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How Many Languages is it Possible to Know?

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There are millions of people, even in the mostly monolingual US, who speak more than one language at home. Competence in three languages is not unusual, and we've all heard stories of grandmas and grandpas who had to master four or five languages on their way from the old country to the new. In India it is common for people to go about their business every day using five or six different languages. But what about 10, 20, 30, 100 languages? What's the upper limit on the number of languages a person can know?

Michael Erard, in his fascinating book Babel No More, travels around the world in search of hyperpolyglots, people who study and learn large numbers of languages. He sheds light on the secrets of their success, and explains why it can be hard to put an exact number on language knowledge. Here are some of the hyperpolyglots he meets:

Graham Cansdale, 14 languages.
Cansdale uses all 14 languages professionally as a translator at the European Commission in Brussels. He has studied more languages.

Lomb Kató, 16 languages.
This Hungarian polyglot said five of these "lived inside" her. Five others needed at least a half day of review in order to be reactivated, and with the six remaining she could do translation. Confidence, she claimed, was crucial to language learning. Her study tip: "Be firmly convinced you are a linguistic genius."

Alexander Arguelles, 20 languages or so.
Arguelles declines to say the exact number. "If someone tells you how many languages they speak, then you shouldn't trust them," he says. He has studied more than 60 languages and devotes 9 hours of study every day to them. Twenty is the number of them in which he has reading competence.

Johan Vandewalle, 22 languages.
In 1987, Vandewalle won the Polyglot of Flanders contest, where he was tested in 22 languages (though he has studied more). The contest required 10 minute conversations with native speakers, with 5 minute breaks in between.

Ken Hale, 50 languages.
The famous MIT linguist said he could "speak" only three languages (English, Spanish, Warlpiri), and could merely "talk in" others. He considered the ability to speak a language to include knowing all its cultural implications. He didn't like people perpetuating the "myth" of his language feats, though many colleagues had observed him do things like study a grammar of Finnish on an airplane and start speaking it easily upon arrival.

Emil Krebs, 32 to 68 languages.
The number depends on who's counting. A German diplomat who worked in China, Krebs had such an unusual talent for languages that after his death his brain was preserved for study.

Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, 40 to 72 languages.
One of his biographers broke it down as follows: he had 14 which he had studied but not used, 11 in which he could have a conversation, 9 which he spoke not quite perfectly but with a perfect accent, and 30 languages (from 11 different language families) which he had totally mastered.

Stories of Mezzofanti's language prowess are so legendary, they may be merely legends. But it is clear from Erard's time among the hyperpolyglots that with the right kind of natural talent, motivation, and hard work, remarkable feats can be accomplished. The psycholinguists Erard talked to said there was "no theoretical limit to the number of languages one could learn." There was only the limitation of time.

But most of the hyperpolyglots themselves were reluctant to claim too many, even when they had studied dozens. This is because they have a finer definition of "knowing" a language than most people, and the humility that comes from becoming an expert: The more you know, the more you know what you don't know. Among the hyperpolyglots, 15 seems to be about the high end when it comes to the number of languages they are willing to vouch for in themselves. Even so, the 30 or so other languages with which they may have some lesser familiarity are probably still better than your high school Spanish.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
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On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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