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Have you ever dreamed of being able to speak dozens of languages? A new book, Babel No More by journalist Michael Erard, traces the history of people who can do just that: hyperpolyglots, people who speak 11 or more languages.

Obviously, hyperpolyglotism is a trained skill. No one just wakes up speaking multiple languages, but there may be factors that make it easier. As Erard told the Huffington Post, “Hyperpolyglots are not born, and they are not made, but they are born to be made. There is a finite subset of the human population which has the right neurological equipment for learning and using lots of languages.”

What does this mean? Well, it seems that hyperpolyglots tend to share a few characteristics other than their language ability. Hyperpolyglots tend to be male and left handed, and they also tend to have immune disorders and high IQs. It is unclear how or if these characteristics are tied to language ability or brain plasticity, and Erard makes sure to say these variables may be random or attributed to who responded to his survey. There is no conclusive evidence around what makes someone – physiologically – predisposed to be a hyperpolyglot, but there are some speculative correlations.

How do hyperpolyglot go about learning these languages? They study – a lot. After the first five or so languages, hyperpolyglots acquire a deeper understanding of how language systems work, making it easier to learn other languages. Despite that, it still takes hours of focus and vocabulary drills.

One interesting feature of historical hyperpolyglots are how language expectations have changed over time, particularly in terms of what exactly it means to “speak” so many languages. For example, one of the most famous hyperpolyglots, Cardinal Mezzofanti of Bologna spoke as many as 30 languages, but in his era, to “speak” a language meant to read and translate it, not necessarily to converse fluently. No hyperpolyglots have instant recall of all of the languages in their repertoire. Most hyperpolyglots are fluent in three or four languages and have a store of other languages that they must briefly review to speak with fluency, so called “surge languages.”

What about contemporary polyglots? In October 2011, Sonia Yang, a 10 year-old girl in England, was named the best young linguist because she can speak 10 languages: Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, English, German, French, Spanish, Portugese, Kazakh, and Luganda (the language of Uganda). She is quickly on her way to become a hyperpolyglot.

Learn more about the book here.

Want to get started on your hyperpolyglotism? Even Cardinal Mezzofanti used flashcards to help him hone the many languages he spoke. You can too with Word Dynamo.

What do you think of hyperpolyglotism? Would you want to be able to speak a dozen languages?

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Full Size JPG (1557 KB) Denver Nuggets basketball player Carmelo Anthony (L) and television personality LaLa Vazquez arrive for the premiere of “The Taking of Pelham 123,” in Los Angeles, California on June 3, 2009. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

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136 Comments

  1. arbabhussain -  January 30, 2014 - 6:47 am

    yeah this great ,by the mercy of God ,i am able to speak english,persian,urdu,greece languge( elinika),italiano,and my mother language is pashto.i love this to speak more languages ,but i do not know how to be a best speaker.thanks to all respectable

    Reply
  2. Afnan Linjawi -  December 31, 2013 - 2:50 am

    It’s so nice to see so many polyglots in this blog alone. I’m 21 and my native languages are English and Arabic. I am at intermediate level in French, German, and Afrikaans and beginner level at Tagalog, Russian, Japanese, and Mandarin. A lot of people are astounded when the know about my multi-tongue. Although I enjoy the stardom (I’m an attention addict) I know that the truth is simple. I don’t believe it’s a special neurological ability because I am a female and right-handed I just think it’s this nack for languages. We, polyglots, are just people who get languages and we like it. We’re passionate about it so we pursue it. When we learn the language, we don’t think that grammatical exceptions are a catastrophe but rather an amazing specimen of a potential for novel expressions. This makes us smile and fill our hearts with joy while it makes others scratch their head out of annoyance. I just wanted to make that clear for non-poly glots out there. You can be like us, but the problem is that you don’t want to. You are dumb enough to be convinced with stupid ads like “How To Be Fluent in A Day”! You just killed the joy of language learning.
    The 10 year olds who speak multiple languages, that’s what I call talent or super-ability. Becuase I started my language learning journey at 16. It was only then that I discovered that I’m inot it and capable.
    And also I want to clear one little misconception about Linguists and Polyglots. Being a polyglot does not make you a linguist. They’re two different things! If you study linguistics and happen to know a few languages, that’s a plus for you. But a mono-lingual linguist can be a better linguist than a poly-glot linguist. It all depends on the effort and passioned poured out.

