How many languages can one person speak?


| 2 Comments
It's no secret that Americans, on the whole, speak their native language and not much else. It's part of the privilege of living in a country roughly the size of western Europe: language and cultural barriers, while exigent, are not as divisive as they would be between different countries. With most high schools these days offering some foreign language education, about 24% of Americans can "hold a conversation" in a second language, an ability that is lost as one ages and presumably fails to continue to practice.

But a conversation is not necessarily an indication the person in question can really be considered bilingual, especially if the ability fades over time. It would be fair to guess that less than 24% of Americans are bilingual, and it should be noted that a 24% rate for holding a conversation in a foreign language is not so impressive when compared to the 56% citizens of EU nations who can accomplish the same feat. There are lots of reasons EU citizens may have higher rates of bilingualism, notably proximity to other countries where other languages are spoken, thus learning by necessity, as well as better language education overall.

Across nations, however, it is not uncommon to find someone who is fully bilingual-- fluent in two languages. It may not even be too uncommon to find someone who speaks three languages fluently, albeit with an accent. But what's the limit? Four? Eight? Ten? Just how many languages can one person speak?

Welcome to the world of polyglots, people who (claim to) speak many languages with a high decree of fluency. The aim is not perfection in all languages, but a level somewhat above casual conversation. To be considered a polyglot, the minimum language requirement is six independent languages.

As you can imagine, finding details on polyglots can be tricky. For one thing, language skills are developed by use over time, making it difficult to test just how many languages a person can learn. Some languages are more difficult than others-- should the person who learns Wolof (Senegal), English, and Thai be considered a better language learner than the person who learns the related Romance languages of Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, despite the greater number? That's not even to mention the difficulty of measuring mastery of a language in testing someone who claims to be a polyglot. As such, claims of historical polyglots, such as Friedrich Engels, are likely unrealistic (please note: this source is laughably uncredible, I only put it in to show that the claim has been made).

The best study done about polyglotism was done in 1993, and followed the case of a polyglot with the pseudonym "Christopher". He was given two languages to learn; one, Berber, a language of North Africa and the other, Epun, a made-up language specifically designed to violate regular language rules. Christopher learned Berber with ease but struggled with Epun, suggesting the rules that allow polyglots to acquire more languages than others are consistent across languages (for example, the ordering of subject-object-verb).

But how many languages can one person learn? It's unclear. One can certainly learn almost any number, but at some point, old languages will be forgotten if not practiced. Christopher, the participant in the above study, claimed to speak sixteen languages. If that's not the maximum, it must be pretty close to it.



2 Comments

Your blog post caught my attention right away! I am actually quadrilingual myself! I am fluent in french, italian, spanish and english obviously. Most of my friends all speak two or three languages as well. We all grew up traveling and coming from diverse backgrounds from all over the world. A possible explanation for us all being fluent in several languages is that we were exposed to them at a very young age. I've also heard that after a certain age it is impossible to become fluent when learning a new language! Check out more info http://parisalaw.com/applied-philosophy/glass-too-full-gaining-language-fluency-after-the-age-of-20/

Wow, the linguist in me is very jealous!
I wonder if a possible way to increase the number of languages people learn might be to learn them in bundles? I notice the languages you speak are mostly Romance languages (with the exception of English) and so have some degree of similarity in verb conjugation, ect. Maybe instead of teaching languages in schools, we could teach language packages-- choose between learning functional French/Italian/Spanish or Spoken Arabic/Formal Arabic/Farsi. This might provide greater language exposure for those who are not able to travel.
Unfortunately, the limited evidence on polyglots (which is mostly anecdotal) suggests that becoming one is more likely an innate trait than something which can be learned. Still, learning up to five languages may still be possible for anyone!

Leave a comment

Subscribe to receive notifications of follow up comments via email.
We are processing your request. If you don't see any confirmation within 30 seconds, please reload your page.

Search This Blog

Full Text  Tag

Recent Entries

Life after death
I'm sure you have heard stories of people on their death bed who have come back to life after…
An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away?
We have all heard the expression, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away." My question is, does eating…
Accents are weird
I have always wondered why people have accents. Why cant I look at a Spanish word, with all the…

Old Contributions