You cannot help but be impressed when you meet someone capable of speaking one or two languages other than their mother tongue. So, if you ever meet a hyperpolyglot, it’s gonna blow your mind. But is this really possible, and if so, how many languages can you learn in your lifetime? To answer this question, we need to explore what hyperpolyglots are so we can understand how they’re capable of learning so many different languages!
What Exactly is a Hyperpolyglot?
First, let’s see how we label people by the number of languages he or she is able to speak fluently or effortlessly. ILanguages.org gives the definitions below:
- A monolingual speaks only one language. Monolinguals constitute 40 percent of the world’s population.
- A bilingual person speaks two languages with almost an equal level of fluency. About 43 percent of the population in the world is bilingual and speak a second language.
- When you say a person is trilingual, it means that he or she is fluent in three languages. Thirteen percent of the global population is trilingual.
- A person who can speak four or more languages is multilingual. Only three percent of people around the world can speak over four languages.
- Less than one percent of people worldwide are proficient in many languages. If someone is fluent in more than five languages, the person is called a polyglot.
You can see the pattern. If you meet someone who has a high degree of proficiency in over 12 languages, be truly amazed, because you are meeting a rare type of person – a hyperpolyglot.
This term was created by a London University College Professor Emeritus of Linguistics by the name of Richard Hudson.
Hyperpolyglots of the World
Cardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti is one of the world’s most popular hyperpolyglots. He was born in Bologna, Italy on September 19, 1774. He can speak 40 languages, although some people claim that he was able to speak nearly a hundred different languages.
These are some of the most notable hyperpolyglots today:
- Alexander Argüelles, an American linguist who speaks 12 languages.
- Jeong Su-il, a historian from South Korea, who speaks 12 languages.
- Lokesh Chandra, an Indian Buddhism scholar who can speak 16 languages.
- Péter Frankl, Hungarian mathematician, educator, columnist, and street performer who speaks 12 languages.
- Swami Rambhadracharya of India, a Sanskrit scholar and Hindu religious leader who can speak 22 languages.
- Dilip Kumar, an Indian actor who can speak 12 languages.
- Ioannis Ikonomou, a Greek translator for the European Commission. He speaks 32 languages.
- Richard Simcott is fluent in 16 languages. He lives in Chester, United Kingdom. He can learn a new language within a short period.
- Fernando de Castro speaks 16 languages. He is an interpreter, translator, and philologist.
- Israel-born Ghil’ad Zuckermann is a hyperpolyglot, linguist, and revivalist. He currently resides in Australia. He’s a linguistics professor and Chairman of Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide.
Ziad Youssef Fasah of Liberia claims that he can speak 59 languages fluently. He was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records until the 1998 edition. In 1997, during the Chilean ‘Viva el Lunes’ TV program, he was asked questions by special guests in Greek, Hindi, Persian, Chinese, Russian, Finnish and Egyptian Arabic. He only managed to answer the first question. In 2015, he claimed that the show was a ‘trap’ and that he was not informed that he was going to be tested, so he didn’t have time to prepare. But he also claimed that he could code switch among 15 languages without preparation.
How Do People Learn So Many Languages?
It’s difficult to give a definite answer to the question. Several factors and different schools of thought give varied reasons as to why this is the case. Some people another language by reading. Other people could learn through film, radio or television, while some can learn a language through direct exposure and conversation with native speakers.
Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners (2012) is a book by Michael Erard. He is an American journalist and non-fiction writer. In this book, Erard proposes that disciplined study and good genes are keys to a person’s ability to learn a language.
This brings up other questions, such as whether polyglots’ ability is innate or if the ability to learn as many languages as possible gained could be gained over time.
How the Brain Learns a Language
The brain of Emil Krebs, a German diplomat, was examined by scientists in 2004. Krebs studied and spoke 65 languages. Scientists wanted to know if the unique formation of his brain could be related to his skills with languages.
