How many language families can you "master"?

General discussion about learning languages
Chung
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Re: How many language families can you "master"?

Postby Chung » Tue Jul 10, 2018 8:57 pm

drp9341 wrote:Since I started studying Polish, I realized that language families are super "important" (I can't think of the right word.)

¡THERE'S A LOT OF "RANTING" FEEL FREE TO SKIP TO THE BOLDED PART, AT THE BOTTOM, IF YOU WANT THE BRIEF SUMMARY OF MY QUESTION!

When I speak Polish and English exclusively, my Spanish and Italian get filled with "Slavicisms" / Anglicisms. Since I've come back to American, (only visiting for 6 weeks!) I've been speaking Italian / Spanish pretty much daily with a few exceptions. I try to speak to my girlfriend in Polish, but it's hard.

I remember after coming back from a 3 month stay in Buenos Aires, one of my best friends came over from Italy and stayed with me for 10 days. We speak 100% in Italian, and write 70% in English, (certain jokes don't work in Italian and vice-versa.) He was stunned with my Italian. He doesn't like languages, and he would constantly mention things about my Italian, which is very unlike him, as we very rarely talk anything language related, (with the exception of him asking me what this and that means in some rap songs; he loves American rap music, and me telling waiters he speaks Spanish - he doesn't - just to watch him struggle lol.) While in Argentina, I spoke a lot of Portuguese, but I didn't speak Italian more than maybe 3 nights when I went out with some Romans, and I was quite drunk those nights, and thus doubt that those nights really helped me maintain, let alone improve, my Italian.

When I went to Italy in April of this year, (2018,) my Italian was hilariously rusty. Maybe I wrote about it in my log here on the site, but I remember that we all had some great laughs at some of the weird things I said.
In Warsaw, 80% of the Uber drivers are Ukrainian, and often I must speak to them in a weird mix of Polish / Russian, (my Russian is horrendous,) but I had no problems, and even during an hour long Uber ride with a Ukrainian who knew almost no Polish, and was from eastern Ukraine, (he said that his Ukrainian wasn't that good,) we managed to chat, with the help of keeping google translate open, for the whole hour, both of us had a good time, and he even took my number so that me we could go out drinking (lol).
After 4 weeks in the US of A, even my Polish is rusty. When I get emails in Polish, I skip over them, and sometimes even google translate them because I just don't feel like wasting 10 minutes.
It's not like I ever abandoned Polish either, I am simply no longer immersed. I don't understand how someone could speak fluently in languages from more than 5 or 6 families.

The problems I see, (when speaking languages from different families) are:
1. Word order / logic
2. Intuiting words based on their roots / morphological patterns.
3. Forgetting where to hold your tongue, and pronouncing things with a pronounced foreign accent.
4. Forgetting words.



I know I am not the "smartest" guy on the block - I'm no dope - but I am by no means a genius or anything close. For those of you who manage to maintain ~C1+ levels of fluency in 4-5+ languages from different families, how do/did you do it? Are you, (honestly,) exceptionally intelligent?

The only new language family I can see myself branching out to would be semitic, (Arabic,) but I don't know if I am even capable of maintaining so many "systems" up and running in my brain. I see people talking about maintaining multiple languages, but if they're maintaining 4 romance languages, and maybe German, that's indeed difficult, but not something I think of as, personally, near-impossible.

Can someone please elaborate on this? How do you do it?


Like Expugnator I'm not one of those who've mastered languages in several families, but based on personal experience and my observations of other polyglots, I gather that many of us on the forum could attain and maintain at least C1 in one language each from 3 or 4 families (e.g. Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, isolate) given enough work and regular exposure. If I were to refocus on just Finnish, Turkish and Korean, I might wind up with 4 language families: English and French for Indo-European, Finnish for Uralic, Turkish for Turkic, Korean for Korean.

