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Superpolyglots: Pent Nurmekund and Emil Krebs
Thread poster: Jacek Krankowski
Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
English to Polish
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Jan 8, 2003

Have you met any of these gentlemen?



\"I know of only two cases where information which may be considered factual and reliable exists about such ‘superpolyglots’ of the past: Pent Nurmekund (Gethin and Gunnemark 1996: 317-9) and Emil Krebs (Matzat 1999).



Dr Emil Krebs (1867-1930) was a professional interpreter and translator for the German Ministry for Foreign affairs. Matzat’s (1999) pamphlet concentrates on the period of the German colonies in Peking and Tsingdao (where they founded the famous Chinese brewery which thirsty scholars still have cause to praise), and shows that Krebs was quite a character. His obituaries in newspapers and journals in 1930 celebrated the fact that he could translate from over 100 languages and spoke around sixty of these. The exact number of languages given depends, of course, on what is counted as a separate language. In this paper we are erring on the cautious side by not counting as separate languages dialects which are generally considered to be ‘the same’ language.



Professor Pent Nurmekund (1905-97) was founder of the Oriental Department in the University of Tartu in Estonia. He could translate from about eighty languages and also spoke many of them.



Among living European polyglots Donald Kenrick is pre-eminent, able to translate from over sixty languages, and speaking around thirty of them, mostly fluently. Others include: Eugen M. Czerniawski in Moscow, who can translate from about forty-five languages and is a fluent speaker of nearly twenty of them, and Arvo Juutilainen from Helsinki in Finland, who can translate from over fifty languages and speaks a dozen of them, more or less fluently. The greatest American polyglot is probably Georges Schmidt who was born in Strasbourg in 1915, but moved to New York. In his heyday he could translate from about sixty languages and speak over twenty of them.



So far only one book on polyglottery has been published which I can recommend, that by Dr Dmitri L. Spivak (1989). He based his work on interviews with polyglots in Russia and other parts of the USSR. The most striking fact he claimed to discover was that most of these polyglots agreed that they did not know more than about seven foreign languages ‘completely’, in the sense of being able to speak them fluently and read new and differing texts without any difficulty. He presented this as ‘The Law of Seven.’ This is a very provisional and approximate ‘law’, of course, but an interesting point of departure for further research – when he and I are able to resume the collaboration we put on hold in 1993 because we had too much other work to do.



Another unexpected finding of Spivak’s (1989) research was that all the polyglots interviewed preferred to learn languages on their own. So, polyglottery may well be called ‘a profession for autodidacts.’\"



http://www.english-learning.co.uk/dk&mt.html



[ This Message was edited byn2003-01-08 14:02]


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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
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What for? Jan 8, 2003

Two police officers were walking their beat in Atlanta, the site of the 1996 Summer Olympics. An international tourist who is lost drives up to them, calls them over, and asks, \"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?\" The two cops just look at each other and shrug. The tourist continues, \"Parlez-vous fran,ais?\" Again, they just look at each other and shrug. Exasperated, the tourist asks, \"Ustedes hablan espa~ol?\" Still no response from the cops. The tourist persists, \"Loro parlano italiano? When the cops give no response for the fourth time, the tourist leaves. Then one cop says to the other, \"You know, maybe we ought to start studying a second language.\" \"What\'s the use? That fellow spoke FOUR languages and still couldn\'t communicate!\"



***



Unlike most Americans, Bob was multi-lingual... but not in French. One day he got lost in a Paris suburb and as going to ask a gendrame for directions, but before he got to the gendrame, another American beat him to it. The gendrame waved his hands around, saying he didn\'t speak English, and the other American left sadly. Then it was Bob\'s turn. So he starts out, \"Ustedes hablan espa~ol?\" Nope. \"Loro parlano italiano?\" Nope. \"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?\" Nope. Finally he tries, \"Do you speak English?\" in a strange accent. The gendrame broke in to a grin and said, \"Ah yes, a little!\" and proceeded to give him the directions back downtown!


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Csaba Ban  Identity Verified
Hungary
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two comments Jan 8, 2003

First, I would like to comment on books about being polyglot.

There is such a book, but published in our secret code, aka Hungarian, that precious few people speak outside of the chosen few who were borne into it. I am talking about a certain Ms Kató Lomb, who must be now around 90, and famously (at least in Hungary) speaks 16 tongues. This does not compare to 60 and 80 and 100 that you quoted, I know. Anyway, the lady wrote several books in her active period. My childhood favourite was \"This is the way I learn languages\" - I still have a dog-eared copy somewhere on my bookshelf. She also interviewed a score of famous Hungarians (including Otto Habsburg) who speak several languages. This book was published around 1986.



