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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
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

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

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Big Questions
Why Do We Dive With Sharks But Not Crocodiles?
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Why do we dive with sharks but not crocodiles?

Eli Rosenberg:

The issue is the assumption that sharks' instincts are stronger and more basic.

There are a couple of reasons swimming with sharks is safer:

1. Most sharks do not like the way people taste. They expect their prey to taste a certain way, like fish/seal, and we do not taste like that. Sharks also do not like the sensation of eating people. Bigger sharks like great whites enjoy prey with a high fat-bone ratio like seals. Smaller sharks enjoy eating fish, which they can gobble in one bite. So, while they might bite us, they pretty quickly decide “That’s not for me” and swim away. There is only one shark that doesn’t really care about humans tasting icky: that shark is our good friend the tiger shark. He is one of the most dangerous species because of his nondiscriminatory taste (he’s called the garbage can of the sea)!

2. Sharks are not animals that enjoy a fight. Our big friend the great white enjoys ambushing seals. This sneak attack is why it sometimes mistakes people for seals or sea turtles. Sharks do not need to fight for food. The vast majority of sharks species are not territorial (some are, like the blacktip and bull). The ones that are territorial tend to be the more aggressive species that are more dangerous to dive with.

3. Sharks attacked about 81 people in 2016, according to the University of Florida. Only four were fatal. Most were surfers.

4. Meanwhile, this is the saltwater crocodile. The saltwater crocodile is not a big, fishy friend, like the shark. He is an opportunistic, aggressive, giant beast.


5. Crocodiles attack hundreds to thousands of people every single year. Depending on the species, one-third to one-half are fatal. You have a better chance of survival if you played Russian roulette.

6. The Death Roll. When a crocodile wants to kill something big, the crocodile grabs it and rolls. This drowns and disorients the victim (you). Here is a PG video of the death roll. (There is also a video on YouTube in which a man stuck his arm into an alligator’s mouth and he death rolled. You don’t want to see what happened.)

7. Remember how the shark doesn’t want to eat you or fight you? This primordial beast will eat you and enjoy it. There is a crocodile dubbed Gustave, who has allegedly killed around 300 people. (I personally believe 300 is a hyped number and the true number might be around 100, but yikes, that’s a lot). Gustave has reportedly killed people for funsies. He’s killed them and gone back to his business. So maybe they won’t even eat you.


8. Sharks are mostly predictable. Crocodiles are completely unpredictable.

9. Are you in the water or by the edge of the water? You are fair game to a crocodile.

10. Crocodiles have been known to hang out together. The friend group that murders together eats together. Basks of crocodiles have even murdered hippopotamuses, the murder river horse. Do you think you don't look like an appetizer?

11. Wow, look at this. This blacktip swims among the beautiful coral, surrounded by crystal clear waters and staggering biodiversity. I want to swim there!

Oh wow, such mud. I can’t say I feel the urge to take a dip. (Thanks to all who pointed this out!)

12. This is not swimming with the crocodiles. More like a 3D aquarium.

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

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