Language learning: how much is too much?

‘A single 30 minute lesson’ would probably be the answer to that questions from many of my collegiate peers past, but are we really, scientifically, limited by anything other than apathy?

It is true that there is a critical period for learning one’s native language as a child: feral children raised in solitude without any linguistic stimuli (or ‘negative feedback’ as it’s technically called) prove this when they are returned to society in their teens, yet remain unable to string together even a simple sentence. But what about the acquisition of a second, third, fourth or even fifth language?

Well, it has been documented that an aptitude for language learning does exist, and will aid those in learning. As do motives for learning, the learning environment, the learner’s character and their attitude towards learning [you must excuse the lack of sources for these claims and take this as fact from someone who did linguistics at University but sold his books in a heartbeat upon graduating, though a brief scurry through Google will invariably add weight to my claims]. It is fair to say, then, that someone who claims to find language learning hard, in fact speaks the truth…

But what of those who find the challenge of learning a new language more interesting than drinking, smoking, happy slapping or anything else the kids of today enjoy? Let us start with some definitions:
A polyglot is a speaker of two or more languages, and a hyperglot a speaker of six or more. The next definition is very interesting: A semiglot (copyright Web-Translations 2008), or semilingualism to use the standard term, is where acquisition of a first language is interrupted, and insufficient or unstructured language input follows from the second language – immigrant children, for example – in which case the speaker can end up with two languages, both mastered below the monolingual standard.

It seems there is no limit to the number of languages one can learn, aside maybe from the limitations of one’s memory. Professor Carlos Amaral Freire, a 74 year old Brazilian, holds the world record for learning languages. How many do you think? No, go on, guess…37? 53? Close, it’s actually 115.
The Professor must be very proud at having shattered the previous record, held by an Italian cardinal, Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who could translate from a very meagre, and frankly embarrassing, 114 languages.

An employee of Web-Translations and speaker of many languages, Mariana, espouses her opinion on language learning…

“A friend of mine started learning Tibetan and she finds Asian language learning a very thrilling endeavour because of how very different they are from what we Europeans know in terms of sounds, written language, pronunciation and philosophy.

“It is very difficult to find anything to compare these languages to and learn on the basis of ‘language associations’.

“Based on my experience, I am already convinced that it is quite easy for Europeans to acquire many ‘Latin alphabet’ languages. So maybe more of a challenge for Europeans is to try learning Asian languages, or to try Cyrillic languages.

“I know that English native speakers have difficulties with languages like Spanish and Bulgarian, where adjectives may have different endings according to the gender of the nouns combined with them. For example, in the word groups [A red rose] and [A red dress ] in Spanish and Bulgarian there is a different ending of the word [red] according to the gender of the noun coming along.

“Of course, living in-country while learning a new language is the best possible experience; I remember how fast I was able to learn Portuguese while I was in Brazil. I spent only 3 months learning before my trip and after the second month in-country I was able to communicate with customers on the phone and enjoying the fact that I was clearly understood.”

As for me, well, I speak 6 languages…English, French, small talk, MSN speak, some basic programming languages (do they count? They should as they have strict syntax like any other language) and, of course, the language of Luurve.

What about you?