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"Rule of Seven"

 Language Learning Forum : General discussion Post Reply
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jtmc18
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 Message 1 of 78
25 January 2007 at 3:47pm | IP Logged 
I recently read the book "Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One" by Edward Trimnell. The book states 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. The author suggests that the number is actually less for those who are not in the linguistics profession, something like three languages. I searched online and found very little information about this and was wondering what everyone thinks of it. I want to be realistic about my own language learning goals.

I should mention that the author did not say that it is impossible to attain a basic, conversational level of fluency in more than seven languages, but any language I study I want to learn to a high level of proficiency. If three are all I can hope to speak well, then I guess my future consists mostly of Spanish, Portuguese, and German, which are my top three priorities.


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Julie
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 Message 2 of 78
25 January 2007 at 4:27pm | IP Logged 
I don't believe it. I mean, you can always study one language more :). The only limit is your motivation, and I guess I'm not motivated enough to achieve high level of fluency in seven languages. But it doesn't mean you're not.
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tujiko
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 Message 3 of 78
25 January 2007 at 4:52pm | IP Logged 
If by "high level of fluency", we're talking about reaching a level effectively indistinguishable from that of an educated native - and I don't see how else we could honestly define the term without being facetious - then here's how I see it:

It's possible to learn any number of languages to this level, given enough time, motivation, and damned efficient learning methods. However, I do not believe it's possible to maintain more than a handful of languages at this level. Meaning, I'm quite sure someone with the above qualifications could learn more than a dozen languages to "high fluency", but unless that person was able to use each language, day in and day out, I believe each language would inevitably lapse into hibernation until the person was left with a handful at HF, and the rest at various degrees of BF. I'm quite sure a person could maintain 7 languages at HF if s/he spoke in each language, and only in that language, for one day out of each week, and had people to interact with who also spoke the given language fluently on each day. But barring such idyllic conditions, it becomes far more difficult to achieve.

The problem isn't one of building each sand castle - the problem is in keeping each from getting slowly (or rapidly) washed away by the relentless tides lapping against the beach. Or to use a juggling analogy, the trick isn't getting the balls in the air - the trick is in keeping them there, and tracking each approach and departure from your hands.
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luke
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 Message 4 of 78
25 January 2007 at 5:51pm | IP Logged 
jtmc18 wrote:
The book states 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. The author suggests that the number is actually less for those who are not in the linguistics profession, something like three languages.

The author did not say that it is impossible to attain a basic, conversational level of fluency in more than seven languages.

Is the author speaking to a U.S. audience? I think our friends in lands were bi/tri/linguality is common may not be as limited as those of us who grew up monlingual. At least they get a language or two for free and perhaps some discounts on a few more.

Did he say anything about ACTFL ratings? I think for the hobbyist polyglot, maintaining several languages in the 3+/4 (or C2 level) would be challenging.

Now I am not an exceptional student, but I think it may take about 5 years of serious study to have Spanish, a relatively easy language where I want it. Then if I went to Esperanto let's say I could take it to a very high level in 1 year. Then French - 5 years to learn the grammar, have a 20,000 word passive vocabulary, and read several important literary works, while maintaining Spanish and Esperanto. Let's imagine it takes 1/2 hour a day to maintain each language at a high level in reading, writing, speaking, listening. That's 11 years and an ongoing commitment of over one hour per day. I'm sure most people here could do better than that. With 4 "easy" languages (counting the native tongue) under one's belt, one could spend the rest of one's life exploring the literary and cinematic traditions as an ongoing hobby.

The author sounds realistic to me. Fortunately this is a community of exceptional individuals, and they won't be suffer the same limitations that I may have.

Edited by luke on 26 January 2007 at 2:26pm

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Iversen
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 Message 5 of 78
26 January 2007 at 3:57am | IP Logged 
The number seven is mentioned in an old thread, and there it is ascribed to a Russian book about polyglots (I have searched the forum without finding the passage).

