7.1129, Disc: Multilinguality

The Linguist List linguist at tam2000.tamu.edu
Sun Aug 11 14:40:13 UTC 1996

LINGUIST List:  Vol-7-1129. Sun Aug 11 1996. ISSN: 1068-4875. Lines:  449
Subject: 7.1129, Disc: Multilinguality
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Date:  Mon, 05 Aug 1996 12:51:45 BST
From:  dick at linguistics.ucl.ac.uk (Dick Hudson)
Subject:  Multilinguality
Date:  Mon, 05 Aug 1996 14:49:40 PDT
From:  bohnem at mpi.nl (Juergen Bohnemeyer)
Subject:  Re: 71105 Disc: Multilinguality
Date:  Tue, 06 Aug 1996 14:14:54 PDT
From:  mariscal at server.ciatec.ciateq.mx (Antonio Mariscal)
Subject:  multilinguality/Mezzofanti
Date:  Fri, 09 Aug 1996 13:44:13 +0700
From:  early at vanuatu.usp.ac.fj (Robert Early)
Subject:  linguality
Date:  Mon, 05 Aug 1996 12:51:45 BST
From:  dick at linguistics.ucl.ac.uk (Dick Hudson)
Subject:  Multilinguality
Vicki Fromkin writes (my underlining):
>Glad that Karl Teeter talked of Paul Garvin's great talent for languages.
>(And he could also speak various dialects of French, Italian etc.) And he
>did of coruse speak Hungarian, a non IE language. What seems to me important
>to note is that it was a special talent -- which I think must be true of
>anyone who learns 2nd, 3rd, 4th...languages fluently after the critical age.
>The rest of us without this talent (and I can't learn any language other
>than my native one) fortunately do not need to be talented to learn a
>language or more than one before the end of the critical period.
This is very helpful because it focuses on the nature of the talent. What is
its relationship to the mechanisms of `ordinary' L1 and L2 learning? We
really ought to know. Imagine we were studying human physiology and
concentrated on the achievements of typical western couch potatoes, without
reference to people living in other kinds of society, or to people who win
gold medals at the Olympic Games. Limited, eh? And yet that may be just what
we're doing in studies of L2 acquisition. Stone-age people in Papua New
Guinea (or people who live on the headwaters of the Amazon, or in various
other parts of the world) are known to be good at learning languages, with
five (fluent) languages as a fairly normal repertoire for everyone in the
community. Do we know how they do it? Do we know whether they can go on
doing it after the `critical age'? Similarly for the gold-medalists. Several
people on the list know brilliant polyglots, whose skills they vouch for;
some of these reports have come to me with requests to keep them
confidential for fear of embarrassing the people concerned. But again do we
know how they do it, or how well they do it, or whether the result is
distinguishable from the result of L1 acquisition?
I find it quite surprising that no-one has quoted any research evidence at
all in this discussion. It looks to me like a pretty big gap.
Richard Hudson
Department of Phonetics and Linguistics,
University College London,
Gower Street,
London WC1E 6BT
work phone +171 419 3152; work fax +171 383 4108
email dick at ling.ucl.ac.uk; web-site http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/home.ht
Date:  Mon, 05 Aug 1996 14:49:40 PDT
From:  bohnem at mpi.nl (Juergen Bohnemeyer)
Subject:  Re: 71105 Disc: Multilinguality
I'd like to suggest some distinctions that strike me useful for this
First of all, to learn a language at school or the like, using grammar
books and vocabulary lists, is certainly the most inefficient way of
learning languages. I believe virtually anybody can learn a language
(multiple at a time even) in just a couple of months, provided she's
living with the speech community day by day and
interacting with the speakers constantly in the language (which calls for an
outgoing character, not least). She will then be considered fluent in the
language, and yet she will hardly be taken for a native speaker. It
may not take more than half a year to acquire fluent command in a
language, but a lifetime may not be enough to get rid of an accent.
As for fluency, I would suggest to distinguish between competence of the
language system (lexicon, grammar, pragmatics) in the sense of Chomsky
(and traditional grammar) and something like communicative
competence. The latter can only be defined with respect to the
particular communcative needs of the individual learner.
