Most of us are pretty impressed when we meet someone who speaks more than one language, but some people go beyond bilingualism or even trilingualism and become hyperpolyglots.
Throughout history, some intrepid language enthusiasts have taken on the challenge of learning not just one or two, but dozens of languages. A few are even said to have mastered as many as 100 different languages and dialects, which, considering how difficult it is to learn a single new language, is quite impressive to say the least.
In polyglot heaven, the relationship of language to person is not necessarily symmetrical. Ok, no idea what that means, but the truth is that while there are so many languages spoken in the world, research shows that only half the world is bilingual. So if you’re wondering how you can be someone who speaks the most languages, you’re ahead of half the world if you only learn 2.
There are only a few people who actually speak many languages. By “many” I mean 10, 20 or even 30 (and more) languages spoken by one person. Wow! Of course, the question arises: who speaks the most languages in the world? Who are the most inspiring polyglots in the world today? Let’s dive right in!
What is the most number of languages spoken by a single person?
Ziad Fazah: The Liberian-born polyglot Lebanese currently holds the Guinness World Record for speaking the most languages. Fazah claims to be able to read and speak 58 languages, including Arabic, Polish, Thai, Urdu, Norwegian and many others. Fazah has demonstrated his abilities in a number of tests, but he has also had some major mishaps, including a particularly disastrous appearance on the Chilean television program Viva el lunes, where he failed to understand beginner phrases in Finnish, Russian, Chinese, Persian, Hindi and Greek, all of which he claims to be fluent in.
Guiseppe Gaspardo Mezzofanti: One of the greatest polyglots in history is Cardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti. This Italian theologian was not only knowledgeable in the field of religion, but also had in-depth knowledge of ethnology, archaeology, numismatics and astronomy. Mezzofanti’s true passion, however, was linguistics, and he is known to have mastered at least 39 different languages, from Hebrew to Gujarati, as well as dozens of other dialects (some believe he may have spoken nearly a hundred languages and dialects). During his lifetime, he was a professor of Arabic at the University of Bologna and later a professor of Oriental languages and Greek, all the while learning languages, directing missionary activities and maintaining the Vatican Library. He was such a renowned linguistic genius that after his death people all over Europe vied for his skull.
Sir John Bowring: British economist, traveler, writer and fourth governor of Hong Kong Sir John Bowring had many talents, but perhaps best known for his love of languages. During his lifetime, Bowring claimed to know 200 languages and speak 100. Despite his active career in politics, Bowring devoted himself on the side to translating folk songs, poetry, and literature from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Spain. His son, Edgar Alfred Bowring, followed in his father’s footsteps as a translator, although he never learned as many languages as his father during his lifetime.
Kenneth Hale: It should come as no particular surprise that an MIT linguistics professor is also a well-known polyglot. Hale’s studies at MIT have focused primarily on endangered languages, especially in North America, Central America, and Australia. But Hale has not only studied these languages, he has learned them himself and is fluent in Tohono O’oham, Jemez, Hopi, Navajo, Warlpiri and about 45 others.
The most amazing thing about Hale, however, is the speed with which he learned a new language. He was often able to carry on a simple conversation with a native speaker after only 10 or 15 minutes of listening.
Georges Dumezil: The noted French philologist Georges Dumezil is best known for his work on mythography and social classes. However, this academic work was aided by Dumezil’s penchant for learning ancient languages, which allowed him to use a wide range of primary sources for his research. Eventually, Dumezil’s linguistic studies went beyond the classical languages, and by the time of his death he is said to have spoken or read more than 200 languages with varying degrees of fluency.
William James Sidis: William James Sidis was a child prodigy who possessed exceptional linguistic and mathematical abilities. His IQ was estimated to be between 250 and 300, one of the highest ever measured. Sidis taught himself eight languages by his eighth birthday (Latin, Greek, French, Russian, German, Hebrew, Turkish, and Armenian) and even developed his own language called Vendergood. As an adult, he claimed to be able to speak more than 40 languages and dialects, and it is reported that he was able to learn the basics of a language in one day (although this claim may be false). Unfortunately, the public attention his gifts attracted drove Sidis into seclusion. He took menial jobs and lived in seclusion to avoid attention until his death at the age of 47.
Ferenc Kemeny: Hungarian translator Ferenc Kemeny is perhaps one of the most successful in his field in terms of sheer linguistic competence. It is reported that Kemeny understood more than 40 languages, could write in 24 and speak in 12. He spent most of his career translating poetry and literature, often from his native Hungarian into more than 17 other languages and from 30 other languages into Hungarian.
Emil Krebs: The turn-of-the-century German diplomat and China expert is best known for his exceptional linguistic skills. Over the course of his life, he spoke and wrote 68 languages with some fluency, although he also studied more than 120 other languages. He collected more than 3,500 books in languages from around the world, the volumes of which are now preserved in national archives. Oddly enough, Krebs often used his second languages (not his native German) to learn new languages. For example, he learned Basque in Spanish, Hindi and Irish in English, and Finnish in Russian. His abilities were so famous that his brain was preserved after his death and studied at the Brain Research Institute in Düsseldorf, Germany (researchers claim that there is evidence of his language abilities in his brain structure).
Lomb Kato: Lomb Kato was a Hungarian hyperpolyglot who worked as an interpreter and translator. She taught herself Russian by reading Russian romance novels, and other languages soon followed, often learning through detective stories and dime novels. She was self-taught in all languages, believing that “you learn grammar from language, not language from grammar.” Eventually she was able to interpret in 10 languages, translate technical literature in six languages, read in 11 languages, and work with 16 languages, including Bulgarian, Chinese, Danish, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, and Ukrainian.
Sir Richard Francis Burton: British explorer, geographer, diplomat, spy and cartographer Sir Richard Francis Burton is said to have spoken 29 languages and countless dialects. He learned many of these languages during his explorations of Asia, Africa and the Americas, but others he began learning as a child, mastering French, Italian, Neapolitan, Latin and several other dialects before he graduated from high school. He also helped translate and publish many famous books, including One Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra.
Amazingly, what are the hardest languages to learn?
- Mandarin Chinese: interestingly, the hardest language to learn is also the most widely spoken native language in the world.
What are the easiest languages to learn?
- Norwegian: this may come as a surprise, but we have ranked Norwegian as the easiest language to learn for English speakers.
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