Going a little further, one could maintain C1 in several languages drawn from at least 3 families but these cases seem to reflect both natural aptitude/interest as well as environment (working or personal). I'm thinking especially of Vladimír Skultety who used to post on HTLAL. By his telling he speaks 8 of them at C1 at least. I know that he's heavy on Indo-European (English, Czech, Slovak, Russian etc.), but he's near-native in Hungarian (Uralic), and he's good enough to be an interpreter of Mandarin (Sino-Tibetan). Of course there are outliers (or possible sources of inspiration) in Ioannis Ikonomou who's a translator for the European Commission and seems to have covered at least Indo-European (e.g. English, Greek, German, Russian), Afro-Asiatic (via Arabic, Hebrew, and Swahili), Sino-Tibetan (via Mandarin), Turkic (or Altaic?) (via Turkish) and Basque and a former Indian PM, P. V. Narasimha Rao. The latter could speak 15 languages - 9 from India (drawn from Indo-European and Dravidian) and 6 from outside (more Indo-European examples such as English and German, but also an Afroasiatic one in Arabic).

Apart from factors that depend on the learner (basically interest, need, and motivation), the number of families covered by one's target languages depends on typlogy or areal similarities.

For example, nominative-accusative alignment in morphosyntatics is the most widespread worldwide. If you're familiar with a language whereby the performer of the action often remains the same regardless of the verb's transitivity (roughly: does the verb describe an action with a direct object or not), then you can draw examples from Indo-European, Japanese, Korean, Uralic, Turkic, Dravidian, Quechuan, Afroasiatic, among others. That's a lot of families already. Ergative-absolutive stands opposite to nominative-accusative with the performer of the action often changing forms depending on the verb's transitivity. This alignment doesn't occur as often, but examples are in Mayan, Indo-European (e.g. Kurdish), Eskimo-Aleut, and Vasconic (i.e. Basque). Then there are languages from several families that show features of both alignments (more or less split ergativity) or different alignments altogether such as tripartite, active-stative, and Austronesian.

You could also consider morphological typology (basically analysis and synthesis at opposite ends). Examples of analytic languages can be found in Indo-European (e.g. Afrikaans, English), Sino-Tibetan (e.g. Mandarin), Austroasiatic (e.g. Vietnamese), whereas examples of synthetic languages can be found in Indo-European (e.g. Russian, Albanian), Uralic (e.g. Finnish), Turkic (e.g. Turkish), Kartvelian (e.g. Georgian), Afroasiatic (e.g. Arabic), Uto-Aztecan (e.g. Nahuatl), Algic (e.g. Ojibwe), and Austroasiatic (e.g. Munda languages).

Basically the more divergent your languages are, the more work you need to learn how to express yourself grammatically and idiomatically in each language over 90% of the time on the first try or spontaneously. I don't think that you need to be exceptionally intelligent to maintain a few languages from several families at C1 or greater, but I do think that you need to be sufficiently motivated and interested in the languages involved to see patterns, and detect similarities that are not explained by genetic classifications. For example, anyone learning Turkish could benefit at least a little from a background in a Uralic language such as Finnish or Hungarian to get comfortable with the idea of agglutination (a sub-category of synthesis). Knowing Arabic (an Afroasiatic language) or Farsi (an Indo-European one) could accelerate somewhat acquisition and retention of Turkish vocabulary given how many loanwords from Classical Arabic and Middle Persian are still used in Turkish. Knowing Japanese or Korean might also help a learner of Turkish somewhat seeing not only how agglutinative those two East Asian languages are but also how frequently they rely on verb-final structures like Turkish.

In my case, I would be satisfied linguistically if I could be fluent (say B2 rather than C1) in Finnish, German, Hungarian, Polish and Slovak, to go with my English and French. I'm pretty much shackled to a subset of Uralic and Indo-European but I don't mind. Maybe I could get adventurous and raise the count to 5 familiies by working my way up with Turkish, Korean, and Indonesian too but that's just daydreaming.
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Re: How many language families can you "master"?

Postby zenmonkey » Tue Jul 10, 2018 10:23 pm

I don't know but I like to achieve a relatively strong level in my languages.

So I'll tell you in 10 years if I've gotten anywhere with the Semitic, Mayan (Cholan–Tzeltalan), Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo (Bantu) families I'm currently interested in, on top of my Indo-European base.

I can tell you I've failed to master quite a few languages!
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Axon
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Re: How many language families can you "master"?

Postby Axon » Wed Jul 11, 2018 3:18 am

I strongly agree with Chung that being familiar with a particular feature in one language can make it easier to learn another language that may belong to a completely different family. I have found particular syntactic patterns in Mandarin, for example, that fit perfectly into a German frame of reference, and others in Indonesian that could have been lifted straight out of Mandarin.

