What is the Record for Most Languages Spoken By One Person?

If you speak one language, you’re a normal, functioning human being. If you speak two, you’re bilingual. If you speak three, you’re an overachiever and everyone hates you. But what about if you speak 10? Or 20? Or 30? Well, then you’re considered a polyglot or a hyperpolyglot depending on how awesome a word you think you deserve to describe your mastery of the spoken word. (Though if we’re being really technical, while colloquially these two terms are often used pretty interchangeable, a polyglot is usually used to describe someone who speaks more than 6 languages whereas a hyper-polyglot is used to describe someone who speaks over 12. And if you’re wondering, the term polyglot is Greek in origin, coming from the Greek, polyglōttos, roughly translating to “many tongued”, which is probably a killer inclusion in a pick-up line if you’re such an advanced linguist.)

Now you’d think that discovering the person who spoke the most languages would be as simple as searching for it on the Guinness World Records site or a quick Google search, but alas, even the almighty Guinness and Google don’t know the answer to this question, which is perhaps why Patron Kyle posed the question to us in the first place.

So why is this such a difficult question to answer? The problem seems to lie in the fact that the definition of what it takes to be able to “speak” a language varies greatly. Is a person who can hold basic conversation in 100 languages more impressive than a person who has mastered reading and writing in 30? Is being able to speak in 10 different regional dialects the same as being able to speak 10 different languages? How different would those dialects need to be for the distinction to be made?  If someone becomes fluent in over 200 languages in their lifetime, but at any given time can only speak fluently a couple dozen worthy of the crown vs their compatriot who learned and maintained fluency in just 50?

It’s questions like these that make it very unlikely that we’ll ever truly know the identity of the most gifted polyglot in history, but we have a fairly good idea of a handful of people who should at least be considered for the crown

In terms of living people, a candidate for the record holder is Ziad Fazah, who reportedly speaks around 60 languages, though the exact number isn’t clear. That said, in one television appearance, Ziad was stumped by basic questions in several languages he’d previously claimed to be fluent in. That’s not to detract from the fact that Ziad has proven he’s able to speak a pretty ridiculous number of languages and he may have studied and once been fluent in the languages he was stumped in, and simply forgotten them; but it throws into question his claim of being able to currently speak 60 or more languages at this very moment.

A more verifiable living polyglot is one Alexander Arguelles, who has a proven working understanding of around 50. Again, the number isn’t clear, even in interviews, Alexander very rarely puts a hard figure on the number of languages he can speak and understand, stating only that “Now, I can read about three dozen languages and speak most of them fluently, and I’ve studied many more“.

In Alexander’s case, he puts his amazing gift for language down to thousands of hours of study and work. A sentiment that is echoed by other living hyper-polyglots, for example, Timothy Donner, who speaks over 20 different languages. In his case, though, he’s still in his mid-20s, so he has the potential to speak and understand as many, if not more languages than Alexander some day and perhaps become the greatest of all time. It should be noted that Timothy also refuses to bother learning so-called “easy” languages like Spanish, in lieu of learning more difficult ones like Urdu, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish, etc.

Looking historically, in the book, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, the 18th and 19th century Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti is perhaps one of the most accomplished historic polyglots, reportedly being able to speak or understand 72 languages. Again, no one is sure of the exact figures, however. Regardless, Cardinal Mezzofanti’s skills with language were legendary in his time. The reason for the vast difference in the number of languages Mezzofanti was reported to have spoken stems from the fact he spoke many different dialects, which some scholars argue were so different in nature that they should technically count as entirely separate languages, while others aren’t willing to give him the credit. Even discounting his dialects, Mezzofanti was known to be able to speak Turkish, Arabic, German, Chinese, Russian and around two dozen other languages with, to quote the book, “rare excellence”. Considering he lived in 19th century, the fact he even came into contact with this many languages and found adequate books on the subjects to study, let alone learned to speak the languages fluently enough to converse with people in them, is hugely impressive.

A slightly more recent example of a hyper-polyglot is 19th century born Emil Krebs, who spoke a reported 65 different languages. Fun fact, Krebs took great enjoyment in the fact that he could translate the phrase “kiss my ass” into 40 different languages. When told that it’d be impossible to learn every language on Earth, Krebs asked which language would be the hardest to learn and mastered the hell out of that on principle.  If you’re curious, the language Krebs eventually settled on as the hardest was Chinese. Krebs affinity for language was so great that when he died in 1930, his brain was sent off for scientific study where it presumably exploded into a cloud of foreign expletives the second a researcher cut into it.

