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Numerous theories exist as explanations for polyglotism. For example, it has been recognized that someone who is interested in languages, with a sufficiently developed intellect, and who optimizes his/her learning technique with experience, will become increasingly efficient as each new language is learned; therefore, such an individual is able to master new languages with less effort than the average person. Also, different languages overlap in the areas of grammar and vocabulary, and this makes it easier to acquire connected languages, such as English and French words (the overlap is much smaller between English and German, and other Germanic languages).
One theory suggests that a spike in a baby's testosterone levels while in the uterus can increase brain asymmetry, while others have suggested that hard work and the right type of motivation—which any adult can apply—are the key factors of polyglotism. Neuroscientist Katrin Amunts studied the brain of German polyglot Emil Krebs and determined that the area of Krebs' brain that was responsible for language—the Broca's area—was organised differently in comparison to the brains of monolinguals.
Objective criteria 
Due to the advent of computers, linguists obtained a better understanding of what it can mean to "know a language". It is estimated that the most frequently used 2000 words—in all or most of their multiple senses—cover approximately seventy-five to eighty percent of a general text in English and other European languages; such a limited vocabulary also allows one to express more complicated concepts, whereby they are described by means of circumlocutions (e.g. as a rule, 30,000 to 50,000 words in modern English learner's dictionaries are defined with merely 2000 to 3000 defining vocabulary words). On the other hand, a native speaker with an American college education may possess a 25,000- to 30,000-word passive vocabulary—of which various parts can be activated—that increases to possibly 50,000 words, or more, by the age of fifty to sixty years.
It is therefore difficult to objectively judge many claims of polyglotism, as what is ostensibly "fluent speech" can be achieved with the assertive use of a very limited general-purpose or specialized vocabulary.
Notable living polyglots 
- Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, a Ghanaian cardinal of the Catholic Church is able to speak English, Fante, French, Italian, German, and Hebrew, in addition to understanding Latin and Greek.
- Dikembe Mutombo, a former NBA player, is able to speak English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Tshiluba, Swahili, Lingala, and two other central African languages.
- Graça Machel, wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela and widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel, is fluent in seven languages: English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and her native Tsonga. Machel is the only woman in the world to have served as the First Lady of two different countries: The First Lady of Mozambique, from 1975 to 1986, and the First Lady of South Africa, from 1998 to 1999.
North American 
- Alexander Arguelles, an American scholar of foreign languages who can read and fluently speak approximately thirty-six languages.
- Jimmy Jean-Louis, Haitian actor and model, known for his role as "The Haitian" on the NBC television series Heroes, is fluent in five languages: Haitian Creole, English, French, Italian, and Spanish.
- Timothy Doner, a sixteen-year-old student, was featured in the New York Times for his ability to speak over twenty languages, including: English, French, Hausa, Wolof, Russian, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, Pashto, Farsi, Chinese, Italian, Turkish, Indonesian, Dutch, Xhosa, Swahili, Hindi and Ojibwe.
- Steve Kaufmann, former Canadian diplomat and cofounder of The Linguist Institute language company, can speak eleven languages: English, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, Swedish, German, Italian, Cantonese, Russian, and Portuguese. As of January 2012, Kaufmann was learning Korean and Czech.
- Swami Rambhadracharya, a Hindu religious leader, educationist, Sanskrit scholar, polyglot, poet, author, textual commentator, philosopher, composer, singer, playwright, and Katha artist based in Chitrakoot, India, can speak twenty-two languages, including Sanskrit, Hindi, English, French, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Oriya, Gujarati, Punjabi, Marathi, Magadhi, Awadhi, and Braj. Rambhadracharya has been blind since the age of two months; received no formal education until the age of seventeen years; has never used braille, or any other aid to learn or compose his works; and has authored more than 100 books.
- Janice Vidal, a singer in Hong Kong, is of mixed parentage, with a Filipino father and a Chinese Korean mother. The majority of her songs are sung in Cantonese and English, but she also sings in Mandarin and Japanese, and she also speaks Tagalog and Korean after lessons with her parents.
