Put simply, a polyglot is someone who speaks multiple languages. How many is ‘many’? Well, the most languages spoken by one person is 58 – a record that was held by Ziad Fazah in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1998. However, polyglots can be proficient in far fewer languages and still be referred to as such. The ability to speak 3-5 languages should get you into the polyglots club.
They say no man is an island. Indeed, we rely on interaction with our fellow humans to survive modern life. Communication is key to a lot of what we do every day, from saying ‘hello’ and ‘pass the salt’ to ‘I love you’ and ‘I need your help’. With that in mind, it’s no surprise we all like to feel heard and understood – we prize the company of those who are good listeners and communicators. Yet, there are around 7,000 different languages spoken in the world, not counting dialects, according to Ethnologue, the database that is considered to be the most extensive catalogue of languages. So, does speaking multiple languages really make you a better communicator? We asked the polyglots.
What Is a Polyglot?
Let's first answer what does polyglot mean? The word polyglot stems from the Greek word poluglōttos, meaning more than one tongue, referring to language. As mentioned, a polyglot is considered to be someone who speaks multiple languages or uses them in such a way that shows their comprehension, such as reading, writing or internal interpretation.
How Many Languages Does It Take To Be a Polyglot?
Those who are bilingual can speak two languages, trilingual people can speak three languages, multilingual people can speak multiple languages and polyglots can speak several languages – usually having a grasp of at least somewhere between 3-5 languages. There are also hyperpolyglots, who are often defined as being able to speak more than 12 languages. As you would expect, they are even rarer than polyglots.
Multilinguals and Polyglots – Both Speak Many Languages but Are They the Same?
The words multilingual and polyglot are often used interchangeably. However, it is generally accepted that someone who is multilingual has grown up speaking multiple languages, has been exposed to different languages in their environment or has studied them out of practical need, whereas a polyglot is often someone who studies languages from a place of passion for the subject. How comprehensively either multilinguals or polyglots understand the languages they ‘know’ differs between individuals.
What Level of Language Comprehension Do Polyglots Need to Say They ‘Know’ Them?
There is no set standard of fluency and some polyglots will indeed have a greater comprehension than others – some of the languages they use may sound like their native tongue, whilst others may be at a conversational level or they may understand them but not be able to speak them fluently. Even Ziad Fazah – who is considered to be one of the most skilled living polyglots – is said to be able to speak 15 languages fluently without any preparation, with his proficiency in the others being unknown.
Famous Polyglots Around the World
Should you embark on joining the polyglots, you’ll be in good company. There are some famous polyglots that may surprise you with their ability to speak many languages, such as Nelson Mandela, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Trevor Noah, Mila Kunis, Bradley Cooper, Tom Hiddlestone, Penélope Cruz, Roger Federer, Fernando Alonso, Viggo Mortensen, Alicia Vikander, Lupita Nyong’o, Nikola Tesla, Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I, and Prince William, to name but a few.
Famous Celebrity Polyglots
A master of languages, as well as martial arts, Jackie Chan used his affinity with languages to work with people in other countries. He is said to be able to speak eight languages – Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, German, English, and American Sign Language.
Along with being a good-looking, highly-skilled actor, Leonardo DiCaprio is also a polyglot. Whilst his surname is indicative of an Italian lineage, his father is of German-Italian descent and his mother is German – putting him in good stead to learn more languages than his native English; being fluent in both German and Italian also.
Known for her roles in Grey’s Anatomy and Killing Eve, award-winning actress, Sandra Oh is also one of the world’s famous polyglots. Born to South Korean parents who immigrated to Canada before she was born, Oh is said to know four languages – English, Korean, French, and Spanish.
Spanish, Portuguese, English, Italian, and Arabic. The Colombian-born singer, Shakira, speaks an impressive five languages, along with carving out a career that has her dubbed the "Queen of Latin Music". With a Lebanese mother and Spanish-Italian father, she gained fluency in Arabic and Italian. Along with her native Spanish, she also sang in English and picked up Portuguese while touring.
