Can you master more than seven languages?

A few years ago, I found myself posting on a popular language learning forum. I always have a good time discussing the innumerable facets of language learning with anyone willing to listen and share, and this was no exception.

As I was reading through the day’s postings, I came across a thread centered around an idea that has bothered me ever since.

The original poster began the thread to discuss a concept that he had recently come across in a book about language learning.

The book was “Why You Need a Foreign Language and How to Learn One”, by author Edward Trimnell.

The idea, espoused in Chapter 16 of the above, is known as the Rule of Seven.

In Trimnell own words:

There’s a limit to the number of languages in which you can practically expect to achieve business-level competency. […] Polyglots…sometimes refer to the “Rule of Seven”. The Rule of Seven states that proficiency in seven foreign languages is the practical upper limit for most people. In other words, if you try to take on more than seven languages (in addition to your native one), you are unlikely to become highly competent in all of them. My own research suggests that the upper limit may be even lower.” (176)

A Few Caveats

Now, before I present my counterargument to the Rule of Seven as Trimnell explains it, let me make a few things very clear:

  • This is not a review. I have not read Mr. Trimnell’s book in its entirety—only the sections that cover the Rule of Seven.
  • I do not know Mr. Trimnell personally, nor do I know the depth of his language learning experience. This is not a criticism of his language abilities, only a criticism of the Rule of Seven as he presents it.
  • Trimnell himself does not seem to consider the Rule of Seven to be a hard-and-fast rule. His descriptions (quoted above) use intentionally vague language, stating that the Rule will only apply to “most people”, and proficiency in more than seven languages is simply “unlikely”. So rather than presenting the Rule of Seven as the absolute ceiling to language learning achievement, it seems he is simply providing a rough guideline for the general language enthusiast.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me explain why I consider the Rule of Seven to be a dangerous idea.

The Dangers of Artificial Limits

At face value, the Rule of Seven attempts to tell the learner the limits of what is possible.

Want to learn six languages (in addition to your native tongue) to near-native level?

Fine! Good on you!

Want to learn seven or more?

Too bad! You’re out of luck!

What makes an idea like this dangerous is not the possibility of it being true, but that many learners will see the rule coming from a perceived “authority” (unnamed polyglots, in this example) and will likely give up before testing it for themselves.

Let me give you another more famous example of how “artificial limits” like the Rule of Seven can stunt human achievement.

The Four-Minute Mile

Have you ever heard of Roger Bannister?

He was a British athlete that achieved something that many had previously thought impossible: He ran one mile in less than four minutes’ time.

Prior to Bannister’s landmark run, there was not a single person in all of recorded history who had achieved the same feat. It’s hard to say with certainty why it had never been done prior to 1954, but if the human psyche back then was anything like it is now, the likely truth is this:

Many who could have broken the record did not, simple because they did not believe they could.

Fast forward to today, and a sub-four minute mile has moved well out of the realm of impossibility, and into the can-do realm of mere mortals. According to Wikipedia, the four minute mile is now “the standard of all male professional middle-distance runners”.

The Critical Period Hypothesis

Another limiting belief—one that hits a little closer to home for us language learners—is the Critical Period Hypothesis.

The Critical Period Hypothesis is an oft-discussed idea in linguistics that, due to biological factors, it is impossible to learn a language to a native-like level after a certain age (typically adolescence).

Much like the Rule of Seven, the issue with the above hypothesis is not that it may be true, but that it can be (and often is) a limiting belief that stops learners from reaching their full potential.

For the general populace, the idea of the Critical Period has degenerated into a myth that either:

  • Only children can learn languages well.
  • Native (or near-native) capabilities are impossible for adult learners.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of independent language learners (or potential ones) are young adults or adults themselves, meaning that many hear of the Critical Period Hypothesis and accept it as fact, choosing simply not to try to learn any language at all.

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

Here’s the problem with the limiting beliefs associated with the Rule of Seven, the Critical Period Hypothesis, and the Four Minute Mile:

They draw a line that separates the possible from the impossible, when in actuality, no one knows where that line is.

They are often accepted as cold, hard, facts, when all they are are unsubstantiated claims.

“But Luca”, you may say “many of these claims are substantiated by experts, or at least were at one time”.

Let me tell you a little secret. One that will get you further than you can possible imagine in any area of achievement:

Don’t believe anything is impossible until you have gathered the evidence for yourself first-hand.

We live in a world that put men on the moon 66 years after we first achieved powered flight. To access the Internet, we once needed to tether our computers to our telephone lines. Now, the phone in my pocket can get way better internet out of the air.

What today’s experts think is impossible, tomorrow’s experts will have done hundreds of times by breakfast. So don’t believe what you haven’t verified for yourself.

“So, Luca”, I’m sure you’re thinking, “does that mean you’ve personally broken the Rule of Seven?”

No. Not yet.