Yet another of one of the world’s top polygots was child prodigy William James Sidis who was a child whose famed psychologist father and doctor mother (one of the few women in the world in the 19th century to hold such a medical degree) used as a bit of a guinea pig to prove his father’s methods of more or less creating a child prodigy from scratch. To help facilitate this, his mother actually quit her medical practice and more or less trained the child with her husband from day 1, including the couple successfully teaching the child the English alphabet by a few months old, and to start speaking in under six months.

His parents were proud of their son, but possibly more proud that his father, Boris’s, techniques in teaching his son were genuinely working, constantly publishing academic papers showing off their successes. By two years old, William was reading the New York Times and tapping out letters on a typewriter from his high-chair – in both English and French. He wrote one such letter to Macy’s, inquiring about toys.

Unfortunately, his time to act like a child had already passed young William by. Studying seven different languages (French, German, Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Russian, and one he made up himself – Vendergood) and learning a high school curriculum at seven left Billy precious little time to act his age. His parents wanted the whole world to know about their prodigal son, as well as their participation in all of it.

He was accepted into Harvard at age nine, but the university refused to allow him to attend due to him being “emotionally immature.” His parents took this perceived slight to the media and William was front page news in the New York Times.  This gave William the notoriety and fame he was not prepared for. Tufts College, though, did admit him and he spent his time correcting mistakes in math books and attempting to find errors in Einstein’s theory of relativity.

His parents pressed Harvard further and when William turned eleven, they relented. William Sidis became a student at one of the most prestigious universities on Earth at the age most kids were perfectly content playing stick ball and not worrying about giving a dissertation on the fourth dimension.

Not hyperbole, on a freezing Boston January evening in 1910, hundreds gathered to hear the boy genius William Sidis in his first public speaking engagement, a talk about fourth dimensional bodies. His speech, and the fact that it was over most of the audiences’ heads, became national news.

Reporters followed William everywhere on campus. He rarely had a private moment. He graduated from Harvard at the age of 16, cum laude. Despite his success, Harvard was not a happy experience for young Billy.  According to Sidis biographer Amy Wallace, William once admitted to college students nearly double his age that he had never kissed a girl. He was teased and humiliated for his honesty. At his graduation, he told the gathered reporters that, “I want to live the perfect life. The only way to live the perfect life is to live it in seclusion. I have always hated crowds.”

After leaving Harvard, society and his parents expected great things from William. He briefly studied and taught mathematics at what later would become known as Rice University in Houston, Texas. His fame and the fact that he was younger than every student he taught made it difficult on him. He resigned and moved back to Boston.

He attempted to get a law degree at Harvard, but he soon withdrew from the program. William, brilliant as he was, struggled with his own self-identity. In May 1919, he was arrested for being a ringleader of an anti-draft, communistic-leaning demonstration. He was put in jail and that’s where he would meet the only woman he would love – an Irish socialist named Martha Foley. Their relationship was rather complicated, mostly due to William’s own declaration of love, art, and sex as agents of an “imperfect life.”

When in court, he announced that he didn’t believe in God, that he admired a socialist form of government, and many of the world’s troubles could be traced back to capitalism.  He was sentenced to eighteen months in prison.

Fortunately for him, his parents’ influence kept him out prison, but William decided he’d had enough of “crowds” and wanted his “perfect life.” He moved city to city, job to job, always changing his name to keep from being discovered. During this time, it’s believed he wrote dozens of books under pseudonyms (none of which were particularly well read), including a twelve hundred  page work on America’s history and a book entitled “Notes on the Collection of Streetcar Transfers,” an extremely in-depth look at his hobby of collecting streetcar transfers. It was described by one biographer as the “most boring book ever written.”

And just for fun, we’re going to read a small excerpt for a taste… Please don’t click away:

“Stedman transfers: This classification refers to a peculiar type turned out by a certain transfer printer in Rochester, N. Y. The peculiarities of the typical Stedman transfer are the tabular time limit occupying the entire right-hand end of the transfer (see Diagram in Section 47) and the row-and-column combination of receiving route (or other receiving conditions) with the half-day that we have already discussed in detail.”

We’re pretty sure Sidis’ real intent with this book was to once and for all cure insomnia, just the fact that this was his intent went over the rest of us mere mortal’s heads.

