How Many Languages Is It Possible to Learn?

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.

Limitless Possibilities

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.

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75 Responses

  1. Very interesting article! I suppose the number of languages depends on the person’s own capacity, motivation, natural abilities etc. Personally I think motivation is one of the most important factors; I was never good at languages in school and was definitely monolingual. But since I started travelling and living in countries where other languages are spoken things have changed dramatically.

    When asked “how many” languages I speak. My answer is always the same: one. Then I add “… but I can get by in 6 others and can understand 3 others well”. I remember meeting one person who confidently told me “I speak the English perfectily!!” and I never want to be that unjustifiably arrogant, Fluency means something different to everyone so I try to play my level down every time and let the other person decide how good I am. I was recently interviewed on the radio in Spanish about my travel blog and language abilities and used this kind of response, with the interviewer positively playing up my level. Nobody could ever argue that I don’t “get by” in Spanish (especially under the pressure of a live radio interview), but if I claimed perfect fluency a lot of people would easily nitpick at various mistakes I made.

    I also agree that “reactivating” a language is possible. When you reach large numbers of languages it’s important to maintain your level or they’ll disappear into obscurity. I used to speak German very well, but now I can’t even have a simple conversation since I never practise, but I’m sure after a brief stay in Berlin I’d be back to my old self! Otherwise I use my blog as well as twitter updates to write about my travels in languages I’m confident about writing in; it forces me to think regularly in those languages and keep a decent level with them despite not having daily exposure to other speakers.

    • Did you learn Arabic? It is one of the hardest languages known to man, but many claim it gives them a lot of wisdom and I speak only two languages but I feel that If I tried I could speak, well all languages spoken, likely as not I would use it to teach others Islam :)

      If you did learn Arabic

      Salam o alekom! :)

      • Did you mean “one of the most difficult”?

      • Its one of the hardest. its very figuritive and rich … but on the other hand its very weak in scientific and mathematics.

        its 2nd hardest in writing after chineese and japanese.

      • I’m learning it right now. It certainly isn’t easy! I already speak French and English enough to pass by as fluent (I grew up in a trilingual childhood, understanding English, French, and Spanish).
        Probably the hardest thing is guessing the vowels in writing. The only way to do that is experience. Anyway, its lots of fun.

      • Walekum a salaam

      • Walaikum Assalam,
        I am also learning arabic, as my native language is urdu and the script of arabic and urdu is same. I am learning arabic very easily.
        Kaif a haluka?
        Masmuki?
        Min aina anti?
        Ma jinsiyatuka?

        But for me learning languages with change scripts such as mandarian would really be difficult.

  2. Irish Polyglot: First off, kudos for your interview in Spanish. It was quite impressive. I recommend that everybody (especially the Spanish speakers) give the interview a listen. I also like your idea of downplaying your skills just a bit and letting people come to their own conclusions about your language abilities. I think this mentality works everywhere in life but a job interview (lol).

    Lastly, you said that the number of languages a person speaks has to do with their capacity and natural abilities (in addition to motivation). My observations have led me to believe that this capacity and natural ability are much greater than most people think. Why is it that there are so many Indians and Africans that speak five languages or more? Are they just genetically better at it than Asians and Americans and many Europeans? I doubt it. I think that everyone (excluding those with mental handicaps) is capable of learning to communicate in as many as 10 languages or more. I believe that personal interest, environment, methodology, diligence, etc. are more important than natural ability or talent. I think that this applies to language learning and many other aspects of life.

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  4. Many thanks for the feedback! :) I’ve noticed quite a few visitors to my site from this link.

    Yes, modesty is always the best policy I believe! I totally agree that speaking 10 or more languages is something everyone could learn to do. As I mention on my site, I’ve originally got an Electronic Engineering background and never did well in languages at school. But when I decided to really try to, I could learn several languages. I do not consider myself naturally talented and always enthusiastically try to convince people of all backgrounds and claims of low linguistic abilities, to jump in the deep end of language immersion and give it a try! If I can do it, anyone can ;)

    I didn’t mean to say that capacity and natural abilities are the defining factor, just that some people really do have better capacity than others and require less of an investment for the same results. I try not to say this much since it doesn’t apply to me and it is a great excuse for people to lazily decide they aren’t smart enough to learn other languages. It’s a weak argument, as you say, for many learning aspects of life, to simply give up saying that you can’t. I prefer to give everything a try; there are no limits to human learning capacities, especially for “ordinary” folk like me! :D

  5. This is an interesting post, and it’s very true that languages can be deactivated and then reactivated again. In fact, I would say that accepting this is key if you wish to work on truly studying more than one language.

    I often think of my language abilities in terms of active or passive knowledge, in the areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening. At any given time these levels are in a constant state of flux. As a professional translator, my reading and listening skills across my professional working languages of French, German and Spanish always remains quite high (active). However my written and spoken skills in these languages can drop quickly into ‘passive’ mode if I’m not actively working to maintain them, because despite what people may think, I rarely use (or arguably even need) these skills in my work.

    And then of course there’s the fact that I could describe technical issues relating to car systems in German, for example, or specific aspects of pharmaceutical research in French, more comfortably than I could discuss literature (an area which I wouldn’t take a special interest in in English) or even the weather (an area which I would!).

    At the end of the day, the reasons why you are learning a particular language, and the contexts in which you see yourself actively using it, have a big impact on your degree of ‘fluency’ in that language.

