Sir Richard Francis Burton spoke 24 languages

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Did you know that Sir Richard Francis Burton spoke at least 24 languages?
Sir Richard Francis Burton was the translator of “The Arabian Nights” into English and a polyglot. The languages he spoke are: Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic, Asante, Egba, English, Fan, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindustani (Sindhi and Urdu), Icelandic, Italian, Latin, Marathi, Occitan (Gascon/Béarnese dialect), Persian, Portuguese, Pushtu, Sanskrit, Saraiki, Spanish, and Swahili (McLynn, 1990). According to some sources, he spoke 29 languages (Lovell, 1998). Additionally this gentleman mastered many West African & Indian dialects which, if counted as separate languages, would increase the overall count of the languages he spoke to 40.

There are people who may think that if they learn a second or a third language, this can decrease the quality of their other language/s. There may be some truth in this. Linguists call this phenomenon “linguistic interference” – when one language interferes with another. For instance, an English speaker who learns French may use a capital letter referring to languages when s/he writes in French (because in English language names are capitalized) whereas standard French grammar requires a lower case letter only (e.g. français, ukrainien, etc.). However, these instances of linguistic interference are rare. Moreover, the more languages a person knows, the easier it is to learn yet another one. It is even easier to express one’s thoughts when one speaks more than one language.

Some people may also think that there may be no “space” for another language in their head; however, the example of Sir Richard Francis Burton is a great reminder of how many things we can learn and how many languages we can master without fear that “space” may lack.

In conclusion, I would like to encourage everyone to learn languages without fear of losing anything or limiting intellectual capacities. Quite on the contrary, the more languages we know, the easier it is to learn yet another one. The more languages we speak, the broader and deeper our perspective on things may be.

Lovell, Mary S. (1998). A rage to live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
McLynn, Frank (1990). Of no country: An anthology of the works of Sir Richard Burton. London: Scribners.

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