Speaking 157 Languages With Native Fluency

by Translation Guy on February 24, 2012

“How many languages do you speak?” That’s usually  the second question people ask me, after they ask what I do for a living. Fact is I can barely speak two, hell, one even, which usually disappoints. Charles Berlitz used to claim dozens, “with varying degrees of fluency” which seems to set the bar low enough for me to claim dozens too. Instead I say, “I speak over 150 languages with native fluency, because I use the interpreters at 1-800-Translate. That number again 1-800-872-6752!” in a booming voice so that everyone can hear. It’s great at cocktail parties, especially after that third glass of Chablis.

But sometimes, dozens really means dozens. There is a condition, and it seems to be spreading, known in the scientific literature as “hyperpolyglotism,” which is the ability to really speak a lot of different languages.

Alex Rawlings, a 20-year old student at Oxford University, recently won a contest as the most multilingual Brit in the UK. He’s got eleven language notches on his Championship belt, and hopes are high that this rookie will have a career score of dozens of languages before retirement. Publisher Harper Collins bestowed the title on Rawlings as part of a nationwide search they launched last June in promotion of their new language and learning courses, according to the company’s website.

In a video for the BBC, Rawlings showcased his fluency or near-fluency in 11 languages including English, Greek, German, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, Afrikaans, French, Hebrew, Catalan and Italian.

What I don’t get  is how come Rawlings wins with his measly eleven languages when some hyperpolylinguists speak so many more. Michael Erard, in his new book “Babel No More, ” has put together the all-time all-star dream team of hyperpolylglots. These guys are some  heavy-hitters.

First in the line-up, Giuseppe Mezzofinatti, Cardinal of Bologna, spoke 40, 50  or 58 languages, depending on who was telling the story. So how many, really?  The Pope pranked Mezzofanti  with a rush of polyglot seminarians to stump the language-meister. No dice. The famous Lord Byron a polyglot himself, at least when it came to profanity, he was unable to out-curse the cardinal. Erard tells stories of these superhuman  linguistic sluggers batting their way through dozens of languages.

But you don’t know for sure until you check them out, which is the iron law of translation quality assurance.

When I used to look at translator resumes, that 10-languageresume usually got the deep-six. I always figured that a person who divided his time between ten or twenty languages wouldn’t because they couldn’t spend enough time on each one to learn it in-depth. I’ve since learned that these polyglots are sometimes the real deal, but..

Erard reports that “some self-­proclaimed polyglots may say they speak any number of languages, when in fact most of them know only a few grammatical rules, and have only a smattering of ready words and phrases. True polyglots, we are told, find it difficult to say precisely how many languages they speak, since their many languages hover unavoidably at different levels of proficiency. And what does fluency mean? Does an American who has learned Polish as a second language need to be able to pass for a Pole in Warsaw to be considered fluent?” Well there’s not many that can, unless they call 1-800-Translate! That number again…
Would you like to know the secret of how these polyglots got a “hyper” in front of their name? Could it help you to learn languages faster? Let me know if you are intersted.


  1. Deb Kotlarz says:

    As for polyglots, I think most of them have a simple understanding of many languages (many are very similar, too) and like you say, an arsenal of phrases at the ready.

    • Ken says:

      Many walk the walk, but few talk the talk.

  2. I can only imagine what it would be like to be a polyglot. I forget my own language when I spend time in other countries.

  3. Alex Rawlings does have the benefit of living near several countries to and practice languages. Here in the States, you either speak English, or Spanish. It is hard to find people to practice many languages with.

  4. When students ask me how many languages I can speak, I usually say 5. In no way am I fluent , but I know I could use them to order food, get directions, etc., and I certainly know I couldn’t pass a 3rd grade test in any of them.

  5. “hyperpolyglotism” sounds like a medical condition. Is it genetic? Or is it just the end result of environement or passion to learn? Also, does hyper just mean fast here?

  6. Interesting that you deep six the resume’s with many language interests. It never occurred to me that it could be more beneficial to hire people who have fluency in only a few languages. I guess they would have a more in depth understanding of them.

    • Ken says:

      That was always my thought, Kalina.

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