  6. I think the amount of time and effort you commit to studying languages largely determines how many you can learn. It is very much also dependent upon your lifestyle and learning style. If you learn better by interacting with people, and you don’t mind living in the country of your target languages, then perhaps an immersion experience is better for you. If you’d rather teach yourself, then consult with the many resources online or in book stores! On a smaller degree, I think our mental capacity has its limits, but Fazah, Freire, and Mezzofanti certainly serve as great examples that you can push those limits.

  7. Who holds the record of being fluent at the most number of languages?

  8. Ken: That’s a good question and I don’t know that we’ll ever really know the answer. Unless there were some kind of competition that gave out a big prize I don’t know if there would be any reason for such a person to come forward. Since a highly functional hyperpolyglot needs a very multilingual lifestyle I would imagine such a person would work at the UN, a travel agency or some other place where he/she could actually use all of her languages in a variety of contexts and often.

  9. Ken: There’s also the issue of quality versus quantity. There is basically no one way to measure *how* fluent someone is – or even any one accepted definition of what ‘fluency’ is. How to measure that fairly? Pretty much anyone can claim fluency!

  10. well i agree to almost everything that you said except on your last sentences
    when someone claims fluency they should be able to speak a lot close to a native speaker and one way to find that out is listening to songs and see if you understand everything or almost everything
    and if you undertand like 90% of the song than you probably can speak like 70% of the language
    because usually people understand more than they can speak
    and about how many languages a human been can learn it’s not easy to tell ,it has a lot to do with how old you are when you are going to start studying your second language , i am brasilian living in USA for 6 years and i got here when i was 18 and i still don’t claim fluency there is still a lot to learn but i do know a few people that can speak three languages which is portuguese spanish and english and thats because of their parents usually brasilian that got married with spanish and lives in USA so they grow up talking these 3 languages but i personally never met anyone who can speak 4 languages fluently
    and again it has a lot to do with your age and i personally say that if you are older than 18 years old and you speak only one language than you will not achieve fuency in more than 8 languages in your lifetime

    • Hey my wife speaks read and write 6 languages ( Bulgarian, Russian,Serbio-Croatian, Macedonian, German and English.) fluently Its pretty cool …but it is hard for her to find a good paying job because she isnt a citizen of the states yet..Someone hire her please!!! Its like 6 for the price of 1..lol

  11. @egber – I grew up as a monolingual boy from the states, but now I am learning German (am at a high-intermediate or low-advanced level), Dutch, and Spanish. I started learning German about 2 or 3 years ago, so maybe when I was 20 I started learning my first foreign language (excluding a very horrible attempt to learn Latin in high school). Anyway, I think that a person can easily achieve fluency (maybe not 100% fluency, but a reasonable level) in countless languages, even if they are a late comer. The key is to deal with the language families. I have a friend who studied Spanish and French at the university, then taught himself some level of Portuguese and Italian. SInce these are all so similiar to each other, I think it would be very easy to learn them all, once one learned one or two.

    That is how my experience with German has been. I realized that between my knowledge of German and English, I could understand a good amount of Dutch, and now am learning it as well, which is another Germanic language. Sticking my head into the fog a bit more, I can understand some written Danish/Swedish/Norwegian and Frisian, though it is definitely more words and short phrases, as opposed to whole texts. However, if one I could put aside and learn the pronunciation differences, I think that I would have the heart of the language mastered, since these vocabulary sets share so much with what I already know. The biggest difficulty would be to learn to make the sounds to pronounce the words, but I’ve never heard of anyone who refused to learn English because they could not properly make the “th” sound, for example, so I think it seems doable.

  12. I enjoyed the discussion and have always been curious about the topic. However, I think someone should address the question of whether efforts to learn multiple languages end up hampering the achievement of true fluency in one or two. I am also interested in learning cognate languages such as German and Yiddish, though sometimes I think it would be more stimulating to study an entirely distinct language than another cognate. Finally, I have found language study rewarding, but I also wonder if I can really justify spending time on another language as opposed to learning more philosophy or ecology for example. At some point, I think it is better to diversify into other fields.

  13. The questions raised in the above discussion are very relevant to my day to day work and the following views come from my personal language learning experience as well as from my experience with students. I consider myself fluent in six languages and have been teaching these through my company (London Language Studio) for some time. I can understand and could speak several others but I somehow never mention these. I agree the definition ‘fluent’ is almost an abstract and often misused term.

    I believe that a good criteria to assess whether you are or not fluent in a language is to understand jokes. To be able to understand a joke requires not just advanced language knowledge but also considerable cultural awareness. Knowing a language means also knowing its people, their culture and mentality. A combination of sociolinguistic awareness, command of the language commonly used in day to day communication and a good understanding of universal grammar (including how this applies to each of the languages in particular) are the three important factors, I believe, which contribute to us feeling fluent and accepted by the society where each of the languages is spoken.

    I only really feel fluent in a language when people can’t immediately tell I am a foreigner.

    In this particular case I believe the accent and pronunciation play a more important role than vocabulary or profound knowledge of grammar, at least in the first instance. I agree anyone can learn a language to a good level, but I don’t believe everyone can achieve an authentic accent or develop the ability to build on existing knowledge- which, in other terms, we might call ‘talent’.

