LINGUIST List 7.928

Mon Jun 24 1996

Disc: Linguality

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Deborah D K Ruuskanen, Re: 7.915, Disc: Linguality:definition of language
  2. "James L. Fidelholtz", Re: 7.915, Disc: Linguality

Message 1: Re: 7.915, Disc: Linguality:definition of language

Date: Sat, 22 Jun 1996 13:10:21 +0300
From: Deborah D K Ruuskanen <>
Subject: Re: 7.915, Disc: Linguality:definition of language
Rick McAllister has pointed out, and someone else mentioned (forgot
who, sorry) that if you know a "master" language, you can understand
quite a lot of the cognates. Someone mentioned that Gen. Walters was
said in newspaper reports to have (not speak?) only five languages. So
HOW are we going to define what is a "language"??? Gen. Walters was a
VERY modest man, and as I have found, like other people gifted with
"an ear for language" would only own to being proficient in those
languages he could write in. But I asked him at a party once (young,
pretty-in-those-days teenage budding linguist, starry-eyed at great
man) how many languages he could COMMUNICATE in, and that's when I got
the number 32 - he paused for a while for effect, mentally counting,
and then said since coming to Brazil he thought he had gotten three or
four more... I love it when the Miss Universe contestants say they
speak French, and English, and German, and Spanish and Italian (sure,
you can honey, but your body speaks louder than words) I have six
"tourist" languages myself, I can buy postage stamps, get a beer or a
cup of coffee or a room for the night, and count my change, but I
would NOT say I "speak" them. What does the word "speak" M E A N in
this context, anyway? Cheers, kela

Deborah D. Kela Ruuskanen 	\ You cannot teach a Man anything, 
Leankuja 1, FIN-01420 Vantaa 	\ you can only help him find it 	\ within himself.
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Message 2: Re: 7.915, Disc: Linguality

Date: Sun, 23 Jun 1996 22:24:30 MDT
From: "James L. Fidelholtz" <>
Subject: Re: 7.915, Disc: Linguality
	The query about why some people learn languages better than
others reminded me of an 'oldie but goodie' article by (I forget his
1st name) Sorenson (?Sorensen) in _American anthropologist_ in the
late 60s or early 70s, called (approximately) 'Multilingualism in the
Upper Amazon'. My brief reconstruction of the article 20+ years on is
as follows: This region of the Amazon is populated by groups with
wildly differing languages (several different stocks, each with many
different languages). The cultures of the different groups are
generally similar: they practice village exogamy, and live mostly in
longhouses of several nuclear families each (extended families). The
men generally make their living by trading with other villages, from
which they get their wives, whom they take back to their own village.
So each kid is exposed minimally to his father's (local) language and
his mother's (possibly not related) language. Meanwhile, the other
wives in the longhouse will likely speak other languages. Thus, each
kid is on average exposed to 4 or 5 languages as native languages,
since taking care of the kids is a general longhouse function. When
the (male) kids grow up, they start going out to trade on the river.
In this enterprise, they often come to villages where a language
unknown to them is spoken. According to Sorenson, they squat around
campfires for a year or so without speaking, and then start speaking
the language, according to its native speakers, just as well as if
they were native speakers.
	Of course, even if this is true, the reports may be due to
aspects of the culture which minimize 'foreigners'' difficulties with
the language. But assuming that the facts are as I've stated them, it
is not too surprising (if we take the 'native proficiency' with a
grain of salt), since, as several people have pointed out, each
'second language' gets easier to learn than the previous one, and
these guys all typically start out with 5 or so.
	Since I have very likely butchered some or all of the above
facts, I recommend reading the original article, which I am by the way
surprised that no one has mentioned before. I believe there are also
some critical assessments of the article, but I can't remember any
details of them.

James L. Fidelholtz			e-mail:
A'rea de Ciencias del Lenguaje		or:
Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades
Universidad Auto'noma de Puebla, Me'xico
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