Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Modern hyperpolyglots

Ever wondered what's the maximum number of languages that an individual can learn and speak? Here's what I found about it:

  • Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849), head of the Vatican library, has been known to speak fluently 78 languages and dialects
  • Ziad Fazah is the contemporary man who speaks the most languages: he is a Lebanese living in Brazil and speaks 56 languages!

According to Wikipedia, an individual who can speak 6 or more languages is known as a hyperpolyglot! I know at least two of these amazing individuals:

Jan is a 27 years old Flemish manager who seamlessly converses in English, Dutch, German as well as Spanish, Italian and French.


His linguistic odyssey started at age 7 when his parents moved to Spain for professional reasons. Signed up at the local French School, he suddenly had to grasp not one but two foreign languages at the same time. Despite the initial struggles, when he left the country 4 years later, he was fluent in both French and Spanish. His parents had kept on speaking Dutch at home, so coming back to Belgium did not pose too many problems verbally; however, he had some catching up to do in terms of writing skills.


He continued studying French; by the age of 13 he began English classes and by the age of 16 he was also studying German, which he learned quite well motivated by a German girlfriend ("The best method ever!" said Jan).


At 22 while pursuing his university studies he signed up for the Erasmus program and spent 6 months in Siena, Italy. His strong bases in Spanish and French accelerated his command of the language. Trips to the US and the UK also gave him the chance to strenghten his English skills.


He feels very good about his ability to switch from one language to another, both in his personal and professional life. Leaning languages increased his openness to people, cultures and other values, said Jan. It also dissolved any fear of "change" and increased his capability to adapt to any environment. On the other hand, he feels that quantity goes to the detriment of quality: in other words, he feels that sometimes, when fatigued, he finds himself mixing up languages or not finding the right words.


Another wonder of multilingualism is Alain, a French man who discovered at 24 an extraordinary ability to learn languages; today he is fluent in six. The fascinating thing about Alain is that, despite having lived in different countries all is life, he has been in a mostly francophone environment until the age of 8; and yet, French does not feel like the primary language to him, today.

Alain grew up in Picardy until the age of six. His father was in the military and was then transferred to Chad, in Africa, where Alain attended the French school until the age of 8. The family then moved to Baden-Baden, Germany. Here he lived until the age of 16 on the military base, which was a French island in a German environment. He learned German in school, but with great difficulty, having to start from scratch while the other kids lived with at least one German-speaking parent. German has been, therefore, his first foreign language. soon after, he also began studying English.

At 16, he returned to France to finish high-school. He then moved to Saarbrücken, Germany, to begin undergraduate courses, and two years later to Berlin to attend military service. In Berlin, he began fooling around with the Italian language. A three-month stay in Italy to visit a friend sufficed to pick up the language almost fluently.

"I learned tons by watching TV," says Alain.

At that point, at age 24, his passion for languages literally exploded: three months in the US cemented his English; two years in Barcelona made him a great Catalan and Castillan (Spanish) speaker. He then moved to the UK for four years and subsequently to Italy for professional reasons.


"Today I am most at ease when speaking English," says Alain, "but Italian remains the language of sentiments and friendship: I lived some special emotional moments while in Italy, and the language has developed a lot in that sense."

Alain adds that languages need to be polished and trained regularly: "My German is at its most rusty these days, because that is the language I use the least."

He inevitably tickles the interest of his interlocutor, because in each of his six languages, he has an accent or an inflection."Even in French I have an exotic accent!" adds Alain, delighted.

And his accents are not the same in every language:

  • In French, he sounds foreign (Belgian, sometimes Swiss)
  • In Italian he has a soft French inflection
  • In English he has a soft French, but mostly unidentifiable, foreign inflection
  • In Spanish he has an Italian accent
  • In Catalan he has a French accent
  • In German he sounds like he’s "from somewhere in the south"

"I feel more as a European of French origin, rather than a French European; I feel prisoner of a passport which does not really correspond to my cultural identity," said Alain.
Today he lives in London, one of the few cities where he gets to speak all of his French, English, Italian, German, Catalan, Spanish, while studying Portuguese, for fun.

5 comments:

Alice in Austria said...

wow, 78 languages is just mind staggering. If the languages belong to the same language group I can sort of understand how one can get to be fluent in 7 languages. Once you get French & Spanish I suppose it can't be so hard to pick up Portugese & Italian as well. But what if you try to learn a language from another language group, like Korean, which is awfully hard, or Chinese ... I have found that I can learn European languages sooo easily, yet I am struggling with the Asian ones.

Clo said...

"Unfortunately" my hyperpolyglots were "merely" euro-centric (although there is some substantial differences between the germanic languages and the romance languages). But I agree with you, when you approach languages which belong to a different linguistic group, the challenge is far greater. I studied Russian and ancient Greek in high school, and the mere fact of dealing with a different alphabet requires quite some concentration in the beginning...but it also becomes as fascinating as cracking a secret code! Asian languages must be another animal altogether...hats off to you, Sophie!

Juliet said...

Thanks for posting that interesting and cool info. I'm pretty ambitious about languages myself. :-)

skytor said...

Yes! I only have to learn 75 more languages fluently and I'll get my name into guiness book of world records!

coffeehound said...

You may enjoy my new book about hyperpolyglots, Babel No More, which is coming out on January 10, 2012.