If there’s one question that has always fascinated me, it’s this:
“How many languages can one speak?”
My search for the answer to this question has been one of the driving forces of my life. It’s the reason why I currently speak 14 languages, and dedicate myself to more every year.
But enough about me. You want to know the answer!
You want to know how many languages one person can possibly learn to speak.
Before I dive into the details, we really need to define our terms.
First: What does it mean to “speak a language”?
To me, “to speak a language” means being able to speak a language fluently.
Second: What does “fluency” mean?
To me, fluency in a language means possession of the “linguistic ability, combined with cultural awareness, to smoothly and confidently interact with native speakers in a meaningful way”.
I think the level B2 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) matches this description nicely.
With this framework in mind, let's delve into the world of polyglots and other so-called “super language learners”, so we can see just how these extraordinary people managed to achieve so much in the world of languages.
3 Polyglot Legends
There are a lot of famous polyglots throughout history. If you are a language buff, I’m sure you have heard of the German polyglot Emil Krebs, or the famed interpreter Kato Lomb (or Lomb Kato, as she is known in her native Hungary).
Krebs, who lived from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, was a German diplomat most famous for his mastery of Mandarin Chinese, and his alleged lifetime repertoire of 68 total languages. Krebs’ love of languages started early; it is said that he had mastered twelve languages by the time he was 20 years of age.
Kató Lomb, on the other hand, was perhaps history’s most recent world-renowned polyglot. She lived from 1909 to 2003, and earned most of her living as a translator and simultaneous interpreter in approximately sixteen different languages. She also was proficient enough in a dozen or more additional languages to be able to read news articles and world literature.
To me, personally, Kato Lomb is most notable for her writings on language learning and polyglotism. Her book Polyglot: How I Learn Languages, is one of my all-time favorite books on language learning (I’ve read it in English and Hungarian) , and I owe much of my current learning methods to the ideas described within.
I must say, though I find both Krebs and Lomb to be extremely impressive polyglots, the most famous polyglot of all time is probably my Italian countryman, Cardinal Mezzofanti.
Giuseppe Gasparo Mezzofanti lived in the last part of the 18th Century, and to this day he is probably considered the most amazing polyglot to ever live. According to various sources, he could speak almost three dozen languages “with rare excellence” and a number of other languages surprisingly well. Some even claim that he could speak up to 70 languages.
Personally, I have no doubt that Mezzofanti was an extraordinary polyglot and person. However, I am a bit skeptical of big claims, especially when you hear it said that someone used to speak languages “perfectly”.
My skepticism is a result of two things that I’ve learned well over the course of my life:
While I’m sure Mezzofanti’s skills seemed mind-bogglingly impressive to many, the truth is that there were likely extremely few people who knew enough about all of Mezzofanti’s target languages to be able to reliably judge his abilities in each. And that's the reason why it's really difficult to assess whether any historical figure really spoke 20 or 30 languages fluently, or just one or two languages fluently, and the rest like word salad.
I’m not the only person to share this skepticism, either. In the book Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners, author Michael Erard traveled to Italy himself in an effort to uncover the truth of exactly how many languages Mezzofanti actually spoke. After much effort, however, not even he was able to unravel the mystery for good.
Do Hyperpolyglots Really Exist?
So, judging the polyglots of the past is an arduous task. But what about the polyglots of today?
Fortunately nowadays it is extremely easy to film and analyze people’s skills. Though this means that the skills of many polyglots can be recognized and celebrated, it can occasionally have disastrous results when claims of language ability do not align with reality.
As an example, in the nineties, there was a man named Ziad Fazah who claimed that he could—and I quote—”speak all the languages of the world”. Until 1998, the Guinness Book of World Records stated that Fazah could speak and read 58 languages.
In 1997, Fazah was invited to Chile to appear on a talk show where he would be able to showcase his impressive language abilities. On set, Fazah was asked seven questions by natives of the languages he claimed to speak. Fazah succeeded in successfully answering one question, and failed the rest.
Needless to say, for language fans, those results are not thrilling. The story of Ziad Fazah remains a brutal reminder that there’s a big gap between saying you can do something, and actually doing it.
This is absolutely not to slander Ziad or any other person who claims to speak an exceeding number of languages. I say it just to put things in perspective; to warn you as a language learner to take big claims (and even official sources) with a grain of salt.
Now, does that mean that super polyglots are a myth?
No, not at all. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Super language learners are real. They are among us, and I have been fortunate enough to meet several of them.
In 2008, I posted my first-ever YouTube video, a multilingual monologue made from a balcony in Barcelona.