Topping our list of famous celebrity polyglots, Natalie Portman speaks six languages! The American-Israeli actress was born in Israel but moved to the US at the age of three and counts English and Hebrew as her native languages – as continuing to use both in the Jewish schools she attended. She went on to add Japanese, Spanish, German, and French to her list.
While it’s interesting to learn of the famous polyglots that are in the public eye, here you’ll find those who are in the big leagues when it comes to those who speak multiple languages.
Still studying at the age of 77, Steve Kaufmann is a truly inspirational polyglot. Now capable of communicating in 20 languages, Kaufmann had felt that the language teaching methods used by schools were not engaging enough – making it difficult for him to learn how to speak different languages – and so developed his own methods to acquire the knowledge he sought.
On the other end of the age spectrum, we have Cameron (known as Kid Polyglot on YouTube) who, at just 16 years old, already knows 27 languages! The gifted teenager from Atlanta, Georgia started learning languages at the age of nine when she wanted to help a friend from Austria feel less isolated, by learning German. She’s got her sights set on travelling the world and speaking multiple languages – at least a hundred. Rather than consider how many languages can you learn at once, using her own process she estimates that it takes her approximately a year to be completely fluent in a new language, though, with 27 already under her belt at the age of 16, she may well do it!
Sir Richard Burton
As a British soldier, explorer, and diplomat, being one of the most famous polyglots came as part of the job for Sir Richard Burton. Through his travels and work as a diplomat, Burton became fluent in 26 languages, though it was his work in translation that brought him the most fame. He’s known for translating classic texts into English, including The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (commonly known as The Arabian Nights) and translations of other manuscripts of later translations of the Kama Sutra (the original being written in ancient Sanskrit – a language even he didn’t have mastery of).
Cardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti
Possibly the earliest recorded polyglot (or, indeed, hyperpolyglot), Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti was born in 1774 in Italy and was tutored by the Piarists. Displaying a talent for languages at an early age, he learned several languages from them and while the total number of languages he was able to communicate in remains unclear, estimates come in at between 30-70!
Who Are the Polyglots?
Public figures and celebrities aside, the joy of languages is for everyone to experience and it can act as a great human equaliser. Meet our students who speak many languages – adding themselves to the list of polyglots.
Cynthia Rud, a 52-year-old learner with Centre of Excellence, says she believes learning languages “has definitely made me a more compassionate and understanding person”. Born and raised in Argentina, Cynthia has been living in Europe for 27 years now and is currently enjoying life in Brussels. Cynthia is proficient in her mother tongue of Spanish, as well as English, French, and Dutch. She also understands Italian and Portuguese and can count to five in Japanese!
While she puts this incredible flair for languages to excellent use in her job as a technical scientific literary translator and a licentiate in languages and linguistics, Cynthia is also a certified Life Coach and is studying the Emotional Intelligence Diploma Course. With communication key to her professional goals, Cynthia told Centre of Excellence, “I’ve always understood languages as a bridge between cultures, and language as an extremely powerful tool to conduct a dialogue.”
But it’s also important to Cynthia — who enjoys travelling the world, feeding her “never-ending curiosity”, broadening her horizons, and meeting new people — on a personal level. Citing an article published by The British Academy stating that the cognitive benefits of learning a language include empathy and a global mindset, Cynthia said she’s also enjoyed an improvement in her overall analytical skills, creative expression and enriched vocabulary.
The teacher has observed these benefits in her students of all ages who have developed “openness and adaptability” through language learning. Cynthia plans to continue demystifying modern language learning for students far and wide, to prove once and for all that languages are fun!
“I am convinced languages have opened up my mind and my heart in so many ways! I’ve been able to make friends all over the world, enjoy literature and cultural richness, and develop into a true citizen of the world,” she said. During the height of the global pandemic, Cynthia felt “determined to continue sharing common humanity and empathy through multilingual dialogue” and even took to YouTube to discuss — in multiple languages — the hopes and fears shared with her multilingual friends across Europe, Asia and America.
