After watching the Olympics and the amazing feats of people like Michael Phelps it makes me reconsider what is possible for people to achieve. How fast can human beings swim; how fast can we run; how much weight can we lift? Similarly, it wouldn’t be strange for any linguist to wonder how many languages a human being could learn in the course of a lifetime.
It’s a Bigger Number than You Think
John Bowring was a British literary translator, economist, politician and diplomat whose service included being the fourth governor of Hong Kong. He claimed that he knew 200 languages and that he could speak 100 of them. Cardinal Joseph Caspar Mezzofanti knew more than 70 languages and could speak 38 without ever having left his homeland: Italy. In our day, the Brazilian linguist Dr. Carlos do Amaral Freire claims to know over 100 languages and the Lebanese language instructor Ziad Fazah claims 59. This article has information regarding great hyperpolyglots of the past and this article has information about the great polyglots that are still with us. You may find these numbers hard to believe but each one of these hyperpolyglots has publications or video recordings that suggest that their claims are true.
What Is Speaking a Language?
I used to naively think that this meant being able to say anything in the foreign language and in your own native language. That would mean that if you couldn’t explain how to change a carburetor, the difference between socialism and communism or the steps to buying a house in your target language, without making any obvious grammatical or pronunciation mistakes, then you couldn’t really say that you spoke it. That seems to be a bit demanding since there are many monolinguals that have a hard time doing that well in their own native language.
Even so, I get very annoyed with people who learn a dozen phrases in five languages and try to pass themselves off as cultured polyglots. I don’t think that we should claim to speak a language unless we can at least deal with native speakers well enough to say: I’m sorry. What is a wiggetybunket? I’ve never heard that word before. and then be able to understand the native speaker’s simple explanation. We should also be able to pronounce words well enough for native speakers to be able to understand almost every word we say. Lastly, we should have a good enough understanding of the grammar/structure of the language to form original sentences that are at least mostly correct. If you have a higher level of proficiency then so much the better. Qualifying the number of languages you speak is always a good idea. Statements like, I speak two fluently and am conversational in four others or, I know four and have studied eight are good examples of how to honestly portray your language abilities.
Studying, Forgetting and Remembering
Bowring and Mezzofanti died over 200 years ago but I have had the opportunity to personally deal with Freire and Fazah, as well as with a few other truly great linguists, and I imagine that the former pair were something like the latter. First of all, both Freire and Fazah have studied many languages that they have had no occasion to use in decades. They both admit that speaking them with no prior notice would be very difficult. Freire describes these languages as being deactivated. The curious thing is that they both claim that they can reactivate these languages after a few days of study. This means that if you were to drop them in Istanbul tomorrow and ask them to give a speech to an audience of locals they would probably struggle greatly with the task. If you were to give them a week’s notice they would probably receive praise for how well they spoke Turkish.
How Many Languages Is It Possible to Have a High Level of Fluency In?
That is what many people would really like to know. How many languages can you speak with near native fluency in and have an enormous vocabulary in? To date my experience has taught me that this number has everything to do with your lifestyle. If you have a life that not only gives you the opportunity but also necessitates that or greatly benefits from knowing thirteen languages well then you will probably speak thirteen languages well. If you have a very monolingual lifestyle then even maintaining one other language will most likely be quite difficult.
What if you studied a new language until you were proficient in it and then switched to another for ten years? Let’s say you’re not Mezzofanti and only became proficient in four languages during that time. Then life happens and you don’t touch the languages for another ten years. Your languages will have become quite deactivated but as soon as you choose to pick up an old book in one of them or spend more than a day or two in a country that speaks that language you will find that it all starts to come back to you. Will your time have been wasted all of those years ago? Only if being able to get around in a foreign country without the help of a third party is not enjoyable for you; only if reading good literature in its original form has no value; only if if learning foreign languages is not enjoyable for you.
How many languages can humans learn? They learn as many as they have time to study and practice. Scientists have yet to find any biological reason why everyone cannot learn twenty languages or even one hundred. Linguists like Bowring, Mezzofanti, Freire and Fazah suggest that our abilities are much greater than we think. As it is with so many things in life, we often become our greatest limitation or our greatest asset. Our attitudes, lifestyles, habits, practices, interests, hobbies, etc. are what usually what determine what we can achieve much more than our physical or mental capacity.