Rise of the Polyglots – why some people learn language after language

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Did you know that only 38% of Britons can speak a foreign language? What’s more, just 18% can speak two and a rather measly 6% speak three or more.

For some people around the world, learning one, two or three languages just isn’t enough. Welcome to the world of the polyglot.

A polyglot is an individual who is able to master numerous languages. ‘Hyperpolyglots’ can speak six or more languages fluently, with some even knowing up to sixty languages!

For a recently published book, Babel No More, Michael Erard travelled the world in search of hyperpolyglots. Here are just some of the extraordinary linguists he discovered:

  • Alexander Arguelles, an American scholar of foreign languages, can read approximately 36 languages, and is fluent in most of them. He has studied many more and once devoted sixteen hours a day to language learning.
  • Ken Hale (1934 – 2001) was an American professor of linguistics who studied up to 50 common and endangered languages. He considered the ability to speak a language as also knowing all its cultural implications, and therefore stated he could ‘speak’ in only three and ‘talk’ in the others.
  • Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774 – 1849) or the ‘monster of languages’ as Lord Byron once deemed him, was thought to have known between 40 and 72 languages. He is described as having studied, but not used, 14 languages, being able to converse well in a further 11 and fairly well in 9 more, and having achieved fluency in another 30!

Interestingly, most polyglots and hyperpolyglots are reluctant to admit exactly how many languages they know.

One exception is New York teenager Timothy Doner, who admits he has learned 23 different languages. As well as the usual French, Spanish, Italian and German, he has also mastered Arabic, Indonesian, Hebrew, Mandarin and Turkish, as well as several less-known languages such as Hausa, Farsi, Ojibwe, isiXhosa, Wolof and Pashto. Quite rightly proud of his achievements, he has posted videos of himself speaking in these dialects on YouTube.

It’s difficult to know how many polyglots and hyperpolyglots there are around the world, especially when they themselves are discreet with their abilities. Yet what is clear is that we are likely to see an increase in polyglots over the coming years as internationalisation continues to take effect and languages become ever more important for effective communication. The Polyglots are truly on the rise.

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