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How many languages can a person speak?
Records of multilinguality

Sometimes we meet people speaking 5 languages, we hear of others speaking 7 or 8. We wonder whether they ever mix them in their head or whether their brain gets "saturated" by the large amount of vocabulary and grammatical patterns. Linguists have long noted that people who grew up in bi-lingual enviroment or who have acquired a foreign language at a very young age do much better in learning new languages when they grow up. But is there a limit to the number of tongues a man can learn in his lifetime?

One of the record-keepers of multilinguality was undoubtedly Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849) who was the head of the Vatican library. There are different accounts of the exact numbers - part of the confusion is due to the difficulty in distinguishing between languages and dialects, and also to the definition of fluency. When he was 12, he already spoke nearly 10 languages; when he died at the age of 75, he spoke about 40 fluently. In 1846, he himself claimed the knowledge of 78 languages and dialects.

Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti
Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti

The interesting fact is that Mezzofanti never left Italy, he managed to learn all languages either by finding native speakers who visited the Vatican or entirely from books. He knew a number of dead languages, including Latin, ancient Greek and Hebrew, Coptic, ancient Armenian, old English, etc: these could not have been acquired through real-life teachers. Some of the uncommon tongues which he spoke incuded Arabic, Chaldee, Persian, Albanese, Hungarian, Chinese, Bohemian etc.

Here is Lord Byron's recollection of the cardinal: "... a monster of languages, the Briareus of parts of speech, a walking polyglot, and more; -- who ought to have existed at the time of the Tower of Babel, as universal interpreter. He is, indeed, a marvel - unassuming also. I tried him in all the tongues in which I knew a single oath or adjuration to the gods, against post-boys, savages, Tartars, boatmen, sailors, pilots, gondoliers, muleteers, camel-drivers, vetturini, post-masters, post-houses, post, everything; and egad! he astounded me -- even to my English".

Another European polyglot is Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), the renowned explorer and translator. By age 19, he was already fluent in French, Italian, the Béarnais and Neapolitan dialects, as well as in Greek and Latin. He lived in India for 8 years where beside mastering Arabic and Hindi, he also learned Marathi, Sindhi, Punjabi, Telugu, Pashto, and Multani.

He was not only good in memorizing the vocabulary of languages, but was also able to speak them with native fluency and accent: in India he disguised himself as a Muslim merchant in the bazaars to work as a field spy and gather information; later, as a Pathan, an Afghanistani Muslim, to travel to the forbidden city of Mecca.

His translations done from a dozen languages make up many volumes, the most well-known of which are undoubtedly the Perfumed Garden and the Arabian Nights. He supposed to have spoken between 25 and 30 languages with at least another 15 dialects.

By Steve Bekes, 2000


How many languages can a person speak?