I’m well on my way, of course. I speak Italian natively, and French, Spanish, German, and English at a C2 level. My level of Dutch is currently at about a C1, and I am spending time every single day to get my B2 Russian up to a near-native level as well. Not only that, but I have other languages (like Portuguese, Polish, Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese) at varying levels of proficiency that I’ll eventually improve to a high degree also.

My point in writing this article is not to declare that the Rule of Seven has been broken, but to show that it is useless to be deterred by such claims before seeing for oneself the heights of what is possible.

I am positive I will break the Rule of Seven. And I won’t stop until I do.

And, rules be damned, I know you can do it too.

I’ll leave you with one final quote, from the legendary Tony Robbins:

“Create a vision and never let the environment, other people’s beliefs, or the limits of what has been done in the past shape your decisions.”

Keep on learning (and breaking the rules!)

Written by Luca Lampariello

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  • That was a very nice article. I love the idea of forgetting the CPH 🙂 and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you 🙂

    • Thanks 🙂 You yourself are doing a great job with your YouTube videos and I love listening to you speaking in Polish..and about language learning 🙂

  • I remember reading Babbel No More long time ago, and it also had a part where it talked about the limits of language learning. If I remember back then, the guy defined fluency as an ease of switching between one language to another, and a bunch of polyglots could only do that for a certain number of languages.

    For me personally, I don’t really care if there’s a limit or not and what it is. I just learn because it interests me, and every time I manage to check off a checkpoint (having my first conversation, watching the first movie without subtitles, etc), I immediately want to go on to the next checkpoint and try to get better. Even with my native languages, Russian and Hebrew, I want to improve and become better than “just a native speaker”.
    The only problem here is not the “limit” on how many language I can learn, but a limit on my time and how I manage it.

  • talking about technological is possible they will one day render learning languages did Google render memorizing huge quantities of factoids

    • No.

      And nobody had to remember “huge quantities of factoids” before Google. That had become obsolete with the invention of the printing press.

      • what do you mean by “no’/ is not possible that technology might one day render learning languages obsolete?

  • It depends on when you start, how much time you have and how similar the languages are.
    If your native language is a Romance language, you can learn the four other Romance languages relatively easily. With Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and French, you already got five out of seven. Similar for German, English, Dutch and Afrikaans.
    If you start off with Hungarian or Korean on the other hand, you are f***ed.

  • The sky is the limit. However, I would like anyone who claims “knowing” seven languages to show the seven certificates proving that he or she has achieved C1 level in all four skills for all the seven languages. If the languages are from the same group, I guess it’s feasible. But, if the combination is something like Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Hungarian, Welsh, Hindi… Good luck with that!

    • Agreed, and the question is why would anyone aside a linguist have a practical reason to learn 7+ foreign languages as each is a step backwards.

      • Beware of the limiting belief system that Luca is trying to warn people against in this article. Veni Vidi Vici, are you assuming that every language enthusiast wants to learn every language to the C1-C2 level? The Untranslated is correct in pointing out that that would be difficult and also hard to prove, while you are correct in pointing out that few would have a practical reason for achieving advanced levels in lots of different languages.

        However, there are more and more people in the world who would have practical reasons for achieving an intermediate or high-beginner proficiency level in a lot of languages. They’re called digital nomads: people who work entirely via their laptops and who can therefore work anywhere in the world where there is a dependable internet connection. Some tutor people via Skype, others translate, write, edit, do personal coaching, work for corporations from home, take university classes online, and the list of occupations is growing.

        Some digital nomads (such as Jan Van Der Aa, who runs a translation company from his laptop and has traveled to 95+ countries and learned nine foreign languages to A2 and higher levels) find cheap airfare and live with friends in various countries, so they can afford to spend a lot of time outside of their native countries. They are usually limited to 2-3 months at a time in each country under tourist visas, but while they’re there, they can learn some of the local language and culture. (They can also return to that country later.) The better they speak the local language, the more rewarding their experience there will be. Imagine if such people said they’re not going to try to learn any of the local language of wherever they’re at because somebody said they’re limited to seven languages.

        The Rule of Seven, if true, only applies to a high level of proficiency. There’s no limit to the number of languages a person can learn to a lower proficiency, and that can be quite practical for some people. Each person will hit their personal limit when they’re dead.

  • I totally agree with you ! It made me think of a quote I read once : ” They didn’t know it was impossible so they did it “. It is clearly the point!

  • I just found this article by chance… I was the one who started that thread 10 years ago! Back then I had vast ambitions, but now I doubt I’ll surpass the “Rule of Seven”- whether it exists or not. The challenge for me right now is adding Italian to my life without affecting the Spanish I labored for 12 years to acquire… I’ve settled on the four most common Romance languages as my short-term project, so as long as there isn’t a “Rule of Four”, I think I’ll be OK 🙂 Thanks, Luca, for inspiring us to ignore arbitrary rules and continue forward with our goals. Greetings from Alaska!

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