The Broca’s area is the part of the brain that is responsible for language. And, indeed, there were some unique features in the Broca’s area of Krebs’ brain. However, the scientists were not able to know if they were inborn or acquired.
In 2012, researchers at Sweden’s Lund University made a study, pitting a group of students taking other courses against language students. They all went through an intensive course in a foreign language. The brains of all participants were scanned after they completed the course. The researchers found out that the Broca’s area of the language students expanded whereas those belonging to students learning other subjects stayed the same.
How Many Languages Can You Learn in Your Lifetime?
There is no definite answer to this question either, because the reasons why people learn languages differ. They learn it due to necessity, convenience or because they love languages. Moreover, some languages are closely related, so learning one will help in studying the others. An example is the Romance language group. Other languages may be worlds apart, such as English and Chinese.
There is also a matter of fluency in another language. One can claim to have learned many languages. The question then is how many languages a person can speak fluently. Some are conversant in several languages, so they can at best have short conversations. However, the extent of their knowledge may not be as deep as a native speaker or someone who has studied the language longer.
Fluency in a language comes in different levels. You are fluent when you can confidently hold a complex conversation with only a few mistakes and hesitations. On the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR/CEFRL) scale, it is on the B level. The CEFR has six levels:
- A Levels
- A1 – Beginner
- A2 – Elementary
- B Levels
- B1 – Intermediate
- B2 – Upper intermediate
- C Levels
- C1 – Advanced
- C2 – Proficiency
It Is Possible to Learn Multiple Languages
But speaking them with a high level of proficiency and fluency is another matter. Gaining fluency in three or five languages is already a feat.
While researching his book, Michael Erard went around the world and met with several polyglots. Adam Cansdale, a professional translator working at the European Commission in Brussels, who speaks 14 languages. He also met Johan Vandewalle, a civil engineer and philologist who can speak 22 languages.
Erard’s survey of some modern hyperpolyglots shows that motivation, practice and memory are very important to them. Likewise, they are pragmatic. Erard shared that the hyperpolyglots he surveyed who said they could speak 11 languages were not interested in sounding like a native speaker. What interest them more was traveling, not getting lost in another country, and the joy of reading a newspaper in a foreign language.
Immersion is Key to Learning a Language
Learning and speaking different languages is a matter of personal choice, so think of what you are going to do with the languages once you have learned them. Some people who are learning other languages believe the learning more than five is already an overkill for the average person.
For Alex Rawlings, who is the most multilingual student in Britain:
“Languages are an asset for whatever you want to do in life. They open your mind to worlds you never knew were there. They introduce you to amazing people that you might otherwise have just walked by.”
In 2012 Rawlings joined a competition for multilingual students. His fluency in 11 languages was tested and he came out the winner. After his graduation from Oxford University, he started touring Europe and learning additional languages. Rawlings is also a language teacher and hosts or joins polyglot meetings. He attributes his success in languages to language and culture immersion, which allows him to assimilate and retain what he learned. He said that when you learn a language in school, you are not learning it, but you are being taught the language. At the end of the course, you either pass or fail, and you’ll probably forget the language quickly.
Another hyperpolyglot who believes that immersion is the key to language retention is Richard Simcott. He said:
“Language carries the culture of the country that uses it and when you internalize it, it becomes a part of you too.”
Simcott has been fascinated with language since he was a child and started learning languages in grade school. According to him, he has already studied over 40 languages.. He can speak more than 16. He is the founder of the ‘Polyglot Conference.’ Simcott is also the Goethe Institut’s Multilingual Ambassador.
For Simcott, studying languages every day, whether for an hour or for eight hours, is already a routine. To immerse himself in the language that interests him, he visits the country and interacts with the native speakers. He does not want to stop learning languages and laments the fact that what he lacks the time.
Therefore, whether you want to learn 3, 5, 10, 12 or more languages, everything will depend 100% on your interest, motivation, dedication and memory, and finding the right method to help you remember what you have learned. The amount of time you have to achieve fluency will also influence the results.
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