Updated: Mar 1, 2021
Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti was a famous Italian Cardinal and hyper-polyglot (a person who can speak more than 10 languages). Different shreds of evidence estimate that Giuseppe knew anywhere between 30 to 72 different languages. In one of the historical papers from 1858, it was written that Giuseppe spoke above 30 languages with "rare excellence".
Any reasonable human being will not fall for these numbers very quickly. It is very easy to see how people can exaggerate other people's ability to speak a certain language, especially when they do not know anything about this language or anything about language learning. From my personal experience, I just can spit some random words in Chinese and people will immediately consider me as a fluent speaker. Also, nobody speaks a language "perfectly", and every language learner knows that fluency is always just the beginning.
So , I am pretty skeptical about Cardinal Giuseppe's abilities to achieve that level of proficiency in more than 30 languages. However, Hyper-polyglots and other amazing language learners are living among us. Those individuals are pushing the limits of what is thought to be possible and making us wondering, how many languages can one speak?
What It Mean To Speak A Language
Before I address the main question of this post, we must take a moment to define what "speaking a language" actually means. Usually, I believe that a person can consider himself as a (beginner) speaker of a language if they can get around, get food, and make some decent conversations about daily topics. This time however I'm going to refer to a much higher level of proficiency, which is being fluent in a language. For me speaking a language fluently means – to break the language barrier, to manage to communicate and interact about almost any topic/scenario in the world, when the speaker understands and is being understood (at least the key takeaways).
Richard Simcott, one of the pioneers of the language learning community, speaks fluently 16 different languages, and about 14 more in varying levels of proficiency. Richard is known for his amazing ability to learn a language in a very short period. A short demonstration for Richard's skills.
Emanuele Marini, another very know polyglot, speaks as well 16 languages fluently. Emanuele is famous for his high proficiency in the languages that he speaks. At the 2013 polyglot conference, which was organized by Richard and the polyglot Luca Lampariello, Emanuele demonstrated his abilities with a few other polyglots.
These two examples were brought up to show that extraordinary language learners do exist. Nonetheless, it's still unclear if a boundary whatsoever exists in the language world, or in other words – how many languages can one person actually speak?
The Boundaries of Time and Space
Ultimately, our brain and time capacity is limited. There is no way around it. besides, when we look deep and study all these incredible polyglots, we realize that from a certain point, the challenge shifts from how to learn a language to how to maintain the languages we speak.
The more languages we will learn, the more our vocabulary and knowledge about the language structure will expand, and the similarities between those different languages will increase. Also, polyglots have developed themselves specific methods that accelerate the learning process. For those individuals, the study of a new language is not the main challenge anymore.
The biggest challenge of the polyglots around the world is to maintain and not forget the languages that they have already acquired. This is a HUGE challenge. Think about Richard and Emanuele, that need to keep working on their 16 languages! One day only has 24 hours, and it seems like an impossible task. Those polyglots are trying to travel a lot, to live in different countries, to keep in contact with friends from all over the world, but eventually, the amount of languages that one person can speak is still constricted, at least in the near future.
Now what about you? How many languages have you learned so far and to what level?
How do you maintain the languages you have learned?