How Many Languages is it Possible to Know?

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ThinkStock

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 Happens During a Jeopardy! Commercial Break?

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek chats with the show's contestants.
Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek chats with the show's contestants.
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Jennifer Quail:

Typical Break One: First, if there are "pickups" (re-recordings where Alex misspoke or coughed or stuttered, or Johnny mispronounced someone’s name or hometown) to record, they do those. A stagehand brings water bottles for the contestants. The production team who wrangles contestants comes over and gives their pep talk, makes any corrections, like if someone is consistently buzzing early; and keeps you quiet if there are pickups. Alex gets the cards with the "fun facts" (there are about three, one highlighted, but which one he goes for is ultimately up to Alex alone) and when the crew is ready, they come back from commercial to Alex’s chat with the contestants.

Typical Break Two: If there are any pickups from the second half of the Jeopardy! round they do those, the water gets distributed, the production team reminds the contestants how Double Jeopardy! works and that there’s still lots of money out there to win, and Alex comes over to take a picture with the two challengers (the champion will have had their picture taken during their first match.) Then we come back to Double Jeopardy!.

Typical Third Break: This is the big one. There are pickups, water, etc. and they activate the section of the screen where you write your wager. One of the team members brings you a half-sheet of paper ... and you work out what you want to bet. One of your "wranglers" checks it, as does another production team member, to make sure it’s legible and when you’re sure that’s what you want, you lock it in. At that point you can’t change it. They take away the scratch paper and the part of the board where you write your answer is unlocked. Someone will tell you to write either WHO or WHAT in the upper left corner, so you do know at least whether it’s a person or thing. They make sure the "backup card" (a piece of card stock sitting on your podium) is turned to the correct who or what side, just in case your touchscreen fails. If everything’s ready, then as soon as the crew says, they come back and Final Jeopardy! starts.

There are breaks you don’t [even know about, too]. If there is a question about someone’s final answer, they will actually stop tape while the research team checks. Sometimes if something goes really off, like Alex completely misreads a category during the start of a round, they’ll stop and pick it up immediately. Those [are breaks] you’ll never notice because they’ll be completely edited out.

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

Why Is There a Leap Day?

Bychykhin_Olexandr/iStock via Getty Images
Bychykhin_Olexandr/iStock via Getty Images

At some point in elementary school, your science teacher probably explained to you that there are 365 days in a year because that’s how long it takes for Earth to complete one full rotation around the sun. What they might not have specified, however, is that it’s not exactly 365 days—it’s actually closer to 365.2421 days.

So, if we want our calendar year to begin right when Earth begins a new rotation around the sun, we have to account for (roughly) an extra quarter of a day each year, or one day every four years. History.com reports that the Egyptians had already been doing this for a while before Europe finally caught on in 46 B.C.E., when Roman dictator Julius Caesar and astronomer Sosigenes put their heads together to come up with what we now call the Julian calendar, which includes 12 months, 365 days, and an additional “leap day” every four years on February 29.

But rounding 0.2421 up to 0.25 each year created an issue, because it didn’t quite add up to a full day every four years—and that tiny discrepancy meant that after 128 years, the calendar year ended up starting a day before Earth had completed its rotation around the sun. By the 14th century, the calendar year was starting a whopping 10 days before Earth finished its orbit.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII sought to correct the error by suggesting that we simply skip a leap day every so often. His Gregorian calendar, which we still use today, mandates that we omit the leap day during years evenly divisible by 100 but not by 400. For instance, the year 2000 included a leap day because it’s divisible by 100 and 400; the year 2100, on the other hand, will not include a leap day, since it’s evenly divisible by 100, but not by 400.

Gregory XIII’s correction to Caesar’s overcorrection is itself a bit of an under-correction, so we’ll probably need to reevaluate our leap day protocol again in about 10,000 years.

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