We destroy the beauty of the countryside because the un-appropriated splendors of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend. — John Maynard Keynes
How Many Languages Is It Possible to Learn? And this is one of many similar responses I got from Google, this one from The Linguist Blogger.
It appears that the only limit is the time it takes to learn each one. There's no limit to the number we can attain, and there are people who can speak 200 or more — the problem will be to retain them. The human brain has far greater capacity than any of us can ever exploit; it simply forms new neural pathways for every new routine we learn, whether a piece of music, computer code, dozens of PINs, or city map. Or a language. Wow. I'm impressed by my own brain (and by yours, too, and every human's). The amount of lore that a London taxi driver or a Mumbai dabbawalla can keep track of seems astounding — but they are just ordinary people like us, and if we went about it the way they do, we could learn all that too.
But how many languages can one usefully learn? If comparative linguistics is your thing, then maybe learning 200 will be important. For most of us, the answer is only as many as we need, and only as much as we need for our uses— whether as souvenir hawkers in a tourist center, nomads, foreign correspondents, diplomats, international bankers, or casual travelers, et alii. And, use it or lose it; if we cease using a language, we cease reinforcing or creating new neural pathways that let us find the word or phrase we need when we need it. But my experience confirms something in that blog post cited above: once learned, a disused language may not be totally lost.
For now, I'm hoping to be able to ask and understand directions, order food, etc., in Moscow and St. Petersburgh. And maybe even to have a conversation. Learning anything new is a thrill, and languages come more easily to me than, say, computer code or streetmaps or almost anything else. Language is a way into another person's way of thinking, and that's something we all need.
Too many ambitions
|Banner of Spain adopted in 1981|
|Banner of the II Republic, 1931-39|
BUT that will be a bigger job than I can take on right now. I've been trying to do too many things at once: write a novel about the Paris Commune, participate (even if marginally) in political movements in Spain, comprehend 21st century capitalism (Piketty), and now a trip to Russia. All I can say is, keep an eye on events here, and I'll try to give you a coherent account when I get back.
Right now I'm working as fast as I can to learn Russian well enough to get around in Moscow and St. Petersburgh. This is a new task I've assigned myself, but it's something I've wanted to do for many years, since I first took a Russian language course in college but was too undisciplined (it was my freshman year) to really learn it.
It may not look like it, but (for me) all these projects are parts of one bigger one: understanding the past attempts to change the world (Hobsbawm) in order to guide us to do it better.
That's why I am researching the Commune, to be able to tell part of its story in a novel, as it might have been experienced by a young revolutionary worker.
|Flag of the Soviet Union, 1923-1991|
|Russian Federation, since 1993 (white band on top)|
(By the way, if you too are trying to learn Russian, I've had good experience with this on-line course: Russian Accelerator.)
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