The second comment is about the joke about American cops. There is nothing new under the sun, as we, Hungarians used to have this joke at least two decades before teh Atlanta Olympics. The Hungarian version is about a German tourist on the \"puszta\", asking for directions in 4 or 5 different languages from two herdsmen dressed in traditional clothing. The punch line, of course, is the same.

(A note to Polish speakers: \"puszta\" may resemble the Polish word for \"forest\", but in fact it means something like a steppe or grasslands. The word actually is of Slavic origin, cf. words in various Slavic languages for \"empty\", \"void of\", etc.)

[ This Message was edited by:on2003-01-08 15:22]


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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
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Hi Csaba Jan 8, 2003

Needless to say, I also overheard the first of my jokes on the Russian Forum in their version...





Needless to say, also, that even though I have earned KudoZ points in 50+ language combinations, I do not really speak all those languages...





Actually, I\'ve got 3 halves to go...

[ This Message was edited byn2003-01-08]

[ This Message was edited by:on2003-01-08 16:12]


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Parrot  Identity Verified
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7, I like that Jan 8, 2003

Got 1/2 to go!





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Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
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Two approaches to translation Jan 8, 2003

I was on a joint services Russian course at London University in 1955/6. One of the others on it was a Commander Maitland MacGill Crichton. He was fluent in several languages at that time.

Some time about 1970, I attended a meeting of the Translators’ Guild in London at which he was one of the speakers. He explained his approach to translating. By then he was able to translate from and into 23 languages and had a fair knowledge of another nine. He would undertake any kind of translation, not confining himself to fields of which he had specialist knowledge. The other speaker was a total contrast. I forget his name, but he was British, brought up in Germany and was completely bilingual. He worked for over 20 years in the machine tools industry, from the shop floor up to works manager, sales manager and other jobs and obviously knew this field inside out. He then switched to translating, concentrating entirely on machine tools, and with his outstanding knowledge of the subject and numerous contacts, he was able to command very high rates.

So both he and the Commander (or whatever his rank was when he retired) made a very good living from translating, in entirely different ways.



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Oleg Rudavin  Identity Verified
Ukraine
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A pupil of mine... Jan 8, 2003

...amazed me once - when I was teaching an intensive course of English for high school students - with excellent pronunciation, extensive vocabulary and fluent speech during the second week of our classes. During a break I asked her if shed took private classes or something? - No. Maybe there was a teacher some time ago who managed to give her very good foundations at an early age? - Negative. Was her school teacher so good? And here came the shocking answer - she told me she learned German at school, and her English-learning experience was limited to half a dozen classes we had had.

It was the only occasion in my life when I met a person who preceived a strange word at the very first presentation, picked its meaning from the verbal context - oral, as we mostly spoke - and the words immediately found their way into long-term memory. After six weeks of classes she spoke fluently, I estimated her vocabulary at about 2,000 words, and she was doing all English test papers for the second half of her class who learned English plus tests for her elder brother, a college student. Intresting, she was pretty average in German, though.

Summary: there are lots of potential polyglots - waiting for the circumstances when their talent would surface!



Cheers,

Oleg


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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
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Memory = organization of information Jan 9, 2003

Thank you all for your replies. The Commander story made me think of the

following:



\"Scientists who study memory phenomena generally believe that eidetic

memory (more popularly known as \"photographic memory\") does not exist.

Early experiements on eidetic memory were intriguing, but could not be

replicated.



People do show extraordinary memory performance in certain

circumstances. For example, expert chess players can typically play

blindfolded chess against several opponents at the same time, easily

memorizing many chessboard configurations. Others use special tricks

to memorize long lists of randomly selected numbers.



Impressive as these feats are, scientists attribute them to

specialized ways of thinking about the information, not to any kind of

enhanced visual memory. One interesting experiment that makes this

point was performed by a cognitive psychologist named DeGroot.



Expert chess players were shown a chess board with pieces on it for a

brief period, such as 15 seconds, and then asked to reconstruct what

they had seen on a new chess board. That is, they were asked to place

chess pieces in the same positions as they had appeared on the board

they\'d been shown. The expert players were very good at this, much

better than novice players. One hypothesis was that the experts had

developed an enhanced ability to memorize visual information.



In the next experiment, the expert chess players were asked to do the

very same thing; butt this time, they were shown boards whose pieces

were arranged in ways that would never actually occur in a game of

chess. Not only did their ability to remember the positions go down,

but it went down all the way to the level of the novice players. We

can conclude that the original, enhanced performance at remembering

chess positions came from the experts\' ability to mentally organize

the information they had observed, not from any ability to

\"photograph\" the visual scene.\"

http://www.madsci.org/posts/archives/aug97/866819368.Ns.r.html



ALSO: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/000901.html



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Ramon Somoza  Identity Verified
Spain
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Member (2002)
Dutch to Spanish
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Jokes only represent reality Jan 9, 2003

Ok, nice jokes about those policemen - but it has happened to me. I speak five languages fluently, I\'m able to \"murder\" two more (meaning I can express myself in those, but certainly not translate), & in another two I know some basic expressions. I have worked for an aerospace company for 20 years, both as a translator/interpreter & later as an engineer. I have travelled internationally *a lot* because of that -30 trips/year minimum.