At the moment, the three non-native languages I'm most comfortable in all come from different families. Because I've studied them for a while (and because Indonesian has many features that make it easy for me to learn) it doesn't feel like I'm switching "modes of communication" - I'm just switching languages.

I'm very interested in hearing more from people who have reached quite high levels of proficiency in very disparate languages. I know a Hungarian guy who has advanced fluency in English and who has spent several years studying Turkish, Arabic, and Hindi while also reaching a conversational level in Korean, Persian, and most recently Indonesian. All I know about his maintenance is that he's very okay with losing fluency in a language. If Turkish withers away during his time in East Asia, so be it.
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Re: How many language families can you "master"?

Postby kulaputra » Wed Jul 11, 2018 5:30 am

Chung wrote:Ioannis Ikonomou who's a translator for the European Commission and seems to have covered at least Indo-European (e.g. English, Greek, German, Russian), Afro-Asiatic (via Arabic, Hebrew, and Swahili), Sino-Tibetan (via Mandarin), Turkic (or Altaic?) (via Turkish) and Basque


Minor correction, Swahili is Bantu, not Afro-Asiatic, so that gives him another family.

Regarding the rest of your post, it reminds me of something Alexander Arguelles said on his website:

Alexander Arguelles wrote:Although it appears that I can read a great many languages, the majority of them are closely related historical dialects of one another and belong to only two families, which in essence constitute for me only two languages, i.e., Teutonic and Romance.
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drp9341
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Re: How many language families can you "master"?

Postby drp9341 » Wed Jul 11, 2018 8:24 pm

kulaputra wrote:
Chung wrote:Ioannis Ikonomou who's a translator for the European Commission and seems to have covered at least Indo-European (e.g. English, Greek, German, Russian), Afro-Asiatic (via Arabic, Hebrew, and Swahili), Sino-Tibetan (via Mandarin), Turkic (or Altaic?) (via Turkish) and Basque


Minor correction, Swahili is Bantu, not Afro-Asiatic, so that gives him another family.

Regarding the rest of your post, it reminds me of something Alexander Arguelles said on his website:

Alexander Arguelles wrote:Although it appears that I can read a great many languages, the majority of them are closely related historical dialects of one another and belong to only two families, which in essence constitute for me only two languages, i.e., Teutonic and Romance.


Thank you everyone for the discussion. I remember reading a few years back that same sentence that Professor Arguelles wrote, and it really struck me. I understand exactly what he means, when you have the "logic" of a certain family ingrained deep into your brain, (I'm not sure "logic" is the correct word, but I think you all will understand what I mean,) all you need to do is fill in the vocabulary.

A great example would be how today I sent a ~3 minute voice message via Whatsapp in French talking about body language, and I only had tiny problems expressing myself "fluently - (in the literal sense of not needing to pause)." except for forgetting words, however since I am familiar with the structure of French, I can work around it with minimal mental energy.

I definitely have way more active vocabulary in Polish than in French, (even counting declensions and verb conjugations as 1 word,) yet I get flustered if I forget words, and I often times need to pay more attention to how I am expressing something instead of the words I must use. I read in Polish a lot, and if a page, chapter, or article is good, (useful vocab and sentences etc.) I bookmark it and make sure to come back to it. Often, upon reading it a second time, I realized I completely misunderstood certain things that I was sure I understood correctly. This happened while talking on the phone to a Polish friend yesterday, thankfully my girlfriend was sitting next to me and heard the conversation, and laughed at me after for both of us totally misunderstanding each other at one point.

I don't really love literature, I prefer watching TV in a foreign language, and reading the news. However, I try to read one book in Spanish and Italian every year so that I am not totally ignorant of "literary level" vocabulary. I do love speaking idiomatically. Although my Spanish is probably more refined and well rounded than my Italian, from hearing my family using idioms for years, I know lots of idioms in Italian, and can use them very well. If I could get to a level like that in multiple languages, from multiple families, that would be amazing, but I feel it requires a lifetime of effort, and lots and lots of input in lots and lots of different situations.

For people like Arguelles, Polyliteracy is the goal. I would rather be able to socialize with ease in any situation in 5 languages, than be able to read, or even "academically proficient" - but lacking the pragmatic skills you gain through immersion - in 12. While all of us here are learning languages, we all have vastly different goals, and widely varying characters and personalities.
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