How Many Languages Can One Person Speak?

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Being able to speak more than one language fluently is an impressive skill – but how about those that can speak in lots of different languages with ease? Someone who can speak in multiple different languages (typically five or more) is called a polyglot.

One of the most well-known polyglots was Cardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti. With a passion for linguistics, Mezzofanti could speak in at least 40 different languages – although it is said that the total is more around the 70-100 mark.

How do people learn so many different languages?

Some polyglots will learn best from reading, while others may pick up languages from media such as television, radio or film.

Michael Erard, author of Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, claims that their ability to learn languages comes from good genes and disciplined study.

But are polyglots truly born this way, or is their ability to absorb language gained over time? This appears to be unclear.

Language and the Brain

In 2004, scientists were able to examine the brain of a German diplomat, Emil Krebs (1867-1930) who learned and spoke 65 different languages in his lifetime. They wanted to confirm whether his language skills were due to a unique brain structure or not.

The part of the brain responsible for language is called the Broca’s area. This is a region of the brain in the frontal lobe of the dominant hemisphere of your brain.

The scientists found that there were distinct differences in Krebs’ Broca’s area, but were unable to determine if this difference was there from birth or if it grew that way from his language learning.

However, a more recent study in 2012 at Lund University in Sweden had more definitive results. The study pitted language students against a control group of students in other disciplines.

The two groups took part in an intensive foreign language-learning course and while it is not surprising that the language students were quicker to adapt to the course content, their brains were also scanned after the course and it showed that the part of the brain responsible for language actually expanded. This was not the case for the non-language students whose brain structure remained the same.

Is there a limit to how many languages can be learned?

This is a difficult question to answer because it will entirely rely on the individual. People learn at different speeds, and lifestyle also has to be factored in. Work, social obligations, hobbies and habits all come into play when considering this.

From the Lund University study though, it’s clear that those who are learning new languages then find it easier to pick up additional languages and expand their linguistic knowledge much easier than those without that background.

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