A few months later, I stumbled upon a stunning video in which a man named Richard Simcott spoke 12 languages.
To see someone with Richard’s skills instantly piqued my curiosity, and motivated me to reach out.
Richard and I eventually became friends, and together we have attended many language learning conferences throughout the globe. We even came up with the initial idea for the Polyglot Conference, which is an annual event that has been held in all parts of the world.
To Richard, every single moment is an opportunity to learn new words and concepts in a language or two—or ten! As of right now, we share 14 languages between the two of us (Richard’s total is around 40), and I can tell you that the way he speaks most of them is indeed remarkable.
Around the same time that I met Richard, I also came into contact with another polyglot; a Slovak interpreter by the name of Vladimir Skultety. Vlad also belongs to the category of individuals that see learning as a life mission, and so he has reached impressive heights in 20 languages.
And then, of course, there is Emanuele Marini, my Italian countryman from Bergamo, whom I had the pleasure to meet during the very first Polyglot Conference.
I still remember the moment I first discovered Manuele’s amazing language skills and on the spur of the moment, I decided that we needed to make a video right then and there with other polyglots. The video got half a million views in just a few weeks and created a lot of buzz about the world of polyglots.
Emanuele, like Richard and Vlad, has an enormous thirst and curiosity for foreign languages, and his skills are nothing short of mind-blowing.
Richard, Vlad and Manuele are just three examples of the impact that curiosity, drive, and life circumstances can have on the upper bound of one’s language abilities. You can find many more like them, both online and in real life.
So, rest assured that these are not fairy tales—hyperpolyglots and other “super language learners” do really exist.
Which takes us back to our initial question. How many languages can one learn?
The Truth About Being Multilingual
It is estimated that our brain contains as many neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, and that there are more connections between those neurons than there are stars in the whole universe.
These staggering numbers suggest that we have an amazing, unfathomable capacity to learn truly anything—and that we can do it quickly and efficiently, given the right circumstances.
On top of that, modern technology allows for quick movement, communication, and the sharing of ideas. For reference, modern language learning staples like Skype, YouTube, and Netflix didn’t even exist twenty years ago.
So, the power of modern technology combined with the power of the human mind can create miracles. While I have no doubts that for future generations, speaking 5, or even 10 languages will be the norm, there are some physical limits that we may not be able to overcome.
The biggest restrictions on the brain’s language learning capacity are space, time, and memory.
In fact, even if our brain’s capacity to store information were infinite, we, as people are not infinite. We are limited in time and space. We can only do so much. We can only learn so much.
Let’s try a thought experiment. Let's imagine a girl who starts learning languages at the age of 10. This girl is lucky, she’s from a family of diplomats and polyglots who travel around the world. For the first 10 years of her life, she has moved from country to country. By the time she turns 20, she can speak ten languages fluently.
Then she decides to dedicate her whole life to traveling and language learning, hopping from country to country to reach a grand total of 80 countries. Before moving between countries, she learns the local language for a year, so that she can harness her time in-country to maximize her skills.
Well, by doing the math, we can conclude that by the time she turns 90, she will be speaking around eighty languages fluently. Unfortunately for her and for us, the world of super language learners is riddled with one big problem: language maintenance.
The more languages an individual learns, the more they have to practice to avoid forgetting. If you can speak thirty languages, you’ll need to practice all of them semi-regularly if you do not want to lose them.
There are only twenty-four hours in a day, of which we spend around eight to twelve sleeping. And on top of that, there is also the phenomenon of interference. If you ever need to spend lots of time with one language exclusively, others will suffer, and similar languages will start interfering with each other. A polyglot’s language skills constantly fluctuate over time.
Can You Too Become a Polyglot?
What are the takeaways from all this? Well, there are quite a few.
First, we have to see the glass as half full. We are all capable of learning an incredible amount of languages because we are all in possession of a brain—and the human brain is one of the most powerful objects in the universe!
Many people do use their powerful brains to learn incredible amounts of languages. These people are known as polyglots, hyperpolyglots, or even “super language learners”, and they are incredibly passionate people who have amassed amazing language skills through decades of dedication and hard work.
Though these people do really exist, it is in your best interest as a learner to take lofty language claims with a grain of salt. Most people who claimed big things in the realm of languages have fallen flat on their faces. Real polyglots are, for the most part, focused, humble individuals who are aware that what they don’t know will always exceed what they do know.
And in the end, it doesn't really matter how many languages one speaks. Even knowing one language other than your native one can open doors and transform your world. As Kato Lomb used to say, language learning is “the one thing that is worth being able to do even poorly.”