Polyglots of the Present

Maya Angelou – I remember being in grade school and reading some of her poems and short stories. I liked her work then and I like it now. I was surprised to find that this fantastic American writer was also a polyglot. She speaks English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti.

Barry Farber – This conservative radio talk show host has a very good way to describe his knowledge of languages. He says that he marries the languages that he has studied the most and speaks the best and that he dates the ones that he has only studied a bit. These languages include Albanian, Bulgarian, Bengali, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Swedish, Tibetan and Yiddish. I wasn’t originally going to include him because I can’t find the exact number of languages he knows but I felt that his description of language learning was too good to not include in this post.

Steve Kaufmann – A former diplomat and a businessman, Steve Kaufmann has become an avid language enthusiast on the World Wide Web. His website and his book are both free and share with others the methods that he himself has used to learn the languages which he knows, these being English, French, Mandarin, Japanese, Cantonese, German, Swedish, Spanish, Italian and some Russian and Portuguese as well.

Ziad Fazah – He is one of the most advanced polyglots in recorded history. Fascinated by languages and intrigued by the idea of becoming an interpreter at the UN, Ziad made the decision to learn all the world’s languages as a boy growing up in Lebanon. When Ziad entered early adulthood he found that an interpreter’s life was not as glamorous as he had thought when he was a boy and all but stopped learning new languages after that. One wonders what would have happened if he had been given the proper stimulus because he learned most of the languages included in the list below by his early twenties:

Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Azeri, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Cambodian, Cantonese, Czech, Cypriot, Danish, Dutch, Dzongkha, English, Fijian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Kyrgyz, Lao, Malagasy, Malay, Maltese, Mandarin, Mongolian, Nepali, Norwegian, Papiamento, Pashto, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Singapore Colloquial English, Sinhalese, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tajik, Thai, Tibetan, Turkish, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese and Wu Chinese.

Alexander Arguelles – Dr. Arguelles was raised as a fairly typical monolingual American. It wasn’t until college that he learned to love languages and even so it wasn’t until he was in his thirties that he decided to become a true polyglot. He has been a researcher and a professor on a number of continents and is competent in about three dozen languages, both living and dead. He currently dedicates his time to diverse linguistic activities such as translating, consulting and encouraging polyglottery throughout the world. As a part of this final effort he moderates an online forum about learning languages. His languages are listed below.

German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Afrikaans, Icelandic, Frisian, Old Norse, Middle English, Middle High German, Old English, Old High German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, Romanian, Latin, Old French, Russian, Polish, Serbocroatian, Czech, Bulgarian, Esperanto, Irish, Persian, Greek, Irish, Arabic, Hindi-Urdu and Korean.

Stuart Jay Raj – Mr. Raj’s yearly activities include being a business consultant, lecturer, language teacher, interpreter, translator and composer. Allowing himself to be influenced by his polyglot grandfather, Mr. Raj grew up in Sydney, Australia and was quite proficient in a rather wide array of languages by the time he started university. Having lived and worked in Thailand for close to a decade, Mr. Raj uses his languages to facilitate communication and cooperation between many different cultures from all over the world. His languages are listed below.

English, Indonesian, Malay, Thai, Lao, Mandarin, Spanish, Cantonese, Danish, Australian Sign Language, Norwegian, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Swedish, Urdu, Sanskrit, Korean, Arabic, Burmese, Karen, Tagalog, Tibetan, Vietnamese.

Wendy Vo – She is the hope of the polyglot future. The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, eight-year-old Wendy lives in America and has many different tutors that teach her language and music, among other subjects no doubt. In addition to playing and composing music on the piano, Wendy speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, French, Arabic, Russian and Vietnamese. To see her speaking these languages and playing the piano, see this previous post.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso – An accomplished sociologist and economist, university lecturer and former president of Brazil, Pres. Cardoso speaks fluent Portuguese, English, Spanish and French.

Sam Sullivan – Mr. Sullivan is the inventor of a number of items for the handicap, the founder of several non-profit organizations and the current mayor of Vancouver, where the 2010 Winter Olympics will be held. He also speaks English, French, Cantonese and Punjabi.

Celebrity Polyglots

Aishvarya Rai – English, Tulu, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Hindi

Andrew Divoff: English, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Romanian, Catalan, Portuguese and Russian

Christopher Lee – French, Italian, Spanish and German and a basic knowledge of Russian, Swedish, and Greek

Dolph Lundgren – Swedish, English, German and some Japanese and Spanish

Eddie Izzard – English, French and German

Famke Janssen – Dutch, German, French and English

Jackie Chan – English, Mandarin and Cantonese

Jennifer Connelly – English, French and Italian

Joaquim de Almeida – Portuguese, English, Spanish, French and German

Lucy Liu – English, Mandarin, Italian, Spanish and some Japanese

Maria de Madeiros – French, English, Portuguese and Italian

Masayori “Masi” Oka – Japanese, English, German and Spanish

Milla Jovovich – Russian, French, English and Serbian

Mira Sorvino – English, Mandarin and French

Natalie Portman – English and Hebrew and some German, French, Japanese and Spanish

