The limits of multilingualism
This page is a collection of information about the extremes of multilingualism, both individual and societal. It tries to establish an upper limit for the number of languages that:
- an individual can know. (Answer: somewhere between 50 and a 100)
- a whole society can know. (Answer: 6)
It reflects an amateur interest that I have had for some years rather than a serious research agenda; so most of my data comes from inquiries among colleagues rather than trawling the literature. Even so it may interest others who have time and ability to take the questions more seriously. A particularly encouraging example is Michael Erard, who has written an article about hyperpolyglots in the New Scientist (2005) and a popular book published in 2012 as ‘Babel No More‘. Another is Judith Therman, with a lovely 2018 article in the New Yorker. [Added in 2022: My grandson has just told me about Hypia, an international association for hyperpolyglots; its website doesn’t mention either Erard or me, but it was founded in 2016, so it may have been inspired by Erard’s book. There are also numerous clips on Youtube featuring individual hyperpolyglots demonstrating their skills, e.g. this one, which is linked to a number of others.]
One reason for my interest lies in what we can learn about the human mind from these extreme cases. Where an entire society speaks (say) six languages, we may assume that this society is genetically just like any other society, so it demonstrates that the human mind (barring pathology) is capable of learning and handling this many languages. This shows how important it is for any theory of cognition and language to be able to accommodate more than one language. Individual extreme polyglots (who I have called ‘hyperpolyglots’) are important for obvious reasons: if we knew how they managed these apparently impossible intellectual feats, the rest of us might be able to learn from them. Moreover, the research evidence seems to show that bilingualism has positive side-effects on the rest of cognition, so I hope these examples of supreme achievement will help to encourage the rest of us to do better.
- A query I broadcast on the Linguist List in June 1996: Who holds the world record for the number of languages spoken?
- A brief summary to the Linguist List of the replies I had received a week or so later.
- A couple of contributions to a discussion that this provoked.
- Another contribution to this discussion, and another.
- A 2005 article in the New Scientist by Michael Erard (also available in plain text) which quotes this evidence.
- A list of nearly 30 individuals who have claimed to speak more than ten languages.
- A list of about 40 living individuals world-wide, including some celebrities, who speak six or more languages.
- Bobby the Irish Polyglot claims to be able to become fluent in a language within three months.
- The website of Richard Simcott, a British hyperpolyglot who speaks 16 languages fluently and 30 more at some level; there’s also a link to a video of him speaking in some of these languages.
- A ‘European’ Vladimir Skultety speaking 19 languages.
- A French man Hugues Baudrillart speaking 24 languages.
- A Wikipedia article about a famous modern Lebanese hyperpolyglot called Ziad Fazah living in Brazil (more links available via Google)
- A website by a Swiss hyperpolyglot Francois Micheloud with links to success stories including Ziad Fazah and advice on how to learn lots of languages.
- A website by an American hyperpolyglot, Alexander Arguelles. NB He learned all the 18 languages that he lists on his website by studying them as an adult.
- A query I sent to the Linguist list in December 2004, asking for examples of communities where a lot of languages are spoken by every member.
- A summary of the answers I received. One entire community is reported to speak six laguages. If we take ‘community’ in a rather looser sense the number rises to seven.