, 4th...languages fluently after the critical age.
The rest of us without this talent (and I can't learn any language other
than my native one) fortunately do not need to be talented to learn a
language or more than one before the end of the critical period. 

Vicki Fromkin
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Message 3: Re: 7.1097, Disc: Multilinguality

Date: Thu, 01 Aug 1996 23:42:39 BST
From: Peter Daniels <>
Subject: Re: 7.1097, Disc: Multilinguality
What are Dave Hipple's "category IV" and "level II" languages? the examples
being English and Spanish respectively; perhaps something Mario Pei dreamed
up from an Italian point of view? (I certainly agree that English is hard to
learn--the verb usages and "lazy" vowels and articles being the most weird

And 100,000 words vocabulary? Unlikely!
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Message 4: re: 7.1083 disc: multilinguality

Date: Fri, 02 Aug 1996 09:33:05 EDT
From: Charles Rowe <>
Subject: re: 7.1083 disc: multilinguality
A few comments on R.Johnson's posting:

I'd like to begin by saying that my own views of multilinguality are,
like R.Johnson's, rather conservative: I am hesitant to label a speaker
as fluent unless the speaker cannot be distinguished from a native
speaker by other native speakers of the language; or, perhaps, if
notwithstanding a foreign accent, the lexis, grammar, syntax are purely

But the problem here seems to be exascerbated by the following questions:
1. Whose definition of fluency are we invoking?
2. What are the crucial distinctions between levels of fluency and
levels of proficiency?
3. How important is lexis, as opposed to grammar and syntax (and
4. Which grammar "mistakes" are abstractable in the definition? i.e., are
native-type mistakes admissible as evidence against a speaker's
proficiency status?
5. What is the working definition of "multilinguality," and do all
scholars (particularly sociolinguists) agree on one definition?

In my view, these issues would first have to be resolved before
the linguality status of a speaker can be asserted or refuted.

Charlie Rowe
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Message 5: multilinguality

Date: Fri, 02 Aug 1996 14:20:53 EDT
From: Lynne Hewitt <>
Subject: multilinguality
I don't know if it's possible to learn 50 (or 20) languages so that a native
speaker can't tell the difference. If it is possible, then I think it must
be a very rare talent. As someone who is somewhat talented at acquiring
vocabulary and reproducing phonetic details of languages I attempt to learn,
I could be considered a good language learner. Several recent posts have
mentioned that if one acquired proficiency in a core of languages centering
around a few major language families, proficiency in related languages would
be exponentially easier to acquire. However, I find the attrition rate to
be tremendous in my own attempts to learn languages, and of the 3 languages
I have tried to learn, can only converse fluently in the one I have had most
experience in, and that moreover that language pushes down and shuts out the
others! When I search for a lexical item in the non-proficient languages, I
have to fend off automatic access to the fluent one. The cognitive
architecture of true polyglots must be incredibly efficient in
compartmentalizing languages and blocking access to those not in current
use. This would seem in direct contradiction to the argument that knowing a
related language will speed things up--if Portuguese is bad Spanish, then
perhaps relying on Portuguese to speak Spanish is not the best way to
sound native (although one could no doubt get one's point across).
Lynne E. Hewitt
Assistant Professor, Communication Disorders, Penn State
Phone: 814-863-1624; Fax: 814-863-3759
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