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.

What Caused Pangea to Break Apart?

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iStock.com/alfimimnill

Emily Devenport:

There's another way to look at this question. People tend to think in terms of supercontinents forming and then breaking up again due to convection currents in the mantle, hot material rising and causing rifts in weaker spots, possibly in old sutures where the continents were shoved together—but what is really happening is that ocean basins are opening and closing, and the ocean has an active role in subduction.

The opening and closing of an ocean basin is called a Wilson Cycle. It begins when hot material rising from the mantle stretches the overlying crust. As molten material rises, a rift is formed. The rift is widened as material continues to squeeze into it. If that rifting goes on long enough, through a broad enough swath of a continent, ocean water will eventually flow into it, and an ocean basin begins to form. The upwelling of hot material will continue to rise through that thinner area of crust, pushing the plates apart. The Atlantic Ocean is an example of a basin that is well along in the Wilson Cycle; eventually subduction is going to begin at its margins, and the whole shebang will pivot.

This will happen because at the edge of continents, sediments accumulate. The weight of those sediments, combined with the weight of the water, drives the heavier, denser edge of the oceanic plate under the continental crust, which is fatter and lighter. Eventually subduction begins, and the basin begins to close again. The Pacific Ocean is an example of a basin that's closing.

If you look at a map of the oceanic rift zones, you'll notice that the one in the Atlantic is pretty much in the middle of that ocean, but the Pacific rift zone has been pulled all the way over to North America above Central America. Subduction is actively occurring on all margins of that plate.

The simple picture is that the continents are moving toward each other across the Pacific Ocean while the Atlantic Basin continues to widen. The truth is more complicated. When plates subduct, the water in the crust lowers the melting point of those rocks, so partial melting occurs. The partially melted material begins to rise through the overlying rocks, because it's less dense, and decompression melting occurs. Eventually, the upwelling of hot material forms plutons and volcanoes above the subduction zones. Fore-arc and Back-arc [PDF] basins can form. As the oceanic crust is pulled under the continental plate, island chains and other chunky bits get sutured to the edge of the continent along with sediments, making it larger. Our world is ~4.6 billion years old, so our continents are really large, now. They're unlikely to rift through the ancient cratons that formed their hearts.

What will happen if subduction begins on the eastern side of North America before the Pacific Basin closes? The margin next to California is a transform fault; it's not subducting. Will it eventually push itself under that part of North America again, or will the transform zone get bigger? The hot spot that was driving the ancient Farallon Plate under North America was eventually overridden by the southwestern states (Arizona, New Mexico, etc.) forming a rift zone. Will it continue to rift or poop out?

There are computer models predicting what supercontinent may form next. They will continue to change as our understanding of tectonic processes gets more accurate.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What Do Those Recycling Symbols and Codes Mean?

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iStock.com/ChrisSteer

Earth Day is here again, serving as an annual reminder of the need to reduce, reuse, and recycle our way to a better planet.

When it comes to the last part of that familiar three-”R” mantra, most people know enough to separate certain items from the rest of their garbage, but much of our modern recycling routine remains a mystery. From the recycling symbol itself to what those numbers on plastic containers actually mean, there's a lot you can learn from your trash before it becomes someone else's treasure.

An International Symbol With An Earthy Origin

The universal recycling symbol—three folded arrows that form a triangle, with the head of one arrow pointing to the tail of the next—was created in 1970 by University of Southern California student Gary Anderson as part of a contest tied to the very first Earth Day. Each arrow of the design represents one of the steps in the recycling process: collecting the recyclable goods after use, breaking them down and reforming them, and then packaging new products in the containers.

Originally designed as an inverted triangle, the symbol was later rotated to the pyramid-like orientation commonly used now.

The Number Game

The American Society of Plastics Industry first began using numbers inside the recycling symbols on plastic containers in 1988 as a way to assist with sorting them. The "Resin Identification Code" uses seven numbers to identify the type of synthetic material used to manufacture the container, with the higher numbers representing less commonly used plastics.

Here's a primer on each of the codes:

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE/PET)
Usually accompanied by the letters "PETE" or "PET," this resin is generally used for soda bottles and other containers for edible and non-edible goods. When it's not being used to manufacture containers, you might recognize it by another name: polyester. (Yes, it's the stuff that insulates your jackets.) It's also one of the most widely accepted forms of plastic in curbside recycling programs, though the amount of useable material available for new products after breaking down this plastic is relatively small.

2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
The second most widely used resin for plastic bottles, HDPE is a stiff, strong material with a high resistance to chemicals, which has made it the go-to plastic for food items like milk and juice, as well as household cleaners and trash bags. It's also easy to break down in the recycling process and easy to reform, making it one of the most efficient consumer plastics. Most curbside recycling programs have no problem with accepting products made from this plastic.

3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
First discovered in the 19th century, PVC is commonly used in building materials today—especially pipes and plumbing material—due to its strength and chemical resistance (although it's occasionally used for some household products). It has a nasty habit of releasing highly carcinogenic toxins into the atmosphere when it's burned, so recycling is a significantly less appealing option for PVC disposal, and it's usually not accepted by curbside recycling programs.

4. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
This plastic is becoming more common today, especially for manufacturing squeeze bottles and grocery bags. Plastics made from LDPE are usually very strong, and they're regularly used as sealants because of this quality. While they weren't included in curbside recycling programs at first, plastics made from LDPE are now becoming more commonly accepted.

5. Polypropylene (PP)
Regarded as one of the “safest” plastics produced today, PP is generally used for squeezable bottles, bottle caps, and straws. Along with LDPE, it's also used for food-storage containers that can be reused over time. It has an extremely high melting point, so it's one of the best consumer plastics for items that will be exposed to heat. Like LDPE, it's becoming more common for curbside recycling programs to accept items made from this plastic.

6. Polystyrene (PS)
More commonly known as styrofoam, this type of plastic is not only notoriously difficult to recycle, but it's also been shown to leach dangerous toxins over time into anything packaged in it—and even greater amounts of toxins when it's burned. This is the resin usually found in disposable serving trays, egg cartons, and cups, and it's rarely accept by curbside recycling programs due to the danger it poses and the difficulty of recycling it. Basically, this is the worst of the bunch.

7. Everything Else
There are countless other plastics, but very few of them are easily recycled in curbside programs, making this category the catch-all for everything that could conceivably be broken down and reformed, but might be better off reused or reformed in some way that doesn't require a chemical process. This category encompasses everything from bulletproof material to those large water jugs on office coolers, and is rarely included in curbside recycling programs.

Safety In Numbers

For anyone wondering which plastics are safe to reuse in their current form, it's widely accepted that HDPE (2), LDPE (4), and PE (5) can be reused multiple times for edible items, as they're generally resistant to chemicals, haven't been shown to degrade, and don't leach dangerous substances into their contents.

This story first ran in 2013.

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