    In regards to how many languages one can learn, my view is simple; the more you learn the easier it gets. So someone who can already speak four or five languages fluently (in whichever of the above definitions of ‘fluency’) will certainly find it a lot easier to learn another four, and even easier, another four after that.

    It just becomes a matter of time availability at that point.

    However, I find that there is a certain limit to vocabulary capacity, where at certain point it becomes more difficult to learn and retain new words.

  14. i am only nine and i know 3 languages

  15. I am 13. I know English, Swedish, German, Japanese and I just started with Serbian the other day ^^ My goal is to learn around… 10 languages before I am…. well, dead.

  16. Very interesting topic! I haven’t browsed your blog enough to know what you do for a living. Would You send me a mail to tell me some more. I am a language addict myself and I am fortunate enough to be able to make a living off of it as a translator. Swedish is my native language. I learned English, French, and some German at school, picked up a little Danish and Norwegian through contacts and media, and in my 20′s I started learning Persian which opened up the door to the languages of the Middle East and Central Asia. Now in my mid 30′s I also know Dari, Tajik, Gilaki(an Iranian dialect), Azerbaijani, Turkish, Uzbek, Sorani/Kurdish, Arabic (MSA, Egyptian, Levantine, Iraqi and Tunisian dialect). However as you reach this level it becomes hard to define which languages you know, because there are other languages which I can read and understand a great deal of. It’s as if you develop your ‘language sense’ and it becomes more acute and active somehow.

    • what do yu do for a living?

      • The best answer right now is that I’m a business practitioner. I started a translation agency back in 2005 and I also work as a consultant and presenter. My last workshop was for a group of Hispanic middle-management working in the USA. We talked about dealing with difficult behavior in the workplace. Thanks for reading.

  17. Interesting blog! I think it’s true what you say about the number of languages that can be learned. I love studying languages. I feel that if I try and put enough effort into it, I can learn a language very quickly. Only thing I didn’t agree with is on how low you set the bar for someone to be considered fluent in a language. Fluency, in my opinion, shouldn’t be “average.” I think it should be a little higher. People shouldn’t have to struggle or really focus on what one who “speaks fluently” is trying to tell them. It should be more than passable. Just my opinion. Still a good blog. =)

  18. Hi All,

    Glad to see there are other polyglots, out there, aside from myself and my sister to some extent, I have met but a handful of people who speak more than 3 languages, I am from morocco so arabic is my native language ( morroccan dialect ) I can understand and speak pretty much any arabic dialect, In addition I can recognize (Not always understanding) most of the european, american, and asian languages, I also have near-native fluency in French, english,Spanish and Italian, (having studied the first three at school and picking up the latter from media) , back in high school I had started learning Japanese on my own, only to abandon it after a few weeks, I picked it up again as I grew fond of mangas a couple of years ago ( I am 25 now ) which left me with some basic notions of japanses ( nothing to brag about though :p) I Work as a Software consultant, my job involves a great deal of travel and interaction with different cultures, and my natural ability to languages really does make some aspects of my missions easier,

  19. I agree, fluency (literally “flowingness”) implies effortlessness. Even if you cannot discuss anything but everyday topics (or a specialised subject), in fact, your vocabulary might be quite limited and your style rather basic, nothing too fancy, but if you need not hesitate, think and struggle for words, but they roll naturally over your tongue, that’s fluency. For example, a European foreigner bargaining in *fluent*, colloquial Arabic at a Middle Eastern market, with a noticeable accent and a few grammatical mistakes at times perhaps, but with self-confidence. What more can you want?

    The relationship between the languages someone knows is really important. Knowing entirely unrelated languages from completely different parts of the world, different cultural areas and with different scripts, with languages and scripts being as different as possible as well, so that synergy effects are minimal, for example English, Japanese, Mongolian, Georgian, Arabic, Thai and Inuktitut, plus Classical Maya and Klingon thrown in for good measure, that’s the touchstone of the polyglot. Add Russian, Hungarian, Swahili, Quechua and Classical Nahuatl, and I’ll most definitely be impressed, even if it’s “only” 14 languages you’ve studied.

    On the other hand, speaking, say, a dozen Slavic languages is difficult in a completely different way, as they are all so similar that you’re always running the risk of getting confused and mixing them up, so I think a polyglot deserves recognition for that, as well.

    I also fully agree with the idea of re-activating languages. I have many dormant language skills which are likely to resurface when necessary. Even mere beginner skills at a closely related language are likely going to help.

  20. This is a very interesting post Ryan. Although this post has been around for 2 years already, it caught my attention when I was browsing over your posts. I’ve been reading other language learners’ journeys and was quite amazed with how many languages some people can learn. It’s even more fascinating to know that other people can learn a foreign language as fast as 3 months. I agree with you when you said that the number of possible languages one can learn to a high level of fluency depends on the person’s lifestyle. This is so true. A lifestyle that doesn’t give you the opportunity to learn more than 1 language is difficult. But for example, if you are living a life wherein you have a job that lets you travel to different parts of the world, then you have the opportunity to learn as many languages as you can. But in the end, it all goes down to how dedicated one is to learning a foreign language. Attitude and interest pay a big role on your success in being fluent, as for my experience.

  21. [...] opportunities for language development. But, what’s the use? Why should we trouble ourselves? How many languages can one person speak, [...]

