How Many Languages Can You Learn for Real?
How many languages can you learn? Language lovers face this question at least once in life, and, considering that you stumbled upon this article, you are not so different in your curiosity. Let’s not think of what happened to a cat – an answer to this question for sure can be figured out without causing any lasting damage.
People often don’t have much to brag about when it comes to languages, but the notion that there are humans in the world who can fluently speak over 10 languages is truly astonishing. It’s hard to picture it and even harder to believe.
Before moving forward with this research, let’s get the terms straight. What does one call a person that speaks multiple languages?
Monolingualism – a Solid Starting Point
The person who can speak a single language can be called a monolingual or a unilingual. A substantial part of the world’s population is in fact monolingual – about 40%. Being monolingual, or any other “–lingual” for that matter, is often connected to persons’ place of origin, cultural background, and even age. How many languages can you learn fluently in order to overcome your monolingualism and be more knowledgeable? Let’s try to answer this question for you today.
A huge number of people in the world are monolingual. Statistics show that the UK is the most monolingual country in Europe, with most of its population only being able to speak one language – over 60%. It is worth noting that English is generally considered a global language – about 1.27 billion people in the world speak English, which is over 20% of the world’s population.
A bilingual person is someone who is able to speak two languages on a similar level of fluency. About 40-50% of the world’s population is bilingual. It might seem like a lot at first, but you should know that bilingualism is a natural state for many people due to the country they grew up in. But how many languages can an average person learn in such an environment?
For example, in U.S.S.R., people were exposed to at least two languages – Russian and the language of their own country. To this day most people from post-soviet countries are fluent in two languages from the day they were born. Such people, who naturally acquire two languages growing up without having to formally learn them, can be called simultaneous bilinguals. Also, a great number of countries have more than one language that is legally recognized as a national language, such as:
- in Canada it is both French and English;
- in Singapore there are four official languages – English, Tamil, Malay, and Chinese;
- In India, there are as many as 22 official languages.
In these countries, people are often bilingual or even multilingual. Crazy, right?
It is also curious that young people are often the ones who know more than one language, which can of course be linked to the recent tendencies for globalization, the ability to travel more and immerse oneself in another countries culture.
On Our Way to Multilingualism
How many languages can one person learn in order to be considered a trilingual? You can probably already guess that a trilingual person is someone who can fluently speak three languages. If a person can speak several languages (two or more) with equal proficiency they can be referred to as multilingual. About 13% of all humans around the world are trilingual. Just in Europe alone around 25% of people are trilingual, and 10% of them can speak over four languages.
Trilingualism and multilingualism are common in many countries in which, as was previously mentioned, there are multiple official languages. It is also quite common in countries that are either presently influenced by their neighboring countries or were somehow historically intertwined. Languages in many countries are similar or they originated from a single language, so their population has a much bigger chance of being multilingual. For example, people from Scandinavian countries can often speak Norwegian, Swedish, and English.
Polyglot vs Hyperpolyglot
Now that the language acquisition is a bit more clear, let’s tackle the terms polyglot and hyperpolyglot. Polyglot is a person who is proficient in multiple languages. How many languages do you speak as a hyperpolyglot? According to the International Association of Hyperpolyglots, a hyperpolyglot is someone who can fluently speak six or more languages. Such people are rare – less than 1% of people worldwide can use over five languages.
Polyglots and hyperpolyglots are exceptional in their abilities to acquire languages – these people are often linguists, scholars, and travelers. When learning a new language, they don’t simply rely on books, but on communication with native speakers, immersing themselves in different communities, experiencing the language, and taking it for what it is – an imprint of a culture. They learn not to just speak a language but to inhabit it.
All in Your Head
But how does a brain learn a language? And how many languages can the average person learn? To answer these questions it’s crucial to get sciencey for just a bit. There are a couple of areas in the brain that are associated with language acquisition and storage. Broca’s area in frontal lobe is responsible for speech production and articulation. Can’t quite master that sexy French pronunciation – he’s the guy to blame.
There is also Wernicke’s area in the left temporal lobe, which function is language development and comprehension. When people learn a new language these two areas of the brain exchange data and work together. The function of the brain that allows learning new things is neuroplasticity – it is a brains’ ability to form new neural connections, organize itself throughout life and learning process.
Most people think that it is best to learn languages when you are young, that with age brain is less susceptible to learning. Polyglots and scientists agree with that to some extent, but latest findings prove that you can successfully learn at any age. And the best way to learn, in the words of a famous hyperpolyglot Steve Kaufmann, is through enjoyable exposure to the language, and it’s impossible to disagree.
Hyped for Hyperpolyglots
You may ask, is it possible to speak 5 languages fluently? An answer is – most definitely. But you don’t have to take a word for it. In order to learn a language successfully one should try and observe the experience of people who are not just knowledgeable, but more importantly passionate about learning. Here are some memorable polyglots that will most certainly inspire you to get cracking on a new language:
He is an impressive example of a famous polyglot. When he was 17 years old he could only speak English. He did most of his language studies since the age of 50. Now, at the age of 73, he knows 21 languages and keeps learning more. His experience proves that you can successfully learn languages at any age.
Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia
He is a 29-year-old Peruvian hyperpolyglot that speaks 22 living languages (he is fluent in 16 of them) and 6 classical languages, like Ancient Greek. His approach to learning is by traveling and engaging with native speakers – he likes talking to locals any chance he gets, like exchanging jokes with a taxi driver or starting a conversation with people on markets and in cafes. His experience shows that not all knowledge comes from books, but, when learning, one should also be brave enough to venture into the world and practice a real-life skill of interaction in a foreign language.
A 56-year-old American polyglot that speaks around 50 languages, believes that systematic, disciplined, and meticulous daily work is the way to success. How many languages can a person learn is a question that is opened for debate, but when you find or create a technique that works for you, results can exceed all expectations. Alexander Argüelles developed a technique called “shadowing” – it is listening to recorded audio texts and speaking along while taking a walk outside. He also emphasizes that he never was a natural language learner, so his example proves that anyone can master languages if they just set their mind to it.
He is a prominent 56-year-old Greek hyperpolyglot, who fluently speaks 32 languages. By the age of 20, he already learned 15 languages, starting at a tender age of 5 with English. He currently works at European Commission as a translator, so he gets to practice the languages he learned every day. He is certain that in order to learn to speak, one must travel and actively use the language. In order to truly learn, one must not so much memorize the grammar, but rather invite the language into one’s life – well said indeed.
Ziad Youssef Fasah
Lebanese polyglot, born in Liberia, who claims to be able to speak an astonishing 58 languages and to be fluent in about 15 of them. He currently holds a Guinness World Record as a person who knows the most languages. To us, this is nothing but mind-blowing.
Combine and Conquer
These examples are truly inspiring, but learning about such remarkable people and their achievements makes you wonder – can you learn multiple languages at once? The answer is rather simple – there is no one in the world who knows your capabilities and limitations better than yourself. If a person sets their mind to it, there is no limit to the number of languages one can learn at once.
The important thing is to figure out a schedule that would work for you and stick to it, because consistency is important in a learning process, especially when learning two languages at once.
Decide on a Language Pair
Another important thing is to determine which languages you want to learn together. Many linguists and polyglots agree that it is best to pick languages that belong to the same family and are similar in structure, for example:
- Romance languages that originate from Latin – French, Italian, Spanish.
- Germanic languages – German, Dutch, English. Their mutual ancestor is Germanic language.
- Scandinavian languages, like Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. Developing in close geographical proximity, they share many similarities.
With all this said a main and crucial point you shouldn’t overlook when choosing which languages to learn is not their popularity, incomplexity, or convenience, but your attitude towards them. The way a language makes you feel is more important than anything else because if you do something you love it takes less effort and produces a much faster and satisfying result.
How Many Languages Can One Person Learn in a Lifetime?
The answer strongly depends on personal abilities, motivation, determination, and patience. By now it is clear, that a person can attain unbelievable proficiency and reach any goal if they are willing to make an effort, take time, and put in the work. One should remember to except the progression in one’s own individual pace and give oneself enough time to learn. It might sound tedious but it doesn’t have to be – you just have to make the learning process enjoyable for yourself.
If you are still hesitant as to whether or not you should start learning foreign languages, especially multiple at a time, here are some points that will most certainly convince you:
1. Get bigger brain.
That does actually happen. Parts of your brain, like hippocampus, will become bigger and more developed when learning two languages at once. Learning multiple languages simultaneously also leads to the increase of white matter in your corpus callosum (a nerve tract that connects the hemispheres of your brain) which can make it easier for different areas of your brain to communicate with each other. When you are switching between several languages it can also increase your gray matter count, which leads to better decision making and concentration.
2. Healthier mind in the long run.
Cognitive boost from learning languages can ward off the effects of degenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
3. Be better at multitasking.
Learning multiple languages can improve multitasking, problem-solving, and memory, even if the task at hand has nothing to do with language.
4. Build a deeper cultural connection.
Learning languages not only allows you to understand people better but helps you broaden your horizons and it gives you an inside look into many different cultures. How many languages can a person learn is how many times they get the chance to look at a world from a different vantage point.
5. New opportunities.
Living in a material world, it would be foolish not to mention such an advantage as better job options. Each new language opens new routes for you to take, makes you a better specialist, and a more valuable asset to any company or business.
Live Long & Learn Languages
So, how many languages can you learn? As much as you want and need. Learning languages is fun, and do not let anyone convince you otherwise. Becoming multilingual is an endeavor that will help you improve yourself in many ways, provide you with a new outlook on people and the world in general. Many already noticed the positive effects and the joy that learning languages give you. Once you start, you will develop the desire to dig deeper, venture out further into the literary depth of human words. After all, the language is “foreign” only until you’ve mastered it.