In this sense, you will very probably be considered fluent long before you've
mastered each and every construction of the language, let alone the whole
lexicon.Is this a sensible criterion at all? Is there any living being
that has full active command of, say, all the different structures
mentioned in Quirk's et al. English
Grammar? `Systematic competence' is a scientific construct, isn't it? (Besides,
 a lack of 'systematic competence', where the latter exceeds 'communicative
competence', will not be noticed, anyway, unless you become some linguist's
Turning now to the "champions", it seems that the real challenge
consists not so much in acquiring a twenty-odd languages in a
lifetime, but rather to maintain all of
them. As Victoria Fromkin indicated in her recent posting, proficieny in a
language tends to become inhibited if it hasn't been used for a
certain while. If the fabulously
multilingual are gifted in any sense, it must be in this sense, I
assume. (I do not think brain storage can become a serious problem. It
doesn't seem likely anybody could reach their limits in a life's
span. I'm not an expert on this, but isn't it said
that we're using only a mild percentage of the cortex, anyway?)
Finally, allow me to add another aspect to this discussion. I believe cultures
 differ strongly in their attitude towards foreign languages and
multilinguality. People who
have been raised in countries with considerable economical and political power
and who speak languages that received standardization, mass media and literary
tradition, and perhaps especially those among them who have not been in touch
with multilinguality in their childhood, generally seem to develop much less
flexibility towards non-native languages than do people for whome such
do not hold.
Juergen Bohnemeyer
- -----------------------------------------------------------------------------
Juergen Bohnemeyer                        CLS Tilburg/Nijmegen:
CARG at MPI                                      phone  +31 24 3521 613
Postbus 310                                      fax       +31 24 3521 300
NL-6500 AH Nijmegen                       e-mail "bohnem at mpi.nl"
TeW at KUB                                      phone  +31 13 466 3082
Postbus 90153                                  fax      +31 13 466 3110
NL-5000 LE Tilburg                           e-mail "J.Bohnemeyer at kub.nl"
Date:  Tue, 06 Aug 1996 14:14:54 PDT
From:  mariscal at server.ciatec.ciateq.mx (Antonio Mariscal)
Subject:  multilinguality/Mezzofanti
I previously gave some information on Mezzofanti from memory, having read
works on him fifteen years ago, I have just been able to get again part
of those materials and would like to supplement my previous statements:
1) Some people asked me about specific bibliographical details on
Mezzofanti. Some of the works on him are:
	a)Manavit, Augustin
	 Esquisse historique sur le cardinal Mezzofanti
	 Paris, Sagnier et Bray, 1853
	b)Mitterrutzner, Johannes Chrysostomus
	 Joseph Cardinal Mezzofanti der grosse Polyglott
	 Brixen, 1855
	c)Russell, Charles William
	 The life of Cardinal Mezzofanti; with an introductory memoir of
         eminent linguists, ancient and modern
	 London, Longmann, 1858
2) The references to Mezzofanti by Lord Byron are to be found in his:
	Life and Works, IV., p 262-3
	In Russell's biography half of what Byron says is transcribed:
	"...in general I do not draw well with literary men; -not that I
dislike the; but I never knew what to say to them, after I have praised
their last publication. There are several exceptions, to be sure,..., but
your literary every-day man and I never met well in company,...,I don't
remember a man amongst them I ever wished to see twice, except perhaps
Mezzofanti, who is a monster of languages, the Briareus of parts of
speech, a walking polyglot, and more; - who ought to have existed at the
time of the Tower of Babel, as universal interpreter. He is, indeed, a
marvel -unassuming also. I tried him in all the tongues in which I knew a
single oath or adjuration to the gods, against post-boys, savages,
Tartars, boatmen, sailors, pilots, gondoliers, muleteers, camel-drivers,
vetturini, post-masters, post-houses, post, everything; and egad! he
astounded me -even to my English".
	Russell adds in reference to English, an anecdote judged by him
to be a mere exaggeration of the real story in which "when Byron had
exhauted his vocabulary of English slang, Mezzofanti quietly asked: 'And
is that all?'