- Zubair Ali Zai, a Pakistani Muslim cleric, is fluent in Pashto, Arabic, English, Hindi, and Greek, and possesses a working knowledge of Persian.
- Janet Hsieh, an American-Taiwanese television host and violinist who is fluent in American English, Mandarin, Taiwanese Hokkien, Spanish, and French.
- Claudio Castagnoli, also known by his pseudonym "Antonio Cesaro", is a Swiss professional wrestler who is fluent in five languages: English, German, Italian, French, and Romansh. As a gimmick, he conducts interviews or speaks publicly in different languages.
- Daniel Tammet, British writer, essayist, and autistic savant, reportedly learned ten languages, including Romanian, Gaelic, Welsh, and Icelandic—the latter was learned by Tammet in a week for the purpose of a television documentary
- D. J. Mbenga, a Belgian basketball player who played in the NBA, can speak English, French, Lingala, Portuguese, and Tshiluba.
- Ioannis Ikonomou (1964), translator at the European Commission. He can speak 32 languages fluently.
- Patrice Evra, a French footballer who plays for Manchester United, can speak English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, but failed to pick up Korean.
- Roy Hodgson, a football manager, speaks fluent English, German, Italian, Norwegian, and Swedish, as well as some Danish, Finnish, and French, despite having a rhotacism speech impediment.
- Farin Urlaub, guitarist, singer and leader of German punk rock band Die Ärzte, speaks seven languages: German, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Japanese, and Italian.
- Omar Benchbana, Is a 15 year old teenager. Speaks seven languages: Finnish, English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Japanese, and Chinese
Notable dead reputed polyglots 
In certain cases, claims of polyglotism cannot be confirmed for deceased individuals, and little or unverifiable evidence must be relied upon. The following list consists of deceased individuals who are associated with claims of polyglotism, by year of birth:
- Paul the Apostle (N/A - 60 A.D), according the scriptures he is fluent in both Hebrew and Greek.
- Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1707 AD) could speak numerous languages including Punjabi, Braj Bhasha, Persian, Sanskrit, and Arabic.
- Mithridates VI of Pontus (134–63 BC) could supposedly speak the languages of all 22 nations within his kingdom.
- Cleopatra VII (69–30 B.C.), the last ruling Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, could, according to the Roman biographer Plutarch, speak nine languages and was the only member of her dynasty who could speak Egyptian as well as her native Greek.
- John Milton (1608–1674), an English poet who is famous for the epic work Paradise Lost, could speak English, Latin, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, Aramaic, Syriac, and Old English. Milton coined 630 terms in the English language.
- Adam František Kollár (1718–1783), a Slovak writer, spoke Slovak, Czech, Serbian, Polish, Rusin, Russian, Belarussian, Ukrainian, Slovenian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Turkish, Chinese, Persian, Arabic, Italian, Romanian, French, Dutch, and English.
- Noah Webster (1758–1843), a lexicographer, English spelling reformer, and author, mastered 23 languages.
- Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (1774–1849), an Italian Cardinal, spoke 39 languages fluently.
- Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832), a French classical scholar, philologist, and orientalist. He was the first to decipher the inscription on the Rosetta Stone, an achievement that facilitated the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs—the titles "Father of Egyptology" and "the founder of scientific Egyptology" have since been bestowed upon Champollion. He specialized in Oriental languages while he was a student at the College de France between 1807 and 1809, and his linguistic repertoire eventually consisted of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Pahlavi, Arabic, Persian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Zend, and his native French.
- Hans Conon von der Gabelentz (1807–1874) was a German linguistic researcher who worked on more than 80 languages.
- Heinrich Schliemann (1820–1890), a German archaeologist who excavated Troy and Mycenaean civilizations, could speak German, English, French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, Swedish, Greek, Latin, Russian, Arabic, and Turkish.
- Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), a German-English industrialist, social scientist, and cofounder of Marxist theory alongside Karl Marx, mastered over 20 languages.
- Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), a Serbian-American inventor, physicist, mechanical engineer, and electrical engineer, could speak Serbo-Croatian, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin.
