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How many languages is it possible to know?

I admit that I am not a genius. I have never had an idea that I would end up speaking more than one language but it happened.. in my early 20s I found myself speaking more than 4 languages... few years later a coupe of languages came along and I learned them as well... Why? I don't know.
true to be told I didn't go to university for this, I only went for Communication Science. after learning all those languages, it made me believe;
if I can, then anyone can (but maybe not everyone)

How many languages do you speak?
If you could learn one more foreign langues, what would it be?
What stopped you from learning more than one (if you speak only one)
why is it so important to learn any foreign language when we want a global village, and what language should be spoken in that village?

an interesting article to be read about the capacity and ability of human brain in learning and knowing languages:

http://mentalfloss.com/article/49138/how-many-languages-it-possible-know

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  • Mar 8 2013: Languages are very important to me. I think that this is the area with which I'm planning my future career. My mother tongue is Polish, but English can be treated as my second language as I'm studying it at MA university level. In the past I've learnt many languages such as German, French, Latin and Norwegian and despite the fact that I have only the so-called 'working knowledge' in case of majority of them (for instance, I was forced to learn German at high school), I can see from the time perspective that they have influenced on my perception of the world. During my BA studies one of my lecturers familiarised me with the concept of a 'second language identity'. In those days it was quite revolutionary for me but it influneced on the way in which I'm studying the language. The idea of thinking in the other language than your native seems to be a tough challange, however, it results in something more than just being a fluent speaker. It causes that you're starting to perceive the world from the different perspective than it is in case of your mother tongue. The creation of a second language identity is not easy. I do not claim that I perceive the world in exactly the same way as an Englishman or Scot or whoever. But the gradual submergence in the foreign language, for example, through its literature, culture history etc. helps, in my opinion, in the learning process. Obviously, such a process is time-consuming and I'm aware of the fact that many people learn other languages for purely useful purposes and simply do not have time to submerge in nuances. Personally, I cannot imagine other way of learning a second leanguage than through the second identity process. Thus, I think I will not learn many foreign languages, although I would like to, because of this time-consuming factor.
    • Mar 11 2013: Not until now did I consciously know that this existed: The concept of Second Language Identity. I expierenced this but I was not aware of it!

      Thanks!
      • Mar 11 2013: If You want to learn something more about this concept, as well as other fascinating topics which connect with the processes of learning and teaching the language, I recommend the book 'Principles of Language Learning and Teaching' by H.Brown. It describes all the processes which take place in our brains during the learning processes. It also shows how complicated and advanced our brains are.
  • Mar 15 2013: Hi Edwin,

    I was browsing through the website (that I have just discovered) and when I saw your question, I couldn't help myself to register and answer you.

    I do think there is a limited capability to learn and retain, but it is possible to extend this capability (by doing memory exercises for instance). But anyway I could get off-topic here and I don't think I'd want that as my first comment on this website.

    I have the chance to have parents from different origins: my mother is from the US and my father is from India. Also, I was born in France.
    I have to admit that even if english should be my first language it is not. I spoke only french until I was 10 years old and fed up with the fact that I couldn't communicate properly with my family in India and in the States.

    So I got lucky and got into an international school in my hometown where I started to work on my english and spanish as a second language. I'm now 20 years old, I can speak french and english fluently and I can speak spanish and chinese (that I started as a third language in High school).

    Even though it might sound good I still want to learn more. I have this friend I've known since junior high and he now speaks fluently: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and as a good knowledge of Chinese, Russian, Arabic and maybe some others... At only 20 years old !

    I still hardly believe it sometimes and your story amazed me.

    I just want to conclude on the fact that languages are important to learn because they give us the power to communicate with each other and to know about different cultures.
    • Mar 17 2013: Hi Samuel

      Many thanks for your comment. I am glad you find such a interests in learning languages.
      surely this is one of the ways to get to know others and their culture.

      wish you all well.

      and welcome to TED Community.

      Edwin
  • Mar 9 2013: hi Edwin. Thank you for the motivation.
    I'm new here.
    I want to write and speak English fluently and I think I have a chance here. I find it hard to learn more languages​​, I speak Spanish, Chinese study, I defend myself (as I can) in English, but your words have made me think and I will try.
    thanks
    Sorry my bad English
    • Mar 9 2013: Hi Rocio