  22. I’m in my mid-thirties and a “bad polyglot” – that is, I am a true polyglot, but my skills have seriously suffered from neglect since the peak of my skills in high school/college/grad school. I am very skeptical of the deactivation/reactivation idea, and based on my personal experience I would not encourage very young people to depend on it. Rather, get your skills high, keep them there, and build from strength to strength.

    My notion of what it means to “speak” a language is based on the quality of a native speaker’s experience in conversing with you. While it’s not necessary to trick them into thinking you are a native speaker yourself (a rare trick, even among long-term immigrants), they should not generally experience you as a beginner or one in need of active assistance.
    I certainly would not consider myself fluent in a language where I could not discuss human universals (like the weather) with some degree of nuance. I have only achieved this level of fluency in one language other than English (French), and I have lost it. Of course, I’m still highly literate in French, and my experience of trying to speak French again is nothing like that of a rank beginner – every little bit helps, and all is not lost. But it would have “helped” ever so much more to have just kept the skills in the first place.

    Today, you can become (and remain) seriously fluent in any language whose speakers have internet access. Take advantage! Twenty years ago, for less-popular languages all we had was a grammar from the bookstore, maybe a short audio tape here or there, occasionally the opportunity to buy a single newspaper or magazine for $15-$20. Times have changed!

    It’s possible that various people’s memories are wired differently, so that reactivation works better for some than for others. But in some of my more difficult written languages, I’ve found that going back to the very beginning with a childlike attitude brings better payoff than trying to immediately bootstrap off of previous, semi-forgotten, incomplete attempts. In speaking and listening, of course, there is really no choice *but* to bootstrap.

  23. [...] Linguist Blogger covers everything language: dialects, learning, polyglots, hyperpolyglots, philology, pedagogy, the works. Obviously very extensive in the subjects covered. “Translators [...]

  24. i am a mimic, and find it extremely easy to learn other languages, i am 15 now, and by the age of 14 i could speak:

    fluently- english, spanish, french, portuguese, greek.

    with some level of proficiency- italian, german, japanese, hindi

    basic/ conversational- cantonese, russian, polish, turkish.

    and not that it’ll ever be any use, but i also speak ‘Na’vi’, from the film, Avatar.

    • I think you need to watch this video.

    • I call BS! I’m guessing you probably know those languages with basic conversational abilities AT BEST (if not completely lying)! I, by no means think that knowing all those languages is impossible, I just think the chances of you knowing those 14 languages at age 14 is rather low. If not an outright exaggeration (or lie), your definition of “fluency” is probably very generous.

  25. I might also add it literally takes days for me to learn a language; as a photographic memory means I only need to see a word once. hindi took 2/3 days to be limited to basic conversation, and a few more and i was proficient.

    • Hmmm…tell you what. Make a video of you speaking your 15 languages and I’ll post it here on my blog.

    • Like your last comment, I call BS! No one learns a language fluently in just a matter of a few days. This claim, in my mind, confirms that both this comment and your last one are BS. Also, there’s much more to language learning than seeing a word and remembering it. Can you use it in a conversation when needed? Do you know WHEN to use it? Can you even pronounce it properly? When talking, do you have to stop to think of the word? Do you know the proper grammar of the language? You’re being waaaaay too generous with these compliments to your language-learning skills mate.

  26. I never know what to say when people ask me how many languages I “know.” I’ve always been good at reading and writing and can learn the basics of most foreign languages with relative ease, but as for actually carrying a conversation in them?

    Heck, I can’t even make myself understood in English when I speak.
    :(

  27. Re: activation / deactivation. I was surprised recently at my ability to speak German in Cologne at a high enough level to confuse a tour bus driver who couldn’t tell if I was a native English speaker or a native German speaker.

    What was surprising was that I hadn’t spoken German in a few years and hadn’t done any maintenance. And I had spent the previous days before Cologne in Paris speaking French (as well as I can, anyway).

    Leaving your language studies alone for a long time isn’t good. Your memory fades. I believe it’s always there if you leave it, but you’ll be rusty. At the opposite end there’s such a thing as over training. I attempted to study 6 hours a day of French recently and learned a lot, but somehow when I studied it only two hours a day and watched movies and listened to podcasts afterwards in French I learned more and more importantly retained more.

  28. Real language learning takes many years. I speak Polish because my parents are Polish immigrants. I did an MA in Polish literature and taught the language as part of my graduate studies. True mastery of the language came very gradually, as I read more and more books in Polish. I speak French because I studied it in Junior High, High School and then in college and beyond, that is to say for many years. I read a lot in the language, which was great vocab building, because English and French share much common vocab coming from Latin. I can read articles and books with a dictionary in German, which I also studied in college. I read a lot in all the languages thanks to the Internet, to maintain my skills and knowledge of current idioms.

    My point is that to really claim to “speak” a language takes years and years of study. As far as people claiming to know 15, the cream rises to the top. Let’s see you have a conversation with a native and it will be obvious who really knows the language and who can just order some coffee. There’s that video on youtube of the guy who claims to know 56 languages. On a Chilean talk show they brought in natives to test his competence with some simple questions. The whole thing was a fiasco as he didn’t understand what they were saying.

    Being a polyglot is something to be proud of, since it involves hard work and discipline. But perhaps it’s better to concentrate on 3 or 4, that you truly master, read for pleasure, use in travel and social contacts, rather than learning bits and scraps of 13, and being the proverbial jack of all trades, master of none.

