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In a galaxy where there are thousands of sentient species and even more languages, a universal translator implant was developed to make communication possible. The software is regularly updated by linguists, neuroscientists, and artificial intelligences working tirelessly to maintain a well oiled system.

If someone lives on a planet with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of species all in one location--say, a major trade hub--how many languages can his or her mind store at one time? Would the listener be able to understand thousands of different languages, or would some need to be forgotten and relearned? The answer would be different for non-human minds, but to keep it narrow, let's limit this to humans.

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    $\begingroup$ This is complicated by the fact that grammars are all largely the same, but not quite - you can't just memorize a vocabulary list and throw the right words into a single template. Even within the same language, there are maybe half a dozen distinct syntaxes for tenses, voices, moods, etc. And of course no one knows what alien languages might be like. $\endgroup$ – evankh Jun 6 '15 at 3:39
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    $\begingroup$ Going in the opposite direction of knave, if languages are co-located, there tends to be mingling. The mere fact that they are so colocated might cause the languages to shift to be more standard. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jun 6 '15 at 3:50
  • $\begingroup$ True. One or a few standardized or blended languages would be easier for everyone, and more likely after mingling has been going on a while. But that doesn't affect how many languages you can stuff into a brain. $\endgroup$ – evankh Jun 6 '15 at 4:10
  • $\begingroup$ This is basically asking "How intelligent can a human be?" $\endgroup$ – Jimmy360 Jun 6 '15 at 4:40
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    $\begingroup$ The smart decision would be to automate this process- a protocol droid could probably be fluent in more than six million forms of communication. $\endgroup$ – glenatron Jun 8 '15 at 8:41
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The good news? Learning one language makes it easier to learn more. Once you know what the perfect past tense is, or imperative mood, or passive voice, or dozens of other obscure grammatical concepts we use everyday but rarely know the names for, you can apply that knowledge in other languages. So let's suppose that the implant gives you all that knowledge, then just plugs in the necessary words from the particular language's vocabulary list. Basically, it doesn't teach you a language, it teaches you language as an abstract concept. Then you download a language pack as needed.

So how big would one of these language packs have to be? After just a few minutes of research, I feel pretty confident saying that question is impossible to answer. But if we limit our language packs to just what you would need in common speech, rather than absolute fluency, we can come up with a reasonable guesstimate.

This useful source says 75% of English is made up of a thousand word bases, and 90% is made up of 7000. So we could have two levels of fluency packs, but let's focus on the smaller one. The best way I can think of to organize these packs is to list all the words in some standard order, so #1 would be be, #2 would be go, and so on. If each word is allotted 8 letters, and the alphabet is limited to 32 letters (5 bits), that's 5 bytes per word. Multiply by 1000 is 5 KB for basic usability. For the larger pack, we should allot more letters, maybe 16, and round up to 8,192 words (computer nerds will know why). 10 bytes per word times 8,192 words makes an even 80 KB. This is not much! It would also need to include plenty of information about pronunciation, conjugations, tenses, word order, and other details that make languages different. I don't have such an easy way of estimating how much space that would take up, but based on the size of the dictionary I'm guessing you could cram it into a megabyte with room to spare. This is still not much!

I've heard the capacity of the human brain cited as anywhere between three and 100 terabytes. Assuming a few gigabytes for the language base, You could easily cram thousands of languages into the brain without pushing out anything important. But of course, however it is your brain remembers English, it isn't like this. Your implants are a much better idea than trying to load the data directly into the brain - they can hold all those thousands of languages on a tiny 1GB builtin memory chip, and whenever you ask it for a particular word in a particular language, it looks in the dictionary, finds the word, applies the conjugation rules, converts it into whatever format brains use, and gives it back to you fully-formed. This completely bypasses the need for your brain to know any words at all. You use your knowledge of language in the abstract (which I'm assuming would be directly loaded, either through implants or school), and think to it, I need to know how to say the first-person singular present progressive form of to go in English, and your implant will look up go and see how to conjugate into the present progressive tense, in the first-person singular, and think back to you, I am going, and tell you how to pronounce it. Or it could do this one sentence at a time so it can handle all the grammar for you.

TL;DR: 56. (Edit: that guy's a little dubious. 68 is better documented, and higher.

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  • $\begingroup$ If you check my profile, you can find an answer that I gave that had to due with the capacity of the human brain. $\endgroup$ – Jimmy360 Jun 6 '15 at 4:48
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    $\begingroup$ By your figure, even more space for languages. Personally I don't think it makes sense to measure brain space in bytes. It seems too analog. $\endgroup$ – evankh Jun 6 '15 at 5:02
  • $\begingroup$ In the end, perhaps the most inhibiting factor (besides lifespan) is motivation. $\endgroup$ – Jimmy360 Jun 6 '15 at 5:04
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with your reasoning on why learning one language makes it easy to learn more. Not only do you not need to know names of grammatical concepts, different languages have different concepts. And at least for me, knowing several languages (imperfectly, I admit) actually makes it harder to write and speak. It's as though all the vocabularies go into a mental bin tagged "foreign language", and if I can't immediately find the word for something in say French, I pull up the Japanese, Spanish, Latin, or whatever. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 6 '15 at 6:26
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf: I've heard both that learning one language makes it easier to learn more (and there are supposed to be studies that bear this out, so it's not just a theoretical benefit) and that it's common to mix foreign languages together as you say, especially if they are never used at the same time of one's life. Neither one necessarily excludes the other. $\endgroup$ – sumelic Jun 6 '15 at 6:36
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The famous polyglot Emil Krebs (1867-1930) could speak 68 languages. Granted, a lot of these were Indo-European, and he could take advantage of similarity among related languages. But he also ended up learning Chinese like a native, as well as Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Georgian, Ainu, Japanese, Javanese, Korean, Tibetan, Burmese, and many more.

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With a Science Fiction implant which does the translation for the brain, as many as you want. It would need to plug in between the ear and sound reception, manipulating all sounds so they are in the listeners language. If you need translation to be instant, as if the person was speaking a language you understand, have the implant not speak to the brain in any language, but directly send the ideas to the brain as fast as it can decipher them. The people with the implant would speak their own language, assuming that the implants of the others will translate it for them.

Assuming it is uses the brain as storage doesn't make sense (if it can do translations, it can also provide it's own storage) and any assumptions about the capacity of a brain in Bytes are highly useless trivia which can't be used to determine how many things a person could learn in theory.

Maybe I've misunderstood the question, the answer seems obvious to me.

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  • $\begingroup$ That was my first thought too when I read the question :) $\endgroup$ – Tim B Jun 6 '15 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ This is what I was trying to get at with my answer. You phrased it a lot clearer. $\endgroup$ – evankh Jun 8 '15 at 19:32

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