      Thanks for your comment and may I say; welcome to TED.
      I am glad that my question has got an effect on you. wish you all the best in your studies.
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    Mar 8 2013: I had the same question myself about a week ago. I remember reading in the Guinness book of records that a translator in the UN spoke approx. 25 languages and had learned something like 45 in his life (a lot he had learned and became in disuse). I was quite astonished to find out that that in recent years, a man was discovered in Brazil who has the ability to speak at the age of 40 something in the range of 60 languages. He hopes to be able to learn around a 100 languages in his life. I feel that being able to communicate in 4 languages is extremely satisfying and continues to passion me, however rather insignificant in comparison. I am quite sure motivation is the key factor as well as a superb memory when it comes to speaking scores of languages. Nevertheless, just because someone doesn't have the best memory, it shouldn't deter us from learning. It's never too late to learn!
    • Mar 8 2013: Hi Gary

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      "It's never late to learn" - Indeed, I agree


      Thank you
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    Mar 27 2013: Although one may learn several languages in their lifetime, 'body language' is probably the one that is most useful as it will allow you to communicate with anyone
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    Mar 8 2013: Fascinating....looks like 100-200??? Yikes! How does one keep track of all that information?
    http://sciencefocus.com/qa/what-record-most-languages-spoken-one-person
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    Mar 8 2013: The language is a tool for communication, relationship and making it part of the culture of people.
    I speak basque, spanish, english and french and for me is important to try to learn even a little the language of the place you are visiting or people who you are meeting so is a way to show interest and respect for other cultures and enrich oneself. Multiculture is something nice and rich and global world should not mean lost identity but an opportunity to improve.
    I would like to learn arabic, chinese or japanese languages totally different to mine... I try with german but... no time enough...
    • Mar 8 2013: hey Jesus,

      Thanks for you comment...

      let me remind you that we all have got 24 hours, no matter where we are and who we are. this is one of the universal laws we can't argue with, but how we use that 24 hours depend on us.

      one thing about word: "try" - there is no such thing as try... either you do it or you don't do it!
      If I were to say: " TRY to stand up! " what would your action be?

      and one more thing...
      Anything you say after "but" is automatically eliminates what you have said before "but"
      specially when it is about something that you want.

      compare these sentences:

      I want a cup of coffee now but I am not going to get it.
      I want a cup of coffee now and I am going to get it.

      when you make a negative statement that has to do with your ability and capacity, you send your mind to sleep:
      when you question to your mind about your ability and capacity, you send your mind to work and find solution.

      I can't learn it! (mind is going to sleep)
      How can I learn it! (mind starts to work till it find a solution)

      -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
      Glad you learned some many languages, in Andalusia I has having hard time to meet locals who could speak at least one more language than Andaluuuu... (the Andalusian accent).
  • Apr 2 2013: I speak English and Spanish fluently and can get by in Dutch. I also am learning French. If I could learn one more language, it would be Japanese because I really want to be able to go to Japans and learn about their culture. Learning multiple languages is important because language is our way of communication. Our world right now is very diverse and integrated and people from all backgrounds are starting to mix. We need to be able to include all these people together and be able to take part in their lives and culture.
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    Apr 1 2013: It's important that we define what it means to 'know' a language. Is it a certain sensibility with a cultures idiomatic thought? Learning a language seems a continual imperative, it is just too easy to become complacent. With thought characterized by expression nobody can think by naming. In many ways this has more to do with definition and our discretion with it.

    I know your question had a more practical orientation than what I am referring to but it's consequential that the semantics of the issue is resolved.
  • Apr 1 2013: Personally I look forward to the day when this question will be irrelevant because everyone has learnt Esperanto.
  • Mar 30 2013: I speak two languages in my daily life, English and Bahasa. And sometimes I had problems to choose the right language you have to speak to ppl around you. Like.. in the office, I used to speak English more often because my job is using English more. But speaking English with Indonesian people mostly (including me) could be weird. I dont feel comfortable using English than Bahasa if talking to Indonesians. I feels the limitation on how to react, how to reply the conversation, causing distraction in my minds to choose which the right words to say, and having different way of thinking.

    If i could learn one more foreign languages, it would be Portugese and French. I used to learn and speak these, but I stopped. I don't have the right partner to teach or speak to me with these languages. But tv, song, and books could do it sometimes. :)
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    Mar 27 2013: it depends on talent and origin of mother tongue.
    For example, in my case my naive language is korean so learning japanese if easy but chinese and english is difficult.
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    Mar 27 2013: I can't say I believe in a number of how many lagnuages people can know, but I do realize the fact that we as humans are capable to learning multiple ones. Someone I consider a close friend had a conversation with me about someone he knew that could speak 10 different languages. That person told my friend that the best way to speak another language isn't to just practice speaking in the language, but instead train your brain to think it that language. Once a person can do that, the langauge will become natural to them.
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    Mar 25 2013: What would you think is the easiest language to learn?
    • Mar 25 2013: to me? None!

      there is no such thing as easy language. but there is such thing as LOVE for language.
      if you love a language you will learn no matter what.

      yes, if you have a teacher, it is also depends on Loving teachers.
      this means, if you like the person who teaches you a foreign language, you will learn everything from that person. I admit that I hated my French teacher, but I loved that language, and I was having hard time to study until I went to France. I like my Italian teacher and I learned it with love. (my girlfriend then was an Italian, this was also a help)

      it is said that opposite sex is the best language teacher. I think it is true.
      natives never made best teachers to teach their own language to foreigners, because they do not have personal experiences and structure for HOW TO LEARN.... they may get a training for HOW TO TEACH.
      but no native can ever say how they learned their own language, if they cant How can they teach someone else how to learn. this means teaching is one thing, Learning is another, but teaching how to learn is completely different thing.