Penélope Cruz – Spanish, English, French and Italian

Sarah Chalke – French, German and English

Sigourney Weaver – English, French and German

Takeshi Kaneshiro – English, Taiwanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese

Viggo Mortensen – Spanish, English and Danish

William Shatner – English, French, ASL and Esperanto

Honorable Mention

These two men are only bilingual but since neither was raised in a bilingual family and both are quite famous for accomplishments that are unrelated to their foreign language skills it seems amiss to overlook them completely.

Kevin Rudd – English and Mandarin

Tommy Lee Jones – English and Spanish

13 Responses

  1. Very interesting! I’ve never heard of some of these people, and it was neat to read about them and the languages they learned.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Zach,

    Welcome to the blog and thanks for reading. Knowing several languages is more within our grasp than most of us think. These people are proof of that. Even if we aren’t all Ziad Fazah or Cardinal Mezzofanti, can’t we learn two or three languages? I believe that we can.

  3. This is an interesting post! I wish more of us liked languages and tried to learn as many as possible.

    Personally I am fluent in English and Australian Sign Language, conversational in Dutch, and have a smattering of understanding of French, Italian, Albanian and Latin… but I wish I had more people to practice with and could improve 🙂

  4. Cate:

    You are also welcomed to the blog. Congratulations on your linguistic knowledge. There is an excellent and free website dedicated to language exchange via the internet. It’s called http://www.polyglot-learn-language.com and you can sign up to get a “language exchange-buddy” to get any one of your languages up to a higher level while you help the other person with English. The site also has a chat room where people from all over the world come to talk in a wide variety of languages. You should check it out if you’re serious about picking up those other languages.

  5. I’m surprised that Bill Shatner is keen on Esperanto.
    What’s the point of learning an artificial dead language.
    At least Bill Shatner is alive!

  6. Thomas,

    Welcome to the blog. Shatner was in the first full length movie filmed Esperanto. I don’t know if he learned it before or after being cast in the movie. He learned Sign Language to communicate with a 400 lbs. gorilla that had a crush on him and knew how to sign. His French and English come from being one of the many bilingual Canadians.

  7. Hey Ryan.It seems Wendy Vo is 8 years old,not 11.

  8. Fazah Ziad’s list is long but they are just the languages he has learnt,not the ones he can speak.He was tested on a Chilean TV show not long ago and he couldn’t understand basic sentences in Russian,Mandarin Chinese,Farsi,etc.He looks like a big hoax to me.I like Steve and Wendy Vo.They showcased their languages.We can see their languages still need more work,but they indeed speak them fluently.Stuard Raj showed off just a few of his languages,so I have a lot of doubt.The rest of the polyglots are pure smoke and mirror.

  9. Anonymous: Why didn’t you leave your name like everybody else? You’re right about Wendy Vo! Sorry, she speaks eleven languages and is eight-years-old. I’ll change that.

    Anonymous: It’s true, those are languages that Ziad and Stuart have studied and do not speak perfectly. In Ziad’s case, if given a few days to refresh his memory, he can speak any of his 59 languages. The T.V. show in Chile was a trap where he was set up and not told that he would be tested on his languages. He should have walked out but, since they paid him to be on the show, he tried to wing it and it didn’t work out. Don’t believe everything you read in chat rooms or see on youtube.

  10. Ziad Fazah – “He is very possibly the most advanced polyglot alive in the world today. ”

    That would depend on how you see polyglottery. While Fazah’s achivements are certainly impressive, he is a speaking polyglot. He learns languages to be able to speak them. Arguelles on the other side is a “reading polyglot”, he learns languages to read the great books in their original tongues of composition.

  11. It’s true that Mr. Fazah puts more emphasis on speaking and that Dr. Arguelles puts more emphasis on reading but Mr. Fazah can read the languages that he speaks and Dr. Arguelles can speak the languages that he reads.

  12. Hey, you forgot to mention Sandra Bullock who speaks fluent English and German, Audrey Hepburn who spoke fluent English, Dutch, French, Italian, and Spanish, Kobe Bryan who speaks fluent English and pretty good Italian!

    Here are clips of them speaking various languages!

    Just type their name and the languages they speak, you can find lots of them!

    p.s. I was going to post them but somehow I can’t publish my reply

  13. Patrick: Thanks for reading! I chose not to include Sandra and Kobe because they were both raised bilingually. Everyone else on the list made a decision to learn the languages they know. Audrey Hepburn is on the list but not in this post. In the post before this one (published on the 2nd of May) I wrote about polyglots who are now deceased and, sadly, Audrey Hepburn passed years ago.

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