Whether online, in the news or even real life, we’ve all encountered those people who easily speak three or four languages. In some cases many more, causing us to often scratch our heads and ask, “How many different languages can you speak?”
The question is far more common than you think, and it’s driven many people throughout history to do everything from trying to learn a new language within 90 days to researching how to best adopt the most effective habits of successful language learners.
But before getting to the crux of the answer, it’s important for anyone attempting to learn a language to ask themselves a handful of questions around their drive behind it, such as, “Why do I want to learn a new language?” and “How quickly do I want to achieve my goals?” The answers to these questions are solely for you to use as motivation. Some people want to learn a language to date someone from another country, others want to expand their professional opportunities and some, as we’ll see below, just do it for the fun of it.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela
In order to answer the question around how many different languages one person can learn, we first need to learn about polyglots.
What’s a polyglot?
Simply put, a polyglot is someone who has mastered the ability to speak a handful of languages. And, to make things even crazier, the term hyperpolyglot was introduced by linguist Richard Hudson in 2008 to describe people who speak dozens of languages, which begins to give you an idea of how many different languages can you speak. But what exactly does it mean to “speak a language?”
Here’s an example of a young polyglot from the United States speaking in 20 different languages:
What does it mean to speak a language?
According to some people, speaking a language means that they can converse casually with native speakers. For others, it’s the ability to speak about complicated topics, write news articles or give television interviews. But the short answer is, “it depends.” Many people today turn to exhaustive lists of language proficiency tests in order to claim that they truly know a language. For example, someone wanting to test their Amharic skills can take an exam administered by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Or, if you wanted to put your Bulgarian to the test, you could take the Foreign Language Proficiency Exam (FLPE) administered by the University of Florida.
The list goes on and on, but the point here is that being able to “speak” a language is relative, and only you can decide what that means to you by setting specific language learning goals.
Notable polyglots and hyperpolyglots
In order to convey the sheer ability of the human mind to speak dozens of languages, it’s important to introduce you to some of the most famous polyglots and hyperpolyglots to have ever lived:
Emil Krebs (1867 – 1930)
While writing his book, Babel No More, in which he set out to answer the same question we have, of “how many languages can one person speak?” Michael Erard searched high and low to better understand what language is, how our brain understands it and what the upper limits are on our ability to learn a language. One man he came across was Emil Krebs, known today as the “King of Hyperpolyglots.”
Krebs was a German diplomat who knew around 65 languages. His ability to master all of these tongues was so impressive that German neuroscientists, Karl Zilles and Katrin Amunts, analyzed his brain in 2002.
According to Erard’s report, Krebs was deeply attracted to languages from a young age. One day he found an old French newspaper, and after receiving a French dictionary from a teacher, Krebs returned to his teacher two weeks later being able to speak the language. By the time he left high school, he spoke 12 languages.
With a desire to learn the hardest language of the time, he studied Mandarin Chinese and by 1901, he was the “chief interpreter” between Germany and China.
As time went on, Krebs amassed more and more languages in his repertoire. His main power was in how quickly he could learn the basics of a language, which was often around two weeks. He also assigned specific days of the week to learn specific languages e.g. Monday for Chinese, Tuesday for Arabic, etc. By the end of his life, it was said he could speak in 65 languages.
“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” – Charlemagne
Ken Hale (1934 – 2001)
Kenneth Hale was a world-renowned MIT linguist who knew around fifty languages but claimed to only “speak” three (English, Spanish, and Warlpiri). Hale said he only knew how to “speak” three languages, because, to him, there exists a large difference between truly knowing a language and being able to speak in it while remaining aware of its cultural implications.
As a child, Hale learned Spanish and Tohono O’odham, the language of the Tohono O’odham Native Americans. When in high school, he picked up Jemez, Hopi and Navajo. And in terms of how long it took him to learn a language, Hale claimed that he could get the basics down in 10 to 15 minutes if he were listening to a native speaker.
According to an article from The Economist, for Hale, “learning languages became an obsession. Wherever he traveled he picked up a new tongue. In Spain he learned Basque; in Ireland, he spoke Gaelic so convincingly that an immigration officer asked if he knew English. He apologized to the Dutch for taking a whole week to master their somewhat complex language. He picked up the rudiments of Japanese after watching a Japanese film with subtitles.”
By the end of his life, Hale was one of the last people to speak certain extinct languages, and the languages died with him. His son, Ezra, delivered Hale’s eulogy in Warlpiri, a language native to the Northern Territory of Australia, which Hale taught him and his brother when they were younger.
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” ‒ Ludwig Wittgenstein
Alexander Argüelles (1964 – present)
Alexander Argüelles is a linguist from Chicago, Illinois. Aside from being an expert in the Korean language, he’s best known for being able to speak anywhere from 20 to 50 languages. According to Argüelles, “If someone tells you how many languages they speak, then you shouldn’t trust them,” which is a bit awkward given that the title of one of his self-published pieces in The Guardian is “I can speak 50 languages,” but let’s continue.
As a child (seeing a theme here?), Argüelles traveled often with his father, who was a self-taught polyglot himself. Argüelles remembers watching his father being able to speak with almost everyone he met, regardless of where they were from.
Despite knowing so many languages today, Argüelles says he wasn’t a natural language learner. He almost gave up on French at the age of 11, but found more interest in studying other languages, like German, so that he could read more of his favorite authors in their native languages, which has been his main motivation in learning any language. After mastering German, he went on to Greek, French, Sanskrit, Latin and more.
Once in his 20s, Argüelles decided he was going to learn as many languages as possible, and he dedicated himself to the task through developing strong habits and figuring out how to make the most of his time, which we’ll describe in more depth below.
Today, Argüelles says he can read in three dozen languages and enjoys speaking with his sons in French, his wife in Korean and with the both of them, when everyone is together, in English.
Check out 18 polyglot singing Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” in 30+ languages
How to learn more languages
So, what secrets do all of these polyglots and hyperpolyglots have to offer aspiring multilinguists? Below are a few tips to get you started speaking as many languages as your heart desires:
Establish an insane work ethic
According to Argüelles, learning new languages comes down to having an insane work ethic. In his own words, he says, “I’m often asked what the secret is. The truth is it’s mostly down to endless hours of reading, studying and practicing grammar’ as well as my own technique called “shadowing”, which involves walking briskly outdoors while listening to a recorded language and repeating it out loud. For five or six years, before I married and had children, I would study for 16 hours a day. I’d transcribe Irish, Persian, Hindi, Turkish, Swahili. Gradually, all these wonderful languages started to swim into focus, and ever-increasing numbers of great works became accessible.”
Learning a language requires patience, time and dedication to the task. For those who want to just get the basics down, you may be able to do it in as little as a few months, for others, it could be a few years. When thinking about notable hyperpolyglots like Krebs and Hale, it’s important to realize they’re not the norm; they’re outliers. Instead, when learning a language, think more of Argüelles, the student who almost stopped learning French at 11 because he found it too difficult, then went on to learn dozens of languages. For Argüelles, being able to speak fluently is just the foothills of a mountain. “Climbing the mountain – achieving native fluency – is always going to take years.”
Become a chameleon
According to another modern polyglot, Tim Keeley, learning a language has nothing to do with your intellectual capacity. Instead, it’s about how comfortable someone is with taking on a new identity, which means not becoming too attached to who they are and how they currently see themselves. This is much in line with the growth mindset, which is the belief that we can learn, improve and become better at things versus remaining the same, or “fixed.”
Keeley, who is also a professor of cross-cultural management at Kyushu Sangyo University in Japan, ran a study in which he tested a set of students’ “ego permeability,” which means how possible is for them to get out of their own head and identity. Keeley asked questions like, “I find it easy to put myself in other’s shoes and imagine how they feel” or “I can do impressions of other people.”
Given what we know about language, his results won’t be surprising. He found that those who had a higher degree of “ego permeability” were better suited to attain fluency in new languages.
Fake it until you make it
For many people, the issue with learning a new language is that they get too caught up in the intricacies of a language e.g. spelling, grammar, etc. Michael Levi, another modern polyglot, says that people should look to imitate native speakers in terms of how they speak, which words they stress, facial expressions and any “strange” noises they make. Levi says if people do this, they’ll often overcompensate in the beginning by going a little too over the top with their imitations, but that that is necessary and you can always dial it back.
When learning a new language, people often psych themselves out because they think that if they don’t sound like a native-speaker within a week, they’re doing something wrong; they set almost impossible standards for themselves which only leads to less confidence and motivation. Instead, as Argüelles suggested, it’s important to practice as often as possible, while setting goals that feel comfortable and realistic to you. There are endless classes, workshops, meetups and online programs for people to use nowadays, which only helps to make the thought of learning a new language a bit less daunting and mysterious.
How many different languages can you speak?
By this point, you can already guess what the answer to, “How many different languages can you speak?” is. The answer is ironically another question: “who knows?” Throughout history, humans have pushed the boundaries of how many languages we can learn and comfortably speak in, reaching astronomical heights of 50, 65, 72 and so on.
The one thing you can be sure of is that learning multiple languages is possible and that humans are capable of learning more languages than they’ll likely ever need in a lifetime. But therein lies the beauty of language learning; we learn languages that mean something to us, we learn languages to communicate and connect with others, and we learn languages because, as Geoffrey Willans says, “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.”
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love these:
- 6 Proven Ways to Improve Speaking a Foreign Language Online
- 12 Productivity Hacks to Learn a Language If You’re Busy
- 5 Languages You’ve Never Heard Of (And Why You Should Learn Them Anyway)
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