    • What a well thought out and sensible comment this is. Thanks for your insights and experiences.I have found this really helpful in trying to decide whether to concentrate on one or two other languages to the point of achieving a 7000 word active vocabulary in them (hopefully rather more for reading) or try for an aquaintance with several more languages to a much lower standard. From my own perspective, I would prefer to have a deeper knowledge of one or two languages than a nodding aquaintance with many.

      • Well, good on you for that. It’s better to engage in deep language learning, the kind that is transformational on the level of consciousness, rather than being an internet celeb enjoying his or her 15 minutes of fame thanks to youtube. I’ve grown so tired of show-offs fresh from their Pimsleur Mandarin course insulting my intelligence and ear-drums with their “White Chick Speak Fluent Chinese” videos. Maybe the videos should be titled “Dumb A** White Boy Embarrasses Himself by Trying to Speak X Language.” This would hold for many of the recent celeb internet “polyglots”, with the exception of Richard, Luca, Steve. Jury’s still out on Tim. Deep language learning is the thing kid. That’s the type of understanding we need most in our globalized world.

  29. Native: English 10/10
    Proficient: German* 7+/10
    High Intermediate: French 6/10 (8/10 reading skills)

    Studies for reading knowledge:
    Low Intermediate: Attic and Koine Greek (4.5/10)
    Low Intermediate: Classical Latin (4.5/10)

    On deck for future studies:
    Spanish (so I can converse lightly)
    Korean (conversational and reading although I understand this is a tough language)

    Even later on deck:
    Swahili (mostly reading so I can read African lit in a non-European language)
    Russian (mostly reading, for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky…duh!)
    Norwegian (mostly reading so I can read Ibsen)

    * Proficient because I spoke German at home to the age of 10, forgot much of the finer points, and have picked it up with some considerable success again in my forties.

  30. Sorry, the first part of my post got clipped. I started by saying one can get very far with a method, good materials and a plan. FSI, Pimsleur are excellent. Lots of videos on YouTube. Living Language for a modern language book series has been great for me.

    Most important: study every day! Also, vary your studies. Listen only sometimes. Read other times. Try to write and if possible find someone who can correct you. Learn the grammar, but remember that memorizing grammar will not make you fluent alone. You need lots of exposure and practice…lots of it.

    I have read many places that languages classes don’t work, but I learn well on my own and I have developed good habits because my teacher correct me in French and German when I make mistake.

    Every little bit helps!

    To the young people who are boasting about speaking six or seven languages…congrats! I wished I started earlier, but it is truly never to late if you are motivated.

    Peace out!

  31. Just wanted to give a tip. Currently, I’m on my way to fluency in Japanese. My bible for the “method” I use? alljapaneseallthetime.com (AJATT). Basically, the guy that runs that website (Khatzumoto), is a dude who taught himself Japanese to fluency in 18 months (and now he even lives in Japan). Hell, he even has a service where he spoonfeeds you what to do everyday of the journey, it’s like 595 days or something. Definitely worth checking out! Right now, you’re probably asking: “But I’m not learning Japanese, so why in the hell would I want to visit that site?” Because, the METHOD of language learning he uses is awesome for ANY language. He emphasizes things like total immersion (listening to music, podcasts, the news, etc. in your target language [all the time!], as well as surrounding yourself by things written in your target language [magazines, manga, websites,etc.]) as well as only doing things that are fun. Yes, he emphasizes ONLY fun things. In his way, if it’s not fun, you shouldn’t be doing it. Many readers of his have gone on to learn other languages using his method as well. Anyways, to see what I’m talking about, have a visit.

  32. I remember when I was stationed in France in the early 1960s a Captain was assigned to Shape Headquarters in France. From what I remember this person spoke 28 languages including several dialects of Chinese. If any one can verify this comment please notify me via e-mail.

  33. As a teenage exchange student in Thailand, I’ve found that cultural immersion is very successful and rewarding in multiple aspects, if not purely efficient or professional, but that’s not what I’m aiming for right now.

    If you can’t actually be among the culture and homeland of the language you want to speak, conversing with a native speaker is a way to go. It’s really easy that way to achieve authentic and colloquial language. Plus it creates amazing memories! You’ll pick up the speech habits of that person(s), and their dialect as a bonus. Of course anyone can use an online or bookstore resource, but I feel that person-to-person is a step above.

    This blog is really helpful, and to everyone who’s posted comments, your opinions are input are very interesting and I’ll share them with fellow aspiring polyglots. :)

  34. This was a great article. Why no facebook Like button or Facebook Connect login to post? Easy and free.

  35. I was stationed in France in the early 1960′s. While there an Air Force Captain was assigned to Nato headquarters(SHAPE). In the
    military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, he was written up as being able to speak twenty eight, 28, languages. Among them were several dialects of Chinese. If there is anybody who has heard of this personb or remembers the article please let me know. thank you.

  36. I on the Army. My life is simple ,my spouse is the one with the cool background. Unless yu r into war stories. Lol.

  37. ” 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. ”

    Brilliant. Spot on.

  38. Thank you for your comments. I have a 3 year old daughter who is fluently bilingual in French and English and I’m looking into exposing her to more. She seems to have quite the natural language abilities in languages and a great memory. I took French Immersion growing up and though I only speak French to her, my French is definately not as good as my English. My French continues to improve with my efforts, but it is the complete immersion with a French community of friends and French activities that have perfected my daughter’s accent. When I speak French on my own at stores accross the border in Quebec, half the time, they pick up I can speak English and switch despite how they are butchering their sentences in English. Very frustrating. When I’m with my daughter store staff almost never switch to English as they hear her speak and us conversing in French. My husband and our families are English so she gets her English that way as well as living where we are which is very English.