      I loved English, (and my teacher) and I learned it quickly.
      I loved Italian (and my teacher) and learned it easily.
      I liked French (and hated my teacher) I had hard time to learn
      I liked Spanish (and my teacher - who in this case was my Mexican flatmate) I leaned it very fast.

      if you read my other comments here, I was giving some tips how to learn quicker and yet memorizing what is learned.

      10 words a day are 3650 words a year. (an average person may not know more than that) + some grammar and here you go, off to practice, it will take you to perfection.
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    Mar 25 2013: I struggle with one, and really bad French and Japanese.

    It's an amazing thing when you realise you are thinking in another language (swear words don't count)

    I know people who are fluent in 3 or 4. Some people have a knack I guess. Perhaps it helps being exposed to multiple languages as a child.

    Many have common grammar or roots so that might help. Japanese has similar vowel sounds as Maori, that surprised me.

    I guess if you made it your life's work most of us could learn 10-20 enough to have basic conversations and a basic vocabulary and reading - unless our brains had a melt down.
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    Mar 21 2013: You have to think of down-to-earth limits when considering how much of a language you wish to speak. Mastering one language specific nuances may take a lifetime, just like any other form of communication, like music, dance, math or even mimic.

    But, from personal experience, one can learn as many languages as one's will and necessity asks. I am fluent in Spanish, English and Japanese, and Portuguese is my native language. Currently I'm studying Russian, German and French, due to my career demandings. If one can learn to "study" languages, the process become easier. Understanding phrasal forms and verb usage for an example, help your study overall. Knowing the functionality and basic form of a language firsthand, makes the challenge of learning, henceforth a simple task of learning and remembering new signs/names for words, or in some cases, new alphabets.

    Hope it helps!
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    Mar 21 2013: Theoretically, the human brain can hold around 2.5 petabytes of information.

    Apparently it is possible to learn all of the languages. If an ambitious savant decided to dedicate his life to learning languages, there is a distinct possibility that he could pull it off.

    However, this is not possible for an ordinary human. In a normal person, memory gradually grows more corrupted over time. Given a lifetime, a person with average intelligence could probably learn around 50 languages. That is one language a year after age 14 and stopping at age 64. (Keep in mind this is a person dedicated to learning languages.)

    A genius could probably do a few more... but there are varying colors of genius. There are children out there that are already fluent in several languages. Then we have savants which have something that transcends genius.

    Basically people are amazing!
    • Mar 31 2013: All languages are impossible there are several dead languages that have been translated by the technique's of.modern man but there is no way to be 100% sure if it is translated.right since no one speaks or knows it anymore

      Regarding the 50 languages in a lifetime and a genius perhaps more it seems unlikely since the human brain will not learn every single word and grammar style of every 50 languages or more you might know how to speak and write some things but the full grammar of it in 50 languages is just simply not possible...

      Explanation a human will always be distracted by the environment or y the person who he/she is speaking to forgetting certain words and not completing a sentence and by that forgetting the word they needed to say in that certain sentence so its not fully learned like the mother language everybody learned...

      So for as far as I know it is impossible to know around 50 languages without trouble or whatsoever
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    Mar 20 2013: One of my closest friends speaks 6 languages. His mother knows 8 and his grandma knows 11. In this case it seems that there is no limit. as you keep aging. Its awesome that all animals except for humans communicate to others of the same species in one language. dogs bark, crows squawk and owls hoot. Us humans we have thousands of different languages.
    • Apr 1 2013: This is probably due to how widespread the human race is and the complexity of what humans have to say. For example, if I yell loudly and angrily most humans, regardless of their native language, will be able to understand that I am angry. Other animals, as far as my knowledge goes, simply display simple ideas like this when they meow or bark.
      Now if we later find out that dogs are actually reciting the events of the day when they bark to each other then we can all be impressed.
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    Mar 15 2013: I have met people that claim to know 7 or 8. On a recent trip to Iceland I heard some of the tour guides speaking 3 or 4 while I was amongst them. They claimed that many of the citizens spoke multiple languages.

