Tuesday, December 25, 2007

How many languages can we learn? The Rule of Seven

How many languages can a normal person (with a life) hope to learn well?

Cardinal Mezzofanti whom Byron called “a monster of languages, the Briareus of parts of speech, a walking polyglot, and more” and Emil Krebs who learned Armenian in 9 weeks are rare exceptions. Krebs reportedly spoke 60 languages. He was a professional interpreter and linguist. Krebs is significant because he donated his body to science and his brain was analyzed. The scientists discovered that the brain’s Broca’s region, which is associated with language, was organized differently than that of other people. Did he work on languages for so long that he altered his brain or was he genetically predisposed? An interesting question but of little practical use for most people.

What are the limits for a normal person, taking into account things like an 8-hour work day that is not necessarily related to foreign languages or generally speaking a lifestyle that is far from the tranquil surroundings of a monastery? We want to target a number that will be manageable as we might conquer 10, but eventually only defend 5. So, how many? Scientific studies concentrate on how we learn languages – not on how many we can possibly learn.

There’s no research that I’m aware of except for a book by a certain Dr. Dmitri L. Spivak: Kak stat' poliglotom - How One Becomes a Polyglot (1989). The book is recommended by Erik V. Gunnemark, the co-author of The Art and Science of Learning Languages. Unfortunately there are only a three or four translations of this book into other languages and none of them are in English. The book features among other things several interviews with polyglots from the former USSR. Most of the interviewees agreed that they were not able to speak and read more than about seven foreign languages. He called this “The Law of Seven.” The "law" or more likely "rule" states that most people can learn between five and nine languages.

These guys likely had above-average aptitude and more importantly a backbone and a willingness to sacrifice a lot of time on language learning. They attempted to learn more but were able to learn “completely” about seven languages. A lot of the languages some of them learned or attempted to learn were related but the number of languages they were able to learn remained the same.

In his book Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One Edward Trimnell indirectly mentions Spivak's Law calling it the "Rule of Seven" and says that "there is a commonly accepted notion amongst polyglots that seven languages is the maximum that a person can learn to a high level of fluency." He also mentions that the Rule of Seven proscribes that seven foreign languages is the "practical upper limit" for most people. Spivak's uppermost limit is nine languages. Trimnell then suggests that the upper number is actually far less for those who are not professionally occupied with languages - something like three languages. He reached this conclusion based on online profiles of the members of American Translators Association and their working languages. While he found that it was common to find translators with three working foreign languages, he was unable to find translators who worked with more than five. While I do take objection to Mr Trimnell's idea about what constitutes foreign language proficiency (translating and interpreting requires a very special set of skills) he does offer some very useful advice. Among other things he urges the part-time linguists to make up a list of languages that interest them and narrow it down to three.

Kato Lomb, from the foreword to the first edition of her book "How I Learn Languages":

“...it is not possible [to know 16 languages]—at least not at the same level of ability.”

“I only have one mother tongue: Hungarian. Russian, English, French, and German live inside me simultaneously with Hungarian. I can switch between any of these languages with great ease, from one word to the next.

“Translating texts in Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and Polish generally requires me to spend about half a day brushing up on my language skills and perusing the material to be translated.

“The other six languages [Bulgarian, Danish, Latin, Romanian, Czech, Ukrainian] I know only through translating literature and technical material.”

Emil Krebs in 1913:

Englisch, Französisch, Italienisch, Spanisch, Russisch, Ungarisch, Chinesisch beherrsche ich außerdem derartig, dass ich aus dem Deutschen in diese Sprachen korrekt Übersetzungen anzufertigen im Stande bin. Auch im Finnischen habe ich soviel Übung, dass ich mir zutrauen kann, aus dem Deutschen ins Finnische Übersetzungen anzufertigen, die den Sinn des Deutschen verständlich wiedergeben.

In short Krebs was extremely proficient in nine languages - including his native German and Finnish. He thought it necessary to single out Finnish and mention that he believed he could "also" translate from German into this language. Translating into a foreign language requires a very high set of skills.

Kato had extreme proficiency in 5 languages. She was also very proficient in the other five that she mentions needed half a day of brushing up.

13 comments:

reineke said...

An interesting observation about Krebs. In 1914 he wrote that he was able to translate from around 30 languages into German. He also wrote that he was able to translate from German into seven foreign languages.

frenkeld said...