In any event, seclusion fit William just fine. He wanted nothing more than him and his genius to be left alone.

In 1924, no longer talking to his parents and out of contact with anyone who truly cared for him, the press caught up to William. A series of articles were printed describing the mundane jobs and the measly living conditions the supposed-genius William Sidis had. Ashamed and distressed, he withdrew further into the shadows. But the public remained infatuated with the former boy wonder’s apparently wasted talents.  In 1937, The New Yorker printed an article titled “April Fool!” which described William’s fall from grace in humiliating detail.

The story resulted from a female reporter who had been sent to befriend William. In it, it described William as “childlike” and recounted a story about how he wept at work when given too much to do. Sidis sued the New Yorker for libel and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, before they eventually settled seven years later. But the damage had been done. William Sidis, for all the potential he showed as a child prodigy, would never become the man he was supposed to be.

On a summer day in July 1944, William’s landlady found him unconscious in his small Boston apartment. He had had a massive stroke, his amazing brain dying on the inside. He never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead at the age of 46 with a picture of the now-married Martha Foley in his wallet.

So how many languages did he speak? During his life, he became fluent in about 40 languages, though how many he remained fluent in at a given point isn’t clear.

Moving on from the sad tale of Sidis, perhaps the greatest number of languages claimed to be spoken by a single person is over 100. Yes, 100, with two zeroes. This claim was made by one, Sir John Bowring, the 4th governor of Hong Kong. In his life, Bowring was reportedly familiar with 200 languages, and was supposedly able to commune with others in over 100 of them. However, other than the fact that he and others close to him claimed he could speak this many languages, little else has ever been recorded about how proficient he was in any of them at a given point in time. Although, seeing as he lived his entire life as an obsessive student of language and given what his compatriots said of him, it is at least generally accepted he was likely one of the world’s most successful polygots. If claims are true, maybe even the most accomplished in history.

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Bonus Fact:

Languages obviously need not include the spoken word, with various sign languages being perhaps the first thing people think about when hearing that statement. But it turns out there exists languages entirely made up of whistles.  Perhaps the most talked about one is Silbo Gomero- a whistling language “spoken” on La Gomera in the Canary Islands (which incidentally may have been named after dogs, and certainly wasn’t named after birds as you might have expected from the name Canary Islands).

The language was used by the Guanches—the aboriginal people of the Canary Islands—long before Spanish settlement. It is a whistled form of the original Guanche language, which died out around the 17th century. Not much is known about that spoken language of those people save for a few words recorded in the journals of travellers and a few others that were integrated into the Spanish spoken on the Canary Islands. It is believed that spoken Guanche had a simple phonetic pattern that made it easily adaptable to whistling. The language was whistled across the Canary Islands, popular on Gran Canaria, Tenerife, and El Hiero as well as La Gomera.

It’s likely that the first Guanches were from North Africa and brought the idea of a whistled language with them, as there are several different whistling languages that have been recorded there.  From the time of Guanche settlement, the language evolved into Guanche whistling, and then to silbo.

Today, silbo is a whistled form of Spanish. It was adopted in the 16th century after the last of the Guanches adapted their whistled language to Spanish. The language works by replicating timbre variations in speech. One study showed that silbo is recognized in the “language center” of the brain by silbo whistlers, though regular Spanish speakers who were not silbo whistlers simply recognized it as whistling.

As to why such a version of a language would originally be developed at all, it’s thought that silbo was developed as a form of long distance communication. The island of La Gomera is awash with hills, valleys, and ravines. A whistle can travel up to two miles across such a landscape, and the whistler doesn’t have to expend as much energy as he would by hiking or shouting and, in the latter case, the whistled message is heard further away besides. When La Gomera was largely an agricultural island, crops and herds of animals like sheep would be spread out across the hills, and herders would use the language to communicate with one another across these large distances.

Speaking via whistling still saw widespread use as late as the 1940s and 50s. Unfortunately, economic hardship around the 1950s put silbo-speaking in the decline, as most of the whistlers were forced to move to find better opportunities. The introduction of roads and the invention of the mobile phone also contributed to the decline, as they made silbo largely unnecessary. By the end of the twentieth century, the whistled language was dying out.

However, as it is an integral part of the island’s history, there was interest in reviving the language to preserve the culture and today every primary school child on La Gomera is required to learn the whistling language.

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