    Personally I find it difficult in my area (Seattle) as English is dominant. Although Spanish is getting poplular so I will probably learn that language next. I have been studying German for a year. (Rosetta stone, YouTube, radio, movies, and some small groups) The challenge I find with this is that I really have to go out of my way to get meaningful interaction and everyday use. My wife and I took a trip to Germany and I learned a lot in the two weeks when it was spoken everywhere.

    Anyone have any other tidbits? I like the idea of labeling the household items. Perhaps I can label them with German and Spanish while I learn both languages.
  • Mar 12 2013: Are you related to John Nazarian from New Jersey, USA ? He was a childhood friend of mine. His parents were missionaries.

    Concerning language, I believe the more musical ability a person has, the easier it is for them to acquire additional languages. There is a strong link between the temporo-parietal lobes, language and music. When I lived in Brasil, I learned Portuguese very quickly & with it Spanish and Italian. I currently speak, read and write 3 languages. English has become the lingua franca in today's global village.I would like to learn Chinese (Mandarin). I especially like Chinese calligraphy.
    • Mar 12 2013: Hi Richard,

      thanks for your comment... it is very interesting combination you have made, Language and Music.
      to be honest I have no musical ability, I play no musical instrument whatsoever ( but I love Piano, Violin, Guitar)
      as far as I could understand there are three (in fact they are five) main sensors humans used to decode information. Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthatic(feelings) ... and we actually learn new thing according our preferred neuronal system. (in most cases we communicate in that way too)
      ex: Painters are Visual people, they see/imagine things and talk about things in pictures and images.
      Musicians are auditory based people, they hear things and used words that has to do with listening and hearing when they communicate.
      doctors are kinaesthatic based people, they are talking about feelings, they express things in that way,
      (please note that they are not set on stone) we all have these neuro systems but one is that we use mostly.

      now it comes to learn languages. for example, I had to see a new word in order to know what it is... (but when I hear a new word, it is difficult to know, (picture in my mind that word) am I a visual person? YES. maybe that was the reason I couldn't hear the notes in order to play an instrument.

      these kind of approach is missing in our education system, because in every classroom, students have different preferred neuro system, and with who teacher's system match, they learn better.
      that is why not ever student is good in every thing, it comes from how they are taught and communicated.

      Portuguese - Spanish - Italian - French - belong to Romano Language group (if you know one, it is easy to learn another of them)
      English - Dutch - German - Denis - belong to Germano Language group (they are like each other : like brothers and sisters)

      thanks for participating to this talk.

      Edwin
    • Mar 12 2013: I was trying to send you mail about your first question... I have to say that I HAVE GOT half of my family in US (and I haven't been there yet) and so far I don't know anyone named John Nazarian from New Jersey., unless he has changed his name and moved to New Jersey.
  • Mar 12 2013: I only speak the one language, but am learning spanish, so hopefully one day it'll be two.

    I was brought up monolingual, and was given no opportunity to learn any language until french was forced onto me at 14 for two years. I had a teacher who took offence to me being quiet and had a goal (that he admitted) to make me shout at him by making me angry. He suceeded and I went from loving french to hating it in record time. Spanish I've self taught because I don't want a teacher to make me hate it. It's slow going but I still love the language. If I could learn another, I might go for mandarin, or maybe arabic or russian (too many interesting languages to choose from).

    I think that it is very important for people to start speaking more languages. We need to become more connected, not stay isolated. I have no idea what the unifying language should be, but I think there should be one.

    I would think it is possible to know a great deal of languages, but the upkeep would be huge. You could only practice so many and without practice they would go downhill. I'd say if you spent all day just practicing languages, maybe 20 or so would be possible. To live a life around it, a lot fewer. But it depends what people around you speak. If your neighbour chats to you in a few languages, your shopkeeper another language, the practice would be easier. So maybe as we aquire more languages and share them, we can help others aquire more languages. That would be an interesting world to live in if it did happen that way.
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    Mar 11 2013: I want to say an infinite number of languages, but somehow I believe that the number is quite finite, if we mean speaking, understanding, reading and writing a foreign language at more than the average asking-for-street-directions-in-a-foreign-country level. Learning the basics is one thing, actually using a language for, let's say, professional purposes is a whole other ballgame. All in all, though, depending on whether one is bilingual or, even better, trilingual, I say depending on where you live (the Netherlands, for example) and how much time you invest in it, learning a fairly extended number of languages is feasible.
  • Mar 11 2013: Thanks a lot!
  • Mar 11 2013: In my opinion, the key for the success of learning a language is we live in the country using that language. I see many people who have chance to live in many countries in their life are fluent languages.
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    Mar 11 2013: If you look at some of the other conversations, math is considered a language by many people.
    • Mar 17 2013: indeed it is, John,

      just like music, paintings, photos, architecture