Blog Archives

I was asked how good at a language you need to be to say you “know” it.


“Knowing” a language is too vague a term and even if we agreed here what we mean by it, that wouldn’t have any meaning in the wider world, where it would remain vague.

On the one hand you have people like me who can say you don’t really know a language until you are really intimate with the way it handles all manner of nuance and situation, in the way you can be said not to fully know your wife or husband after forty years of marriage. There used to be a show in which married couples would be quizzed about each other and some surprises would come out about things they didn’t know about each other, this was the whole premise of the show and I believe that similar content has been on the TV or radio channels of most countries.

Then you have the 80:20 approach, where you get 80% of what a native of similar intelligence and education to you would have of his language, but Vilfredo Pareto, that famous Esperantist, discovered by throwing his pocket money onto a table that this only takes 20% of the time it would take to actually get as good as that equivalent native speaker, in the language.

I tend to aim for this kind of thing, if I get to be 80% as good in the language as my equivalent native speaker, then I can already communicate as sophisticatedly as I like and that ENS will take up the slack. That way, I get 5 languages for the price (the ‘time-price’) of one, which is a good bargain and also highly usable.

A lot of people using English comfortably in international business are at something like the 80% level. Whether they used the time saved to learn four other languages to the same good but incomplete level, learn some other thing, do more business or just spend more time with their guinea pigs is up to them.

Thanks to Cirone Musi for giving a CC license on Wikicommons for this photo of Professor D. at the Festival della Scienza, complete with fetching lanyard.

Further down the scale you have people who claim to know 20 or 30 or 80 languages. These are the polyglot equivalents of social networkers who have contact lists well in excess of the Dunbar number. For those who feel “dunbar” than they did before when I say that, I am referring to the lovely gentleman in the featured image, Professor Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar, the head of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University.  Some people say he is the one Diana Gabaldon had in mind when creating the character Roger Mac in the Outlander series. He represents the theory (more than an opinion, as he has got lots of data and it’s all been per reviewed and that) that humans can have meaningful and stable social relationships with somewhere between 100 and 250 people. Most typically this number seems to peak at about 150 people. I have to say I personally have little resonance when it comes to this theory, as I have a social media network which extends to (at the last count and I count it once a quarter) a little over 12,000. Allowing for the overlap between Facebook and LinkedIn that would still likely be over 9,000 being conservative.

Now continuing this analogy between knowing languages and knowing people, the 9,000 maybe symbolises the languages which there are in the world. How many there really are is probably fewer than that by now, as languages have a tendency of going extinct before they even achieve literacy and an archive. Manx and Cornish are among the lucky ones. I reckon there are probably something more like 1,500 which could be learned without recourse to field linguistics and a lot of malaria shots. There are currently 1,353 languages in the Gideons Bible App (my hearty and ongoing recommendation to all interested in the Bible and in languages, and it is free of course, and contains plenty of audio – available on all good App stores) and I am kind of going on that and things also I read in SIL resources. A lot depends on how you place the cut-off between what is another language and what is a dialect. There are more difference between forms of English and Arabic than there are between some clusters of two, three, four or more languages recognised as being separate. There are various tests for this, but in practice no overall consensus seems to have been reached, and of course politics rears its Gorgon’s head and turns objective thought to stone at regular intervals.

Then let’s consider analysing this into the people who asked to connect with me and I agreed, but probably if I cleared them out it wouldn’t make a great deal of difference – well I did at one point produce a cut down database of my contacts (pre GDPR, you understand) and the people I considered valuable contacts that I means to be able to email and phone with ease came to around 800 and now it may be more like 1000, so really maybe only 10%. This, in my languages/people analogy, is a good equivalence to the long lists of “Languages I would like to learn” which some of the less powerful intellects in the Polyglot universe seem to feel compelled to posting from time to time. Yes, we probably all would like to have the time to look at to a greater or lesser extent 10% of the languages that there are, listen to 10% of the songs there have even been, watch 10% of the movies, read 10% of the books, but because there are so many in reality we are going to cover a much smaller sample than that, whether we be persons of leisure or fanatically careerist sarariiman who take inemuri rather than reading breaks because they are too tired, and take zero leisure, apparently.

Of the 800, I would say that I know to greet on the street from the LinkedIn list 500 and another 500 from the facebook or YT side, and as far as really writing on a regular basis is concerned, sending memes privately, playing Quiz Planet or ItsYourTurn and chatting in a way that gets to know even a faceless person, maybe 300. But this is because I make an effort. This may represent the languages that an ambitious polyglot learns a few words of, learns maybe the Korean hangul, learns a bit of Koine to read some passages of New Testament, knows a few words or sentences of for touristic purposes, or looked at for philological research.

When it comes to actually knowing people very well, as it knowing how they will react in a certain situation, it is just a handful of people. And the same goes for languages.

And then you have to wonder whether you really know any person, or language, at all.

So in summary, the whole use of the term “knowing” a language is unhelpful, and I would simply refer the gentle reader to the sentence of Socrates via Plato: “ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα“, or “All I know is, I don’t know Jack”.

And for sure, we all do know a lot less than we think we do.

 

Answer to the question “How many languages can I learn in a lifetime”?


This is all a question of how you define things.

Firstly the problem is defining languages. Do you define them so that Serbo-Croat is still one language or six, for example? Is Malay and Indonesia a separate language? What about the languages of India, and Africa, where there are many mutually partly intelligible languages. Is Flemish and Dutch one language or two in the way you are defining it? In my opinion it is better to define these broadly and cut it down to a smaller number of claimed languages. After all, where do you stop? Maybe American and British English could be claimed as two – I heard some people try that, ridiculous though it is.

Secondly, there is the problem of desired fluency. A person who only needs to say certain fixed sentences, like a street seller or a receptionist, can say what they know with fluency, but they are not able to synthesis accurate language. Others can do so, but not in speaking as they never mastered it. I tend to go on passive vocabulary learned and put 10,000 as a very reasonable target for learning a language.

Thirdly, you need to define “lifetime”. You don’t know yet how long you will live, nor whether you will still be so keen on learning languages if it is to the detriment of learning other useful things. The day may come – and does to many a polyglot (this is why most of the older polyglots you meet are people who leave it and come back to it – or old people who used to be polyglots but have not studied actively for a long time) where you say “instead of learning Javanese, I think it’s time to learn Java”.

If a person uses optimal methods and gives 400 hours to each language, then if they study for 40 years at 20 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, they’ll have given 400 hours each to 100 languages. With good methods, that should mean the ability to demonstrate reasonable proficiency at least in the reading of those 100 languages. One might choose to spend the same time doing 4,000 hours each to only 10 languages, and show a high degree of fluency in just those ten languages. One might also go down the performing seal route and do 40 hours on a thousand languages just in order to be able to recognise maybe a thousand words and in some cases read or write very basic words in those 1,000 languages. Here one of your biggest problems is going to be materials. Which ever way you cut it, 40,000 hours of study is a large achievement, and it is really up to whether the learner has more utility for what he or she wants from their study whether to be more academic on a smaller number or more hobbyist on a larger number.

The Four Basic Linguistic Functions Analysed


langfunc3

Today, I am just uploading this for your perusal. I will start commenting on it and explaining it and drawing conclusions from it during the week, and hopefully what I will have to say will be quite useful for language learners. For today however I just wanted to let you take a look at the picture and you are welcome to give your initial thoughts in the comments.

There is actually so much that I could have to say from this simple diagram that I don’t worry that discussion before I have started to show what it is all about could “steal my thunder”. On the contrary it would be interesting to see what interpretations people would place on the diagram as it stands.

RL101-4 The next five letters


 
 
 
 

Playout date:    23 September 2006
Location:    Home
Other people featured: None
Music used:    Akon’s Mr Lonely karaoke track, used to rap Onegin’s letter from the end of Evgeniy Onegin
Languages used:    English, Russian
Animals featured:    None

 This fourth lesson deals with 5 letters that are not in English at all but come from Greek. Here we have a difference to the previous lesson which had letters that look like English letters, but because of Greek they have a different use in Cyrillics.
 
 With 160 likes against 2 dislikes, this has to be one of the most popular videos I ever did.

The Goldlist Method and Kanji


Stroke order for the character 言 (word) shown ...

One technique for learning stroke order, this one's called Stendhal Method.

The following is my contribution from yesterday on how-to-learn-any-language.com .

Victor Berrjod wrote in the thread about the Goldlist method over on that excellent forum:

“I’m on my third day of using this method for Japanese, and while I know the meaning of most kanji already, knowing what readings to use is a problem. I have written 3 pages of 25 words each, with the furigana listed right next to the kanji. I realized that I’m sort of writing down 50 words this way. Would it be a better idea to have them separate, and maybe merge them when distilling if necessary?”

Excellent question. I don’t know whether I really answered, but I said how I use the Goldlist when it comes to Japanese and in particular Kanji.

The use of Goldlist for Japanese is not as straightforward as it is for many languages. I’ll tell you how I go about it, and you’ll see if there’s anything in there that can work for you. Read the rest of this entry

%d bloggers like this: