How many languages can one learn
In October 2003, Jack Hudson, a professor at the School of Languages at the University of London, received an email. The letter’s author belatedly responded to a question Hudson posed on the Internet Language Forum a few years ago: Who among the multilingual people has set the world record for the number of languages? And the author answered him: probably my grandfather.
The author of the letter now lives in the United States and requested that his name be withheld from the media or on the Internet. He informed that his grandfather was Italian. He emigrated to the United States from Sicily, Italy, in the first decade of the 20th century. Never studied in school, but mastered many foreign languages very easily. By the time of his death, an illiterate Sicilian could speak the world’s 70 languages, 56 of which could read and write.
When this extraordinary man was 20 years old, he came to New York. Got a job as a porter at a railway station. Due to the need of work, he often comes into contact with people of different nationalities in the world. This made him interested in various languages.
It seems that the career of the porter with extraordinary language skills is going well in the future. So his grandson tells us that in the 1950s, he and his grandfather traveled around the world for six months, and in every country and region, his grandfather spoke to the locals in their language. They have visited Venezuela, Argentina, Norway, England, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, South Africa, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, China and Japan.
Interestingly, they only spent two weeks in Thailand as tourists. The multilingual grandfather did not know Thai originally. When finally leaving the area, I was able to bargain in Thai while shopping at the market. His grandson later served in the U.S. Army and lived in Thailand for a year and a half, learning a little of the local language. When he returned to the United States, he found that his command of Thai was not as good as that of his grandfather.
The polyglot’s grandson told the professor that it wasn’t the first time such a multilingual wizard had appeared in their family. His great-grandfather and his brother spoke more than a hundred languages.
Other correspondents also informed Professor Hudson of some outstanding persons who had mastered languages: for example, Cardinal Giuseppe Metsovanti of Italy (1774-1849) knew 72 languages, of which 39 were able to speak freely. Hungarian female translator Kato Lombu (1909-2003) spoke 17 languages and read 11 literatures. The German Emil Krebs (1867-1930) worked as an interpreter for the German Embassy in China and was able to speak 60 languages fluently. For example, it took him only 9 weeks to learn Armenian.
According to relevant information, the revolutionary mentor Friedrich Engels knew 24 languages.
We come back to Cardinal Giuseppe Kaspar Metsovanj. He is fluent in 39 languages and 50 dialects. Although he never crossed the Italian border once. He was born into a poor family of carpenters in Bologna (Bologna). He learned Latin, Ancient Greek, Spanish, and German as early as a missionary school, and several Indian languages from a school teacher, a former Central and South American missionary . Metsovanji also performed well in several other subjects. So he graduated from school early. Due to his young age, he could not hold the laying on of hands according to religious regulations to determine the priesthood. During the years he waited for this sacrament he learned a series of Eastern and Near Eastern languages. During the Napoleonic Wars he served as a military chaplain in a military hospital, and learned several European languages from the wounded and the “caught” patients. For many years later he served as the chief custodian of the Vatican Library. At the same time he also expanded his language knowledge.
For this rarity, Professor Hudson coined a new term called “super language wizards”. Refers to those who can speak more than 6 languages. Why 6 instead of 5 or 7 or 8? Because in some parts of the earth almost 100% of the inhabitants know 5 languages. For example, there are 4 languages in Switzerland as national languages. In addition to knowing 4 languages, most Swiss also speak English.
Linguists, psychologists and neurobiologists are interested in such people. Does the super language wizard have a special head out of the ordinary? If so, how can it have this characteristic? Or is it not, that these ordinary people with ordinary brains get extraordinary results simply due to the successful coincidence of circumstances, personal interest and dogged labor? Henrich Schliemann, for example, learned 15 languages. Because these languages are necessary for him as an international businessman and archaeology enthusiast. Another example is that Cardinal Metsovanji once spent an evening learning a language that was rare in Italy because the next morning he was going to receive the confession of a foreign criminal who had been sentenced to death. .
We also often hear skepticism about people who know dozens of languages. For example, someone wrote on the Internet: “Does Metsovanji really know 72 languages? How did he learn it? How long did it take? If you learn each language, you must master at least 20,000 words (minimum Vocabulary) calculation, a person with a talent for learning languages, it takes one minute to memorize a word from the first time he hears or sees it, then 72 languages will take 5 and a half years and 12 hours a day of uninterrupted learning How is that possible? And add, how much time in a day does it take to keep his work alive while learning 72 languages?”
But some linguists believe that nothing is impossible in this regard. Huezanna Flynn of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology believes that there is no limit to the ability of the human brain to master new languages. The only obstacle is that there is not enough time. Steven Pinker of Harvard University agrees that there is no theoretical limit unless similar languages are mixed in one person’s mind. The problem also lies in human willpower and perseverance.
However, other researchers have another view, they believe that the brains of super language wizards have something special. They tend to assume speculation about the fact that people with extraordinary abilities in various languages are often associated with left-handers, people with disabilities in spatial orientation, and people with some other psychological trait.