    Reply
  3. Esra Aydan -  July 23, 2013 - 4:09 pm

    Well I can speak:Turkish (my native),english,persian,lazish,spanish,greek and german.(I just love to learn new languages and cultures.That is why I always chose languages that not similar to each other that much.) But I only have 118 IQ,I am female and right-handed. So I don’t match up with the qualifications.Does that mean I am not going to be hyperpolyglot ever??

    Reply
  4. Adan Cruz -  July 13, 2013 - 9:02 pm

    I like to speak diferent lenguages, im speak ; spanish, English,Korean, Purtuguese

    Reply
  5. Silvia -  June 15, 2013 - 1:25 am

    Hey! I am fluent in Italian, English, Spanish, German, Finnish, and speak basic French. Is there anybody else reading this with my same language skills? I am really curious to find another person like me!

    Reply
  6. Kadeen -  January 27, 2013 - 3:48 pm

    *be it to communicate

    Reply
  7. Kadeen -  January 27, 2013 - 3:41 pm

    I think that to confine the ability to be a polyglot to the traits mentioned in the article, wasn’t the actual intent. As stated, the researcher did suggest that the type of persons who actually chose to respond to the survey played a major part in his conclusions. Personally, I adore language, history and culture. I speak English fluently, and have an excellent grasp of the grammar involved. This may sound silly, but not all persons who speak their native language have a decent grasp on it. Once you understand your own language, it does aid in learning other languages. For me, I currently speak, understand, read and write Hindi, Spanish, French, and English with odd words from other languages in my vocabulary as well. It’s not about formal education, but rather the need to communicate. An increase in that need, whether be it communicate with friends, colleagues, business associates, or simply the desire to increase your knowledge plays a greater roll than the suggested characteristics in the article. :-D So my friends, if you intend to become a polyglot, don’t be disheartened. Get to it!

    Reply
  8. Sandra Karakas -  November 7, 2012 - 11:08 am

    My younger sister is 11 and she speak 6 languages

    English
    Polish
    Turkish
    German
    French
    Latin

    Not as good as Sonia but way more than what normal grow adults do

    Way to go sis

    Reply
  9. Adriana -  September 24, 2012 - 2:24 pm

    it is really amazing! i speak more than 12 lang,its soooo easy,i go all over the World,i can understand what are people speaking about,it is fantastic! i like to call myself child of the World,everywhere i am like at home !

    Reply
  10. Aivaz -  July 20, 2012 - 3:52 pm

    So what if you know over 10 languages? What does this provide in terms of practicality? Knowing over 5 languages just seems to be in search of masturbating one’s ego, nothing else. Knowing some foreign languages is, of course, a good thing, but to me it’s enough to know at most 3 foreign languages. Anyway google translate makes u have no need for knowing that much languages, and it’s said that translation by interpreters are going to be history in 10-20 years, being replaced by computer interpreter programs. You just DON’T NEED know dozens of languages, but as a hobby it’s normal to study several of them.

    Reply
  11. hah.... -  June 22, 2012 - 8:27 am

    i dont even belive half of the comments here,,,,people say they are fluent in 10 languages by the age of 15!!!! thats just hilarious, there is an old saying that goes (something]) like this : It doesnt matter how many languages you learn , but you have to have intimate knowledge on the community and understand HOW they use the language….

    thats what im saying half of the comments here are BULLSHIT =)

    peace!

    Reply
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