    As I still struggle with perfecting my second language, do I introduce more languages to my daughter now so she doesn’t loose the ability to hear and properly announciate the accent?

    We have a cousin from Lebanon who speaks Arabic and a friend who speaks Cantonese so I was thinking these my be a possible fit. Does anyone have any recommendations on how best to teach Cantonese and Arabic to my daughter when I have no abilities in these areas?

    • Thanks for reading Monica. I know of two little girls whose parents have exposed them to languages that they themselves do not speak. They did it through tutors who came to the house several times a week from the time the girls were very young.

      I think it’s fine to have your daughter learn Arabic and/or Cantonese. Just make sure she is exposed to it regularly, consistently, and that it be linked to something age appropriate.

  39. im planning to learn more languague. May i know any faster way to pick up the languagues?

    • That’s the million dollar question isn’t it? Benny Lewis, Amir Ordabayev and Luca Lampariello all have information for you, among others.

  40. Most people here cannot speak several languages and are just generating random ideas. The truth is, you can only speak about 3-4 languages fluently, since you have to master each of them AND KEEP on that high level, which requires daily training and practice. It’s not about a brain’s capacity, but more about human ability to use the brain in combination with the limited time resources. Anyone who says he/she can speak fluently more than 4-5 languages is a liar.

    If you want to learn a new foreign language, you’ll need: (1) a very strong permanent motivation for this particular language, (2) daily training and practice, preferably in an environment where you can use it. If you cannot speak a language as naturally as you breathe, it means you are not there yet. Once you are there, keep “breathing” this language regularly.

    I am fluent and literate in German, English, Russian and Japanese, and it’s a real challenge to keep them at a high level. There is no way I can learn one more language without compromising those four.

    • Try watching this video.

      Before people started running a mile in under four minutes I’m sure the professional runners who finished those races at 4:03 or 4:02 were some of the first to confirm what scientists were saying at the time: that it was physically impossible for a person to run a mile in under four minutes. Then Roger Bannister ran the mile in under four minutes. Now a racer isn’t considered competitive unless he can run the mile in under four minutes.

      Speaking the languages you do, at the level you claim, is an amazing feat that most people will never achieve. The fact that some people on the planet are more talented than you, in some ways, does not take away from your achievement at all. Thanks for reading and best of luck with your adventures with languages!

    • great post on a very interesting topic. I personally think that there is no limit to the number of languages one can speak, it is up to the individuals motivation to learn the language and the methods used to learn the language. I myself was by no means a wonderful linguist at school, English is my mother tongue but I was also force fed Irish and French at School neither of which I excelled at.

      I then went to live and work in Morocco for just over 2 years and my French improved no end. What was the trick? Not learning lists of verbs and rules for a start and secondly making an effort with locals encourages them to help you too. After that it is just practice!

      If you cannot go to a foreign country to learn the languages then i suggest a good audio course is a goo place to start. But beware there are many dud audio courses on the market, so i recommend that you chose one that teaches the practical use of the language and not unimportant vocabulary that would rarely be used. I am now learning Spanish and German and will start Arabic this year too.

  41. Thanks for this blog because I have been wondering aloud alone about whether people have an interest in other languages. i speak french, spanish, english kiswahili, kenyan sign language, luihya and luo and i ahve seen that there is a window that was closed in my mind which has been opened keep up those who are in my camp.

  42. [...] the most linguistically gifted man in the world speaks only 11 of them.  Others have claimed to know five times as many, but that’s still a fraction of the whole earth. If you want to speak to rest of the world, [...]

  43. I am going to school to major in American Sigh Language, but I want to learn French, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. Is it really possible for me to do all of that? Also, are there any degree’s in learning multiple languages at once? Probably not, but I’ve just discovered this deep love and fascination with other languages and cultures so I will do whatever it takes to be able to speck to others on there level as best I can. I am only 19, so I have plenty of time, energy, and motivation to do so. What do you all think? Great article by the way.

    • Hi, I’m glad you liked the article. Yes it is possible to learn all of those languages. I don’t know if there are degrees for learning multiple languages at once but I suggest talking to a college counselor about a degree that will let you learn multiple languages at once without studying for eight years to get your bachelor’s.

      I suggest not taking on more than three languages at once and think two would be better. If you can study French and Spanish without mixing them up too much then you could learn those two plus sign language. Learning sign language and Arabic wouldn’t be a bad idea, while you toy with Spanish on the side for fun. There are lots of ways to go about it. Just make sure that you are having fun and that your methods help you progress. Thanks for reading.

    • it is absolutely possible to do that! important to remember that it is better to do a little bit each day rather than a lot once a week. No harm to watch the news or movies either to improve pronunciation and the syntax of the language.

      Enjoy!