Basically it make sense that very few people will have both the inclination and the time to first learn and then keep a large number of languages alive, - there will invitably be some trade-off where some languages get more attention than others. But I see no reason why there should be a sacred number such as seven. It must depend to a very high degree on both the inclinations and the practical circumstances of each individual language user (aka polyglot), as implied by the preceding posters. There is a limit of the immediate memory span (measured on random numbers and such things), and it is roughly 7, but a language is not remembered by the immediate memory, but by the longterm memory which is quite another thing.

For me the biggest problem is finding sensible uses for at least half of my languages. Let's put it this way: I'm awake maybe 16-18 hours every day. One hour a day should be more than enough to keep a language alive even at the advanced fluency level. So if the interesting books, TV programs and human beings were spread evenly across my languages, and if I could dispose freely of every single minut during my waking hours, then I'm sure I could keep 16-18 languages alive at even the advanced level. The problem, I can't find enough interesting material in many of the languages, and I have no real need to speak or write in say Catalan or Romanian. Therefore I have to settle for basic level or less in most of them. Let's face it, for almost all of us only a few languages are really necessary, - the rest of them we do for fun.

EDIT: I found the old thread, - the book I referred to is written by Dmitri Spivak in 1989 (mentioned here)

Edited by Iversen on 26 January 2007 at 4:19am

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jtmc18
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 Message 6 of 78
26 January 2007 at 2:23pm | IP Logged 
The author does not numerically quantify a "high level of proficiency" with ACTFL or any other ratings. He suggests that a high level of proficiency in a foreign tongue includes the ability to effectively discuss business, political, and economic matters (not a direct quote). Native languages excepted, I tend to agree with his idea that it is somewhat difficult for the layman to learn and maintain more than three languages at such a level. I have yet to personally meet anyone that can speak more than three foreign languages that well, let alone seven.

I want to be realistic about my own goals. If I could, I would learn every language there is to know. Nevertheless, I am concentrating on three languages, only two of which I am currently studying and one of which I already speak passably. If I find that there is room for more languages later on, then I shall be glad to try and disprove this theory.
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Dogberry
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 Message 7 of 78
26 January 2007 at 5:35pm | IP Logged 
tujiko wrote:
The problem isn't one of building each sand castle - the problem is in keeping each from getting slowly (or rapidly) washed away by the relentless tides lapping against the beach.


This describes my attempts at just one language! My language sandcastle gets pounded by the waves of forgetfulness faster than I can add more sand

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sumabeast
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 Message 8 of 78
26 January 2007 at 5:42pm | IP Logged 
tujiko wrote:
It's possible to learn any number of languages to this level, given enough time, motivation, and damned efficient learning methods. However, I do not believe it's possible to maintain more than a handful of languages at this level. Meaning, I'm quite sure someone with the above qualifications could learn more than a dozen languages to "high fluency", but unless that person was able to use each language, day in and day out, I believe each language would inevitably lapse into hibernation until the person was left with a handful at HF, and the rest at various degrees of BF. I'm quite sure a person could maintain 7 languages at HF if s/he spoke in each language, and only in that language, for one day out of each week, and had people to interact with who also spoke the given language fluently on each day. But barring such idyllic conditions, it becomes far more difficult to achieve.

The problem isn't one of building each sand castle - the problem is in keeping each from getting slowly (or rapidly) washed away by the relentless tides lapping against the beach. Or to use a juggling analogy, the trick isn't getting the balls in the air - the trick is in keeping them there, and tracking each approach and departure from your hands.


WOW !! that's a great way to explain it Tujiko.
I agree absolutely and have debated the issue of limits on number of languages any person could conceivable reach HF or near native fluency.

Sone think there are no limits. But I agree with your reasoning.

In fact even if we all lived to 200 or 300 years old thus giving us more time to devote to learning languages, over time the older languages will fall into disuse and we lose HF.


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