Seven is just about the worst number one can think of, being too small and too big at the same time.

Basically, if your native language is not English, you need (1) English, (2) French, (3) German, (4) Spanish, (5) Italian, (6) Japanese. Add (7) your native language, and you have all seven spoken four.

So, if you decide that your happiness depends on knowing Hungarian like the back of your hand, you will have the pleasure of figuring out which major language to drop. And what about up and coming Mandarin? How long before it becomes mandatory number (8)? Will some of the current G7 go down in importance by then, or are we going to be stuck in a G8 world with a G7 brain?

Now, that was about 7 being too small a number. It is also, of course, ridiculously large. I mean, 7 is the limit that someone who uses languages for a living on a daily basis may be able to reach, but most of us common Joes can't learn and/or maintain 7 languages in top shape.

Maybe one should set the number at native + 3 and even then choose one at a time only. Otherwise, it's a recipe for a never-ending frustration.

reineke said...

Are you admitting defeat even before the battle?

If one’s happiness depends on learning Hungarian one needs to examine his or her priorities (and mental health) and then go for it. Remember, you don’t have to count the mother tongue and Italian was never a must. So there’s space for Mandarin or another language. One reason for going through all these figures was to shake off all idle talk about the advantages of different major foreign languages and help match a language with different sets of interests.

The final list if you decide to have one should be an individual decision based on strong motivation. The language facts and rankings according to this or that metric should help with the decision making process and not hinder it. Having a definite list without any vagaries and experimenting could help the learner focus even more on single languages. How and when he works through all of them is up to the study plan. Having a list of must-haves might be the right sort of motivation for that extra effort to “finish up” – and not abandon the task. Or it might feel like a burden! It's a personal decision. If there’s a finite feeling to the task even a “hard” language looks doable and especially so if you knock off all thought about numerous but unnecessary potential candidates.

If one’s reading or writing this blog, I would assume that the person can read or speak English (and write it, however badly this may be). Allowing for the possibility that this person’s native language is not English, the language is still in the bag so no need to dwell on it any further.

English, French and Spanish form an interesting geographic, historic and linguistic continuum; all three are international languages and complement each other beautifully. It's where beginners and casual learners should start. The three languages will make you feel at home on 6 out of 7 continents. The Eurasian mass is too large and complicated to be ruled by any one language.

frenkeld said...

>Are you admitting defeat even before the battle?<

You bet, and so should you. :)

My understanding was that the law of seven is about near-native fluency, and that this number includes one's native language. I claim that someone whose job is not all about languages will never have the time to learn and then maintain so many languages.

The only way out is to opt for lower level of command for some of them, perhaps strong passive skills in all, but strong active skills only in some.

I do like having a list of significant languages that are potential candidates - it does focus one's mind remarkably, as you point out, and removes a sense of fear of the unlimited. However, a lot of them do seem "mandatory". One may drop Italian, but Spanish is booming and dropping it is becoming less and less of an option. English, Spanish, and French is not a bad idea, but German can't be dropped anyway, so one needs at least English, French, German, and Spanish. This would be my list for a "casual" learner, who would have to be somewhat more dedicated than the one you are committing to English, French, and Spanish only.

Hungarian is no cause for a visit to a psychiatrist. There are people who get hooked on languages for linguistic and not just cultural weight reasons - these are the types who study Finnish. I remember reading Mezzofanti thought the world of Hungarian.

reineke said...

Pshaw, the Law of Seven was about being able to speak and read "about" 7 foreign languages. So it's really 7 +/- 1 or 2 which, as you probably remember, is the name of a separate "rule" governing our ability to process simultaneous streams of information. The polyglots attempted to learn more, and achieved a certain proficiency in other languages. It's not difficult to imagine that if the effort had been applied to a smaller number of target languages, the average number could have easily been higher.

So even at the very low end your estimate is 2 languages short. The polyglots were not exactly language professionals and the book itself is about how anyone can become a polyglot. The loose criteria were about being able to speak the language fluently and "read new and differing texts without any difficulty". This is a very nice accomplishment, but hardly native-like proficiency or professional translator material.

I love the sound of Hungarian, but I'm too much of an opportunistic media junkie to consider it seriously. The "list" should be made according to some very objective and measurable metrics but also include one's heart's desires.

frenkeld said...