- José Rizal (1861–1896), the national hero of the Philippines, who was also an optometrist, artist, author, scientist, and established intellect, visited numerous countries and could speak fluently in 22 languages, including his native Filipino, Spanish, Japanese, Greek, French, Dutch, Italian, Chinese, Portuguese, Malayan, Latin, and German.
- Emil Krebs (1867–1930), a German polyglot and sinologist, mastered 68 languages in both speech and writing, and studied 120 other languages.
- Nicolae Iorga (1871–1940), a Romanian historian, politician, literary critic, memoirist, poet, and playwright, could speak Aromanian, Romanian, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek fluently at the age of 15 years.
- Harold Williams (1876–1928), a New Zealand journalist and linguist, spoke more than 58 languages.
- Harinath De (1877–1911), an Indian linguist, scholar, and the first Indian librarian of the National Library of India, knew 34 Indian and European languages.
- Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), the Vietnamese Communist leader, became fluent in French, English, Russian, Cantonese, and Mandarin, in addition to his native Vietnamese, through study and many years spent in exile.
- J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor, spoke more than twelve languages and dialects, and also invented several languages. Tolkien learned Latin, French, and German from his mother, and learned Middle English, Old English, Finnish, Gothic, Greek, Italian, Old Norse, Spanish, Welsh, and Medieval Welsh while at school. He was also familiar with Danish, Dutch, Lombardic, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Swedish, and older forms of modern Germanic and Slavonic languages.
- Mario Pei (1901–1978), an Italian American linguist and writer, was fluent in at least 38 languages and was acquainted with the structure of more than 100 languages.
- S. Srikanta Sastri (1904–1974), eminent Indian Historian, Indologist, and epigraphist at the University of Mysore, was fluent in over fourteen languages, including Greek, Latin, Hittite, Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit.
- João Guimarães Rosa (1908–1967) was a Brazilian writer, considered by many to be one of the greatest Brazilian novelists born in the 20th century and a self-taught polyglot. "I speak: Portuguese, German, French, English, Spanish, Italian, Esperanto, some Russian; I read: Swedish, Dutch, Latin and Greek (but with the dictionary right next to me); I understand some German dialects; I studied the grammar of: Hungarian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Lithuanian, Polish, Tupi, Hebrew, Japanese, Czech, Finnish, Danish; I dabbled in others. But all at a very basic level. And I think that studying the spirit and the mechanism of other languages helps a great deal in the deeper understanding of the national language [of Brazil]. In general, however, I studied for pleasure, desire, distraction".
- Uku Masing (1909–1985), an Estonian linguist, theologian, ethnologist, and poet, claimed to know approximately 65 languages and could translate 20 languages.
- Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909–1999), an Austrian Catholic nobleman and socio-political theorist, was able to speak eight languages and read 17 others.
- Kató Lomb (1909–2003), a Hungarian interpreter, translator, and one of the first simultaneous interpreters in the world, was able to interpret fluently in 10 languages. 
- Pope John Paul II (1920–2005), Roman Catholic pope from 1978 to 2005, naturally spoke his native Polish language, but following his ascencion to the papacy, he quickly learned Italian and, as a requirement of the Papacy, he was required to release all official documents in Latin. As a bishop, he also learned Greek and Classical Hebrew, and he also became fluent in English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Croatian.
- P. V. Narasimha Rao (1921–2004), an Indian lawyer, politician, and activist who served as the ninth Prime Minister of India (1991–1996), spoke English, French, Arabic, Spanish, German, Greek, Latin, and Persian, in addition to eight Indian languages—Telugu, Hindi, Urdu, Oriya, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil.
- Badi' ud-Din Shah al-Rashidi (1925–1996), a Pakistani Muslim cleric, author and bibliophile, was completely fluent in Sindhi, Urdi, Arabic, and Persian (although, he was illiterate in Persian).
- Ernesto de la Peña (1927–2012), a Mexican linguist, writer, translator, and polymath, spoke 33 languages, including Russian, Hebrew, Italian, German, French, Ancient Greek, and Latin.
- Utpal Dutt (1929–1993), an Indian actor, director, writer-playwright, and author, could speak eight languages.
- Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou (1930–1989), a Middle Eastern political activist and economist, mastered seven languages that included his mother tongue.
- