How many languages is it possible to speak for a human - Polyglotism?

When you sit for a polyglot dinner, it is generally assumed that most people will converse in English. But there would be intermittent trial periods when they would switch languages to gauge each others’ comfort level, most common being German. Italian, Spanish, French and Russian come close. Again if the purpose of the dinner is practicing then they might try out rarer languages like Hebrew, Welsh, Esperanto etc. But whatever language you choose, two polyglots meeting and speaking out languages to each other is great fun.

Now the question is what is the maximum number of languages a human being can learn?

Quoting a hyperpolyglot, he said that there is no theoretical limit to learning a number of languages, the only limitation was time. In the United States a lot of families speak more than a language at home, three being very common. In India again mastering five to six different languages in day to day business is a familiar sight. But there are people practicing, ten, twenty, thirty and even one hundred languages, so what is the upper limit of learning several languages.

When Michael Erard went around the world interviewing hyperpolyglots, in addition to finding out the secrets behind their success, he understood why was it difficult to put an exact number on languages learnt. Graham Cansdale said he mastered 14, worked as a translator, but has studied more. Lomb Kato who believed that self conviction helps you to be a linguistic genius, knows 16, out of which she was confident with five and the rest she could do translation. Alexander Arguelles says he has studied more than 60 and even after devoting almost nine hours a day he claims to have reading competence in 20.

Johan Vandewalle who won the Polyglot of Flanders contest was tested in 22, though he claimed to have studied more. According to Ken Hale, the famous MIT linguist, he could speak English, Spanish and Walpiri and could merely talk in the other 47. But his colleagues have seen him studying Finnish grammar on air and upon landing conversing smoothly in the language.

We don’t have a tab on the number of languages that Emil Krebs learnt, but it could range from 32 to 68 and his brain is still preserved for study to understand his unusual talent for languages. But the most famous was Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who knew 40 to 72 languages, 14 of which he had studied but not used, 11 in which he could have a conversation, 9 which he spoke not quite well, but with a perfect accent, and 30 languages (from 11 different language families) which he had totally mastered. He was truly a legend.

Most multilinguists have a very fine definition of “knowing" a language and they always underestimate their strength and capacity. For example, if they know 40, they would say 15 languages that they are comfortable with.

So again what could be the upper limit:

David Herning who won the polyglot of Europe contest in 1990 at that time communicated in 22 languages and with each passing year the number increased, and now its 31. So the definition of upper limit varies from person to person, their capacities, intelligence and the inherent desire within to pick up new and newer languages. This hunger keeps the counting wide open.


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