Compelled to help her community feel connected and hopeful, leaving no one behind, Cynthia focussed not on the mastery of the languages used for these important conversations, but on the “value-creating exchanges between individuals”. Expecting only her close friends would watch, Cynthia was surprised to see these videos watched thousands of times.
Another Centre of Excellence student who understands the value of learning how to speak different languages to create a human connection is Claire Maurice. The 47-year-old speaks Spanish, Finnish, and English and is currently learning to speak Korean “so I can order a coffee when I go visit my daughter” who will be moving there in 2022 after completing her studies at university..
Currently residing in Bridgnorth, Claire has worked as an Early Years Teacher in Switzerland, Finland, Spain and Cyprus. Next on the list is Costa Rica, where Claire plans to volunteer with the turtle rescue missions on the island’s coastal regions. To best immerse herself in an experience, Claire says she thinks it’s important to have some of the language of the country in which you live. For that reason, she will be furthering her Spanish studies while learning Korean, both with Centre of Excellence..
So, how easy is it, learning to speak many languages? Claire says, “The more languages you learn, the easier it is to learn more, even if the languages are not related.” Admittedly, she has an appetite for learning and has also studied the Vikings and Conservation with CoE. But the language skills, in particular, Claire says, “have opened up so many opportunities for me and my family.”.
Likewise, Jonathan Ferguson credits his ability to speak many languages – Spanish, French and German in his case – for his career security, telling Centre of Excellence that “learning languages means I have never been out of a job.” The 44-year-old Liverpudlian living in Lancashire has worked with languages since leaving university in a variety of commercial roles. In 2017, he retrained as a pastry chef and now runs his own small, French-style pâtisserie..
Indeed, French and German were his first loves at school, where he developed a passion that led him to study more foreign languages at university level. He recalled, “If I try to think back to when I was in school, I suppose it was the lure of foreign cultures, travel, and adventure that really inspired me.”.
Learning how to speak different languages didn’t disappoint him. Jonathan said, “On a personal level, it has really enriched my life through the ability to communicate, travel with confidence, explore the cultures of other countries, and I have also made some very good friends. Learning multiple languages has allowed me to see the world from different perspectives.”.
When asked how he felt being a polyglot has influenced his life, he replied: “Would I be the person I am today without having first-hand experience of different cultures? Probably not!”.
But beyond the cultural enrichment, even as a youngster, Jonathan was aware of the doors speaking multiple languages can open to future careers. Indeed, Jonathan says the “mental gymnastics” of language learning has helped him develop his cognition in many areas. Comparing the skills to learning an instrument, Jonathan believes learning a language is first and foremost about being able to apply knowledge to real-life situations and being able to problem-solve on the fly..
To learn a language you must flex your memorisation muscles, hone your creativity in communication, and push your willingness to try things out and feel your way around rules.
Jonathan said, “For me, my experience of language learning has taught me to be thorough in my approach to learning new things, to look for patterns, to be creative in solving problems, to not be afraid of making mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes. Even today, when my job does not involve languages, I still use and develop my linguistic skills daily.”
Like most polyglots, Jonathan has a love of learning that he has nurtured into adulthood with a varied and joyful approach to feeding his curiosity. A CoE learner since 2013, Jonathan has studied the Diet and Nutrition Advisor, Paleontology and Feline Behaviour and Psychology diploma courses.
How many languages can you speak? There are as many reasons to learn languages and join the polyglots as there are languages in the world. From Welsh to Arabic to Mandarin by way of British Sign Language, there will be a language out there to suit your style of learning, what you hope to achieve with your newfound fluency, and so many other fascinating polyglots — just like Claire, Jon, and Cynthia — out there to befriend along the way.
The world is waiting for you!