  44. Wow… It’s Cool Article.
    Hi All
    My name is Aik Tun. I’m from Myanmar(Burma). So my native language is Burmese. Cos my mother is Chinese, my second language is Chinese. I can speak and understand it well. I don’t know why. I’m so interesting in foreign languages. But until I was 17, I didn’t know that I was so interesting in foreign languages. So, I haven’t studied any other foreign language but Chinese and English. But, when I was 18, I start studied Korean and Japanese. I bought some book of these languages and I studied my self. Because of my foreign interesting mind, now I can study well in these two languages. But 2011, November, I found another language that is Russian and I start studied it. And then, 2012, July, I start studied Spanish. I have downloaded many things of these languages form the Internet if I can.
    But, because of I have no teacher for all of these language and no one who can tell me of these languages, I have no much time to study because I’m a University student but I try studied when I have time, I have little trouble for studying. However, Cos I’m so enjoy to study foreign languages, I don’t care any difficulty. I watched many movie and listened many kind of songs of these languages for my speaking and listening. In my future, I have plan to study French, German, Arabic, Italian,Thai. Sometime, I worried that I become a fool, crazy, mad for studying these many languages. Now I will be 21 in next month. I think if it is that last for me to learn all of these languages. I want to know at least 12 languages(Burmese, Chinese, English, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, French, German,Arabic, Italian, Thai) in my life. Now, I can fluently speak Burmese, Chinese, English, Korean and Japanese. I know all of these 12 languages can not study in a little year. I will study one after one. I don’t care it need so much years. I just want to know these 12 languages before I’m 35. Can I ? Someone said our brain is bright and can learn many things before 18 but I’m 21 now. Am I late? Can I have chance? Can I complete all of these 12 languages? Please reply me. :) Thanks for reading.

  45. Don’t know if you’re in the area, but Fullerton College offers a degree in languages, I think. That’s in Fullerton, California.
    To those young people who know multiple languages, cool. I believe you. I also believe those to claim to have photographic memory because I have a type of that too. My problem for language learning is my short attention span, but I’m learning Korean, Cantonese (Chinese), Mandarin, Japanese, KiSwahili (Swahili), now Luo (cool language!), and practicing my French. Spanish, too.

  46. I get what they say with activate and deactivate. I was quite fluent in french (was one of my courses at university) but after that never touched it again. Forgot some words etc until my friend one day picked up a french dictionary and asked me to explain some things to her, as I spoke words just started to fill my mouth! Wonderful feeling remembering it all again in minutes!

  47. I’m also a linguist, I have a BA in it. I consider myself an ‘omniglot’. I study every language and writing system ever invented, but I can only say very many things in French and German, and can read Romance and Germanic languages, Chinese, and Egyptian Hieroglyphic (not Demotic) very well. But I know all the languages and scripts, recognize a few glyphs or words in each, and am quick with the dictionary and reference grammar. It takes up a lot of time, but it’s extremely rewarding. I haven’t owned a TV for 15-ish years now.

    There’s really few people like me, ever. I’ve found a few through the internet but only really talked to one. Modern technology allows me to do more than anyone ever could in the past, even on my shoestring budget. I try not to let it get it my head. I’ve known a lot of professors and consider myself smarter than them, and rarely they can be really proud and mean. Truely smart people would never teach college in the West, it’s become too much a loosing proposition.

    There’s so much that Academia misses by over-specialization and no anti-specialization. The Academy ends up to stifling invention, improvement, and learning. I posted to LinguistList 10 years ago and they told me it was a bad idea for wanting to learn all languages and scripts. That’s the kind of people that end up in the Academy, wanna-be’s who can jump thru hoops. Kids get more out of community colleges and training than universities or private schools.

    Learning all languages is weird. So much of it is ancient languages, and you need to find motivation because what survives is alien, but pushing yourself to learn about different cultures is where most of the benefit comes in. Culture is so much more important than language : none of it, script or language, will make much sense until you go over and live there (I recommend China) for a while.

    They keys are frequency, etymology, motivation, and cognates. And for spoken languages, going there or getting Random House CD-books. I keep myself motivated by switching languages almost as soon as I lose interest, about every few days. Working with all the languages can be very computer-bound and mechanical : doing word-frequency counts and partial interlinear translations and making fonts and downloading and putting online etc. But you have to strike a balance. I love field work, I loved biking every day to the ruins and taking pictures, but like all field work, eventually it’s sitting back at the office (or computer for me), waiting to be done. And then you need something else for exercise and it tears at your enthusiasm.

    I have so much more happiness in my life now that I have worked with so many languages and know what I know. Americans especially have miserable lives because they’re ignorant, lazy, greedy, and conformity-prone. So much of what Americans believe is lies, and there’s reasons for that. I’d be more specific, but people get what they work for, so get out there and find the truth.

  48. But like how many languages is it possible to learn ? Well, if you were single and could find motivation, you could find in linguistics the short-cuts to learning scripts and languages, but it would still take you a lot of time and practice to learn a great many languages. Americans can’t do it unless they move to Europe or some other place where you can interact with a lot of different people. But if you hoard a bunch of texts, you can be a poly-reader. But even with that, it would help if you were somewhere more like Europe.

    The funny thing is, it’s an incompetancy of Europe or any area if they have a wide variety of languages. America’s monolingualism is what everyone strives for in every age, but it depends on imperialism, which Europe hasn’t had since Rome. If any government could, it would have everyone only speaking Russian or Spanish or French etc. And given 1,000 years, the entire world will speak and write in one form or be slaughtered. That’s why things are scary now, we’ve begun the series of wars leading up to one world empire, and it’s going to be a long time and lot of casualties.