	'I can go no further', replied the noble poet, 'unless I coin
words for the purpose'
	'Pardon me, my Lord', rejoined Mezzofanti; and proceeded to
repeat for him a variety of the refinements of London slang, till then
unknown to his visitor's rich vocabulary!"
3) In the memoir of eminent linguists of Russell, the following people
are refered to have known 20 or more languages:
	a)Mithridates, king of Pontus.  "was throughly coversant.." in 22
to 25 languages.
	b)Jonadab Alhanar, a Jew of Morocco (xvi cent.). Duret, in his
"Tresor des Langues" says thet Jonadab spoke and wrote 28 different
	c)Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. "At the age of eighteen he had
the reputation of knowing no fewer than twenty two languages"
	d)Job Ludolf (b. 1624). "He is said to have been master of 25
	e)Berthold George Niebuhr (b.1776). He knew 20 languages: German,
Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Danish, English, French, Italian, Portuguese,
Spanish, Arabic, Persian, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, Slavonic, Polish,
Bohemian, Illyrian and Low German. He understood and wrote in most of
	f)Rask (1787-1832). He was said at the age of 35 to know 25
	g)Paul de Lagarde (xix cent.). "He has the reputation of knowing
above twenty languages"
	h)James Crichton (b. 1561). "...when he was but sixteen years
old, he spoke ten languages,.., at he age of twenty, the number of
languages of which he was a master exactly equalled the number of his
years. But the most tangible data which we possess are drawn from his
celebrated thesis in the University of Paris, in which he undertook to
dispute in any of twelve languages -Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Greek, Latin,
Spanish, Italian, French, English, German, Flemish and Slavonic".
	i)Sir William Jones (b. 1741). He was acquainted with 28
	j)John Leyden. "professed to know but 70 languages!"
	k)Sir John Bowring. In a memoir published in 1856 (Illustrated
London News, Feb. 10, 1856 and in the "Lives of Reformers" among other
sources) is said that he had learned Latin, French, Italian, Spanish,
Portuguese, German, Dutch, Russian, Servian, Bohemian, Polish, Hungarian,
Slovakian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Lettish, Finnish, Basque, Arabic,
Turkish, Chinese and English. He published translations in thirty
4)Just to be fair it is important to mention that there is also a section
in Russell's memoir dedicated to Lady-Linguists: Elena Cornaro Piscopia,
with 7 languages; Gaetana Agnesi who also mastered 7 languages and
several others.
5)Two more anecdotes on Mezzofanti:
	Dr. F. Forster in his "Annales d'un Physicien Voyageur", (May 14,
1834), writes:
	"I visited Signor Mezzofanti,.., we talked a great deal about
philology, and he told me many interesting anecdotes of his maner of
learning diffrent languages. As I was myself acquainted with ten
languages, I wished to test the ability of this eminent linguist; and
therefore proposed that we should leave Italian for the moment, and amuse
ourselves by speaking different other languages. Having spoken in French,
English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Dutch, I said at last:-
	'My friend, I have almost run out my stock of modern languages,
except some which you probably do not know'
	'Well', said he, 'the dead languages, Latin and Greek, are
matters which every one learns, and which every educated man is familiar
with. We shall not mind them. But pray tell me what others you speak'
	'I speak a little Welsh', I replied.
	'Good', said he, 'I also know Welsh'. And he began to talk to me
at once, like a Welsh peasant. He knew also the other varieties of
Celtic, Gaelic, Irish and Bas-Breton".
- -------------------------------------------------------------------
	One evening about 1836, Dr. Wiseman (Cardinal), meeting
Mezzofanti in the Piazza di Spagna, inquired where he was going.
	"To the Propaganda", he replied; "I have to give a lesson there"
	"In what language? asked Dr. Wiseman
	"In Californian", said Mezzofanti. "I am teaching it to the
Californian youths whom we have there".
	"Californian!" exclaimed his friend, "From whom can you possibly
have learned that out-of-the-way tongue?"
	"From themselves", replied Mezzofanti: "and now I am teaching it
to them grammatically".