I may have overdone it with the "near-native" fluency requirement, but the impression I was left with after reading Spivak is that the law of 7 still stipulates a very significant proficiency level for the languages in question. I'll see if I can find the time to locate the corresponding section of the book to see what exactly he says there. I don't have a searchable version of the book, so it may take a few days.

Have you seen that "law" stated elsewhere? If yes, what was the formulation?

reineke said...

I have found two references. One is Trimnell's book although he does not seem to mention Spivak's name (I have updated the original post with this particular information) and the other one is an online article about Donald Kenrick as polyglot where Spivak's book is mentioned and recommended by Erik V. Gunnemark. The number is again seven and the level to be achieved described as an ability to speak a language fluently and "read new and differing texts without any difficulty"

frenkeld said...

>>He then suggests that the upper number is actually far less for those who are not professionally occupied with languages - something like three languages. ... Among other things he urges the part-time linguists to make up a list of languages that interest them and narrow it down to three.<<

The above quote from your revised blog entry is exactly what I was saying earlier - I consider high level of proficiency in 6 or 7 foreign languages unrealistic for an amateur.

It really makes sense to have a list of 3 and - one should never say never anyway - a list of 7.

So, assuming English is "free", what are the three? A simple choice would be French, German, and Spanish, but if one wants Japanese or Mandarin, one has to drop one of the European ones. An interesting trilemma...

reineke said...

Spivak, page 110. The magic number 7 plus or minus one or two. Between 5 and 9, on average 7 LANGUAGES. He could mean both but later (page 117) when an academic is mentioning his language skills, he is counting his two native languages. He also doesn't want to be called a "polyglot". I find there's a difference between near-native, native-like, and native. Spivak is not splitting hairs and from the old academic's description, his 8 languages are spread across this "Reineke proficiency scale" (TM). The old man was able to communicate and read in 20-30 laguages. I believe "near-native" is the right goal and attitude - having in mind it's not a small accomplishment especially in seven languages. Also let's drop all talk about translators and interpreters. That's a different ball game.

When Spivak is mentioning languages beyond those seven, he's writing about speaking with accent and being able to read newspapers. There's a lot more but my Russian "skills" are weak.

frenkeld said...

It makes sense that the law of seven applies even to slightly less than perfect knowledge. I think for most part-time language learners even the softer requirements are still quite onerous, so one may have to let some skills in some of the 7 languages remain below Spivak's threshold, whatever it is.

There is also the question of what happens when a language you thought the world of has lost its luster and you stop maintaining it. Does that free up the "slot" for a near-native knowledge of another language?

reineke said...

One reason I created this site was to eliminate all the noise, hype and doubts about “the languages of the future”, one’s reasonable limits and the new miracle teaching methods. I also wanted to do away once and for all with all feeling of inadequacy for speaking or not speaking this or that language. I wanted to enable a prospective student (including yours truly) to reach an informed decision and find a companion for life. A match-making service if you will where the student finds the right language and never has to worry about divorce.

Once a certain level is reached, "maintenance" is really a pleasant endeavor. It shouldn’t even be called maintenance. You should seek out content in the language and enjoy it, do business, whatever. The language will maintain itself and grow. If after this level is reached you’re still “maintaining” the language, that’s a serious candidate for elimination or a downgrade. I do believe a “slot” is freed up, not perhaps so much in one’s brain as in one’s schedule. If you look at that FSI table again and the number of hours per language you should remember that going from level 3 to level 4 will take more time than going from 1-3. The jump from 4 to near-native will take even more time. Most time will however be spent on "maintenance". In addition to time requirements ad perhaps one's naural limitations another hidden reason for the "Law of Seven" lies in the simple fact that some 6-7 major languages will answer pretty much all practical communication purposes and cater to the most exotic of tastes. Most people will be satisfied with fewer languages, heck 4-5 will blow your socks off if you're choosing based purely on content.

frenkeld said...

English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish seem like the only plausible candidates to choose from, although some might add Korean to it.

So, if your native language isn't among these already, out of 9 or 10, you must first choose 3 and then 7. This should be doable and not too frustrating.

frenkeld said...

Speaking of maintenance, even one's native language can deteriorate from lack of use, so one does need to maintain language, however unromantic the term.

And yes, I can see learning a language among the "big 10" and then gradually losing interest in it. This would likely happen before "near-native fluency" is attained, but it may take something like "high intermediate" before a degree of disenchantment sets in - until then, one is still too busy learning, which carries an air of novelty with it.