Now, I never had any specific problems within Europe (probably because I either spoke the local language or at least could \"muddle through\" with the local slang.

However, I went to Korea a dozen times, participating in the tender of an aircraft. We were a multinational bunch, British, German, Italian and Spanish.

We usually spoke English - but unfortunately English speakers are pretty rare in Korea. We stopped several people to ask for addresses. Now, my Korean doen\'t go further than \"Good day/morning/evening/night\" & \"thank you\". At a certain moment, I started asking one in French -for the simple reason that was the last language in which I had asked another one. No response, so I tried German for no special reason. Nothing, so I tried English & I got the information.

When I got back to the others, my British colleague was steaming - he had asked that SAME guy in English & the other one had said he didn\'t speak it!


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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
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Sometimes people are taken by surprise Jan 9, 2003

\"Do you speak Spanish or Russian?\" would be intimidating for me. I can understand those languages, but have either never or not for the past 25 years actively used them. So my honest answer would be \"No.\" After which I could elaborate, in another language (but which one?), that they can ask me in Spanish or Russian what they need and I will be happy to answer in another language, unless they prompt me by asking multiple choice questions (like (a) a la izquierda, (b) a la derecha, (c) directo) and thus refresh my memory. A pretty complicated procedure when asking for simple directions! Now, if the Spanish tourist approached me via Italian, I am sure that would put me more at ease and activate my grey cells, so my answer would be more likely \"No, but...\"

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Parrot  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 18:00
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Experiences with Eidetic Memory Jan 9, 2003

My cousin, a communications professor at Johns Hopkins, once surprised me when he said he suspected that eidetic memory ran in our family. That had precisely been the complaint my mother used to make about HIS mother: that she always had to give us the blow-by-blow of every little event, instead of summarizing things like everyone else. (Imagine Mum hiding from her own sister everytime the phone rang).



Anyway, a curious experience related to what Oleg was saying: my father was assigned to Germany when I was 10, and the family had to move to Bonn. At that age, I had just about finished my \"language sorting\" (English, Tagalog and Spanish) and I showed up cold turkey in a German classroom. The teachers simply left me alone for 2 weeks, after which I was able to start doing homework with reasonable success. I don\'t know what they ever told my mother, but there weren\'t any complaints about me, and life was simply \"normal as usual\" (no one had the tactlessness to say it was abnormal, hence I suffered no shocks). Two years later, back in an English-speaking world, I discovered I had to learn geography all over (all the place names were in German in my head), and while it was easy to strike up a conversation, there were almost no \"bridges\" between German and the other languages I had learned (I never translated, and German was never spoken at home). I think I had become some kind of \"false native\" with an operational capacity for \"fieldwork\" in the interim, but up to now, I have to make an effort when I translate. So OK, maybe this has to do with how one\'s memory is organized, because it\'s not consistent, I easily forget a lot of other things.


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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
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No such thing as a language memory? Jan 9, 2003

In one of the links they say there is no such thing as a specific language memory, but just one big memory in our brain, so it is a matter of properly organizing it. I dunno. No matter how hard I try, I just cannot remember whether I have met someone before, or what the movie was about, while I have always had a bent for terminology. Is that how I \"organize\" my memory, or is it a different area in my brain which is the way I feel about it?

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Parrot  Identity Verified
Spain
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Another directory in the tree Jan 9, 2003

is how I feel about it, too

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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
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A tree... Jan 9, 2003

Of course!

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aivars  Identity Verified
Argentina
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tree not seven Jan 12, 2003

Jacek you started talking about intimidating polyglots, now let me introduce my limited abilities.

When 10 years ago I worked hard to improve my English (aspiring to become a living EN-ES pocket dictionary), I lost 80% of my fluent German. But what about this - yet not fully bilingual, I cannot remember my three-year mobile\'s number. I remember only 2 telephone numbers (my house connection and my mother\'s).

My girlfriend on the other hand lacks any talent for languages but every time we must call someone I ask her to do it because she always remembers the numbers.

This reminds me of the configuration of computer games characters; if you decide your character to be \"fast-talker\", he or she automatically will be less proficient with weapons, or slower running. I wonder if an outstanding chess player can be also talented in football, or whether those super polyglots have any other skill besides the languages. As for me, I ended up being a translator after failing to be a successful tennis player, musician and psychologist.



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