6)Last but not least, there are several accounts on the exact number of
languages Mezzofanti was able to speak:
	(Russell says that): "In 1805, according to Father Caronni, "he
was commonly reported to be master of more than 24 languages". Stewart
Rose, in 1817, speaks of him as "reading 20 languages and conversing in
18". Baron von Zach, in 1820, brings the number of the languages spoken
by him up to 32. Lady Morgan states, that by the public report of Bologna
he was reputed to be master of 40. He himself, in 1836, stated to M.
Mazzinghi that he knew 45 and before 1839, he used to say that he knew
"fifty, and Bolognese"
	In reply to the request of M. Mouravieff, a little later, that he
would give him a list of the languages that he knew, he sent him a sheet
containing the name of God in 56 languages. In the year 1846, he told
Father Bresciani that he knew 78 languages and dialects and a list
compiled by his nephew, Dr. Gaetano Minarelli of his deceased uncle's
books and papers reaches the astounding total of 114"
	Trying to be as much impartial as possible and on the basis that
the "proof of his familiarity with any particular language, in order to
be satisfactory, ought to be specific, and ought to rest on the
testimony either of a native, or al least of one whose skill in the
language was beyond suspicion",...and along his 500 pages biography
Russell gives scores of testimonies finishing with the following list:
	a)Languages frequently tested and spoken with rare excellence:
1.- Hebrew
2.- Rabbinical
3.- Arabic
4.- Chaldee
5.- Coptic
6.- Ancient Armenian
7.- Modern Armenian
8.- Persian
9.- Turkish
10.- Albanese
11.- Maltese
12.- Greek
13.- Romaic
14.- Latin
15.- Italian
16.- Spanish
17.- Portuguese
18.- French
19.- German
20.- Swedish
21.- Danish
22.- Dutch
23.- Flemish
24.- English
25.- Illyrian
26.- Russian
27.- Polish
28.- Czechish or Bohemian
29.- Magyar
30.- Chinese
b) Stated to have been spoken fluently, but hardly sufficiently tested:
1.- Syriac
2.- Geez
3.- Amarinna
4.- Hindostani
5.- Guzarattee
6.- Basque
7.- Wallachian
8.- Californian
9.- Algonquin
 The rest of the list I will summarize:
c) Spoken rarely and less perfectly:  11 languages
d) Spoke imperfectly;- a few sentences and conversational forms: 8
e) Studies from books, but not known to have been spoken: 14
d) Dialects spoken, or their peculiarities understood: al least 39
Antonio Ruiz Mariscal
Date:  Fri, 09 Aug 1996 13:44:13 +0700
From:  early at vanuatu.usp.ac.fj (Robert Early)
Subject:  linguality
I believe I have read most of the postings on
multilingual proficiency/prodigy lately, but
don't think I have seen anyone mention the name
of Professor Stephen Wurm yet.  Apologies if
this has already been done and I have missed
I quote from Stephen Wurm: A linguistic
migration by D.C. Laycock, in Laycock and
Winter (eds), 1987, _A world of language:
papers presented to Professor Stephen Wurm on
his 65th birthday_, Pacific Linguistics, C-100.
Page 3: "With native control of perhaps a dozen
languages, and fluency in several dozen
Footnote 1: Linguists, more than any other
group, know how hard it is to decide when one
can claim to  speak  a language, and at what
level.  Stephen himself has claimed command of
some 30 to 40 languages, on various occasions;
over the years I have know him, I have heard
him carrying on conversations in some 17
different languages, and am prepared to take
perhaps as many more on trust.  This...is in
the world record class, and a rare feat among
linguists...   (end of quotes)
Prof. Wurm is still very much alive and leading
an extremely active retirement, based in
Canberra, Australia.  No doubt many of his
friends and colleagues and former students, in
many locations around the world, could add
personal anecdotes and testimony to the
linguistic accomplishments of this remarkable
* Robert Early                               early at vanuatu.usp.ac.fj
* Pacific Languages Unit                     work phone : +678 22748
* University of the South Pacific              work fax : +678 22633
* PO Box 12, Vila, VANUATU                   home phone : +678 26574
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