    You take your chances now-a-days living in a big city, as any could get nuked. But big cities in America have more foreign speakers because the 3rd world is a bunch of one-shot capitols surrounded by mud huts. Big cities is also where you’re more likely to run into people remotely interested in other languages or all languages, and learning more is going to make you so ostracized in Smalltown Idiotsville America that you might as well go to city where you’re more likely to have a friend.

    But because of culture, when Americans learn multiple languages, it means something a lot different from Europeans. Europeans are more robotic and sterile, and Asians are even worse. American polyglots I ever knew were, to me, less fluent but more dynamic, whereas Europeans all think the same thing and just bungle modern technology (but not science). It’s not as simple as people think, being a polyglot does not necessarily mean moving to Europe. You can do it at home. But I find that the more stuff I read in foreign languages, the weirder I get, and the happier my life is. Americans do what they do because they know no better. Europeans and Asians also have their own unique ruts, but it’s very very different. Eurasians have a perspective on everything that Americans totally lack.

    Words fail.

  49. Another thing is that I gravitate toward the absolute hardest scripts first, because it makes working with the rest easier. But I’ve worked up to all that over the years. Languages are all the same for complexity, but writing systems vary greatly. The harder ones are the stupider ones, but if you want the big picture, you have to waste the time it takes to get a grip on them. Cuneiform is the hardest because it’s so ugly and abstract. Chinese-Japanese is a lot less hard because you can recognize the glyphs in the glyph blocks (Mayan terminology) much easier, with training. I don’t have Arabic, Japanese or Hindi script memorized yet either, that’s coming. Writing is much harder than spoken language. So many people could speak a ton of Chinese if the teachers were efficient and innovative and avoided the writing as long as possible. But now-a-days, thanks to cultural misunderstanding, we have Chinese teaching Chinese, the worst idea in the history of the world. Chinese are the most inefficient, non-innovative, redundant people on the planet. Their culture is based on memorizing ways to do things, not figuring out different and better ways. But they’re fun when they’re not teachers but students and they can speak some English, but like, alien-fun.

    And if you’re learning just a few languages, please don’t follow the crowd. Spanish and Arabic and Chinese and Japanese are stupid languages, they’ll make you stupider and less innovative. Learn French or German, they’re the smartest people on the planet, and smart people from Arabo-phone and Sino-phone worlds learn them anyway. Learn Church Latin, it’s better than all the others combined.

    And don’t buy that Rosetta Stone swindle, get the Random House book-CD’s, Beg-Int, Adv, with the translations of the dialogues in the back.

  50. To learn actively like a student at school, not many compared to many polygots. At a guess 10 is probably high for most people, say a language every 4years on top of having a job etc for 40 years,10 languages. I think the way polygots are talked up can be disheartening for those who know one or two languages and want to learn more. In my opinion, people that know dozens of languages “cheated”. That is to say, what probably happened was passive learning through growing up. If you live in a sea port it is common to know several languages, all you need is to live your developing years in multiple ports with high diversity and you’d be at 30 plus languages without trying. I believe the or one of the record holders lived in 3 different highly diverse regions. Now take a normal person living their whole life in a place only speaking one language commonly. If they had to go to language school to learn a language I don’t care if they lived to 100 they’d never hit 50 languages unless they had no job and were a savant.

  51. [...] I am sure for the Chinese it’s easy to do those cute little paintings that represent words…to me it looks like some painting and like a lot of trouble to paint letters like that. I would never be able to learn Chinese and that is a good language to learn because Manadrin Chinese might become very important and it’s a World language, just like Russian, English, French and Spanish…they are the most important languages and they are the most learned as if one is able to speak them, then one can make oneself understood everywhere in the world! x However, there used to be and still are some linguists who claim to know several hundred languages and some claim that they speak 58 or 100 languages…that would really make them geniuses in the field of linguism…that is hard to imagine that this is humanly possible to not get those languages mixed up or to get confused to have to juggle so many different languages…I believe the average person speaks probably 2 or 3 languages. A lot of people speak 2 languages and many speak 3 or 4 because they learn them in college and some come from a multi cultural family…and marry someone from another country, so that makes them speak 2 languages already and some languages are manatory to learn them at school so they become fluent at English…most people speak English and a lot of people are foreigners who go abroad and immigrate to a new country so they have to learn the language and their children will be born there for them it will be easier to speak the language as they are second generation…Swedes or Australians or French …or Swedish people or Norwegian people immigrate to the USA and they learn English. I am sure most have to learn English at school but that makes two languages already…I was born in Germany I speak German and I learned English at school but the normal school English we learned in Germany when I was young was not sufficient if you went to High school to hold a great conversation. I married an Englishman and I moved to Canada so of course I speak English and I know the Dutch language but I can’t say that I speak it. I can read it but in order to claim to really speak a language one has to do just that ”be able to speak it” To read in Dutch is easier for me as a German I suppose because I see that the Dutch language is a mixture of English and German..so I can read books in Dutch if I want to but I can’t speak it..I have a cat who is almost 19 years old and we got him when we lived in the Netherlands. He comes from a little Dutch town called Lisse… I am sure he meows in Dutch and he understands me and we talk to each other. I don’t know what we are talking about but we get along just fine!!! https://thelinguistblogger.wordpress.com/2008/09/06/how-many-languages-is-it-possible-to-learn/ [...]

    • How can anyone claim to be a teacher of 6 languages and not know that “criterion” is the singular and “criteria” the plural?

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