In theory there is no limit to the number of languages a person can learn. In practicality, issues like time available, ability to practise, and even the definition of “know” all play into the question. Know enough to have a conversation? Enough to present a high level speech? To write letters to a friend? To publish a book? How long is a piece of string? To answer the question “how many languages can a person learn?” without addressing all these other issues is of course impossible and unrealistic – but let’s have a look anyway!
Let’s begin by looking at those people said to have learn the most languages. Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19th-century priest, was said to know as many as 64 languages, of course to differing levels of fluency. In a biography of his life, it was said he had studied 14 languages he did not use; 11 he could speak to a conversational level; in 9 he had a perfect accent, but did not always speak perfect sentence structures; and 30 languages, from 11 language families, which he had mastered completely.
Of living polyglots (people knowing several languages), Powell Alexander Janulus was entered into the Guinness World Records in 1985 for fluency in 42 languages. The test of “fluency” was to speak for two hours with a native speaker of each of the languages he claimed to know. In addition, he has studied another 40 or so languages, learning two or three languages a year. Janulus had a head start in that his mother spoke 6 languages, and his father 4 languages. Janulus could speak 13 languages by the time he was 18.
It is not uncommon for citizens of some place, particularly African nations, to grow up speaking two, three, or even four or five languages. But most people who identify as “polyglots” actually don’t begin learning until they are older. It is a frequent story to hear of someone beginning to learn in their twenties, as they are travelling – it is certainly my story. I didn’t begin learning languages for real life use until I was twenty-three. It took me nine months, and most of my learning really happened in the last three months, to learn Dutch to a conversational level. It took about the same to learn Auslan. Now, as I learn French with no one in my life to speak with, I can read books for a 5 year old after 4 months (harder than it sounds!), and am about to embark on a 3 month challenge, called the Add1Challenge with the Fluent In Three Months group, designed to improve my conversational fluency.
My lifetime goal is to learn to read a few ancient languages (Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic), and speak a few Australian Aboriginal languages, all the official UN languages (four more, after French), most of the Indo-European languages, a couple of Pacific languages, and a couple of Asian languages. I’m sort of banking on one a year for the rest of my life – although I am expecting the ancient languages to take longer because they use different scripts, so I am starting with Greek while learning French, and deliberately taking it slowly – I aim for five years to a decent fluency. I hope by the end of my lifetime to have at least thirty languages to conversational levels.
So how many languages is it possible to learn? I guess, in the end, it all comes down to time and commitment.
How many do you want to learn?