LINGUIST List 7.1160

Fri Aug 16 1996

Disc: Multilinguality

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Karl Teeter, Re: 7.1138, Disc: Multilinguality
  2. Waruno Mahdi, Re: 7.1138, Disc: Multilinguality
  3. Deborah D K Ruuskanen, Re: 7.1138, Disc: Multilinguality

Message 1: Re: 7.1138, Disc: Multilinguality

Date: Wed, 14 Aug 1996 08:52:46 EDT
From: Karl Teeter <>
Subject: Re: 7.1138, Disc: Multilinguality
Dear Colleagues: This is the third time I have allowed myself to
inject an anecdote in place of solid research data (pace Dick) into
this discussion, so I owe everybody who objects a triple apology. But
Anthony Grant has now entered my dear friend and colleague Eric Hamp
into the multilingual sweepstakes (which, unassuming as Eric is, he
richly deserves)and my loose tongue begs me to reveal one of those
made-up stories long(at least ten years) circulating as a
conversational joke in LSA circles.The two real people involved are
I. J. Gelb (scholar on the history of writing) and Eric, both
University of Chicago professors (I beg Eric to forgive me), and the
story goes as follows: A reporter for the undergraduate newspaper at
the University of Chicago reads a report in which Gelb is said to
claim he speaks eighty languages, and goes to interview Eric:

	Q. Professor Hamp, how many languages do you speak? 
	A. (Eric carefully explains, with suitable Hamp prolixity
{sorry again, Eric}, that linguistics is about studying grammar and
history, not about speaking languages.)
	Q. But Professor Hamp, Professor Gelb says he speaks eighty
	A. He does, does he? Put me down for ninety-two!

 Actually, friends, I think anecdote has more of a place in our
discipline than it has been allowed! Thanks for your indulgence.
Yours, kvt
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Message 2: Re: 7.1138, Disc: Multilinguality

Date: Wed, 14 Aug 1996 18:18:27 +0200
From: Waruno Mahdi <>
Subject: Re: 7.1138, Disc: Multilinguality
Karl Teeter wrote in Linguist 7.1138:

> 	The idea is not necessarily have real fluency in the language,
> but the ability, if this does not sound too mystical, to convey the
> impression that you do have it.

I spent at least 50 of my 53 years (that's my present age) as active
polyglott, 48 of the polyglott years abroad (I am an Indonesian).
Beside Dutch, the language I learned to talk in, which I don't speak
so well now, and Indonesian which I speak with native-speech quality,
I have at times also spoken Thai, English, French, Chinese, Russian,
German, Vietnamese (in order of first acquaintance). I never managed
more than 6 languages at a time, of these only 2 till 4, most of the
time 3 fluently.

>From my subjective experience I can confirm that there seem indeed to
be ways to convey the impression of mastery of a language. I have
again and again noted, from experience with several language communities,
Asian as well as European, that two criteria seem to impress native
speakers into assuming that one speaks their language fluently (even when
one actually doesn't know more than two dozen words in that language):
(1) By far the most important is the pronunciation (including phrase
 intonation). This involves mimicking the fine details, including
 such by which native speakers distinguish subdialects within their
 community. I believe, speech communities, and even social groups
 within a community divide persons into "one of us" / "not one of us"
 first of all by this feature.
(2) The knowledge and correct use of colloquialisms is a second criterion
 which, however, ranges rather far behind the first mentioned.
I wonder whether anyone else has had similar experiences or made such

Regards, Waruno

- ---------------------------------------------------------------------
Waruno Mahdi tel: +49 30 8413 5408
Faradayweg 4-6 fax: +49 30 8413 3155
14195 Berlin email:
Germany WWW:
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Message 3: Re: 7.1138, Disc: Multilinguality

Date: Thu, 15 Aug 1996 08:39:55 +0300
From: Deborah D K Ruuskanen <>
Subject: Re: 7.1138, Disc: Multilinguality
Multilinguality Note: Those of us who live here in Europe have surely
noticed in the beauty contests that candidates (contestants?) for a
"MISS" this or that are very often introduced as speaking five or six
languages "fluently". Perhaps this is done to show they are more than
just a pretty body, but every time I hear an announcer say " and she
speaks French and Swedish and German and Italian and Russian" I think
to myself, sure you do. HOWEVER, if "communicative competence" is the
criteria, I am sure these anorexic animated bathing suits DO in fact
communicate. And of course, if they come from a border area where they
have been in contact with three or four languages since birth, and
have studied a few more at school, perhaps they really can "speak" six
languages. Someone commented earlier on exposure during childhood to
several languages as a factor in multilingual competence. I must say
my experience bears this out. Good topic for some grad student's
thesis, no? 

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