How Many Languages is it Possible to Know?

ThinkStock
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.

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

What Is the Citizenship of a Baby Born on an International Flight?

Nadezhda1906/iStock via Getty Images
Nadezhda1906/iStock via Getty Images

It's pretty standard medical advice: a pregnant woman shouldn’t travel via airplane 36 weeks or later into her pregnancy. Despite that precaution, an occasional bundle of joy may still add an unexpected passenger to the flight manifest. As if giving birth at 40,000 feet wasn't already a stressful experience for a new mom, things can get even more hectic upon landing: Depending on the details surrounding the birth, her newborn’s citizenship could be up for debate.

There is no universal rule for how a country determines the citizenship of a newborn. Some countries just follow the jus sanguinis (right of blood) law, which means a baby’s nationality is determined by that of one or both parents. Others observe that rule and jus soli (right of the soil), where a country grants citizenship to a baby that’s simply born on its soil, regardless of the parents’ origin. These countries are mostly in the Americas and include the United States and Canada. And with the expansion of air travel, these laws had to extend to the heavens as well.

If a baby is born over United States airspace, the jus soli rule means the child would be granted U.S. citizenship, according to the Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual. Depending on the circumstances, the child may also be a candidate for dual citizenship if its parents are from a country that grants citizenship based on blood—though that would depend on the countries involved.

This same simplicity doesn’t extend to a jus sanguinis country, though. This means that an American mother can’t attain French citizenship for her baby just because she gave birth over French airspace. The baby would simply revert to the parent's U.S. citizenship, since the United States also generally follows jus sanguinis when a baby is born to U.S. citizens in a foreign country. Since jus sanguinis is the far more common rule around the globe, most babies born on a flight over international waters or foreign airspace will likely wind up taking the citizenship of its parents.

If there’s a case where the child could potentially be stateless—such as when a mother herself has no official citizenship and the baby is born in international airspace—the baby would likely take the citizenship of whatever country the plane itself is registered in, according to the United Nations’s Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness agreement.

Despite all these complex laws, mid-flight births are exceedingly rare—so rare, in fact, that most airlines don’t even keep track of the number of babies born in the air. An expecting mother likely wouldn't even be able to get onto a flight in the first place, since many airlines have rules that prohibit women from flying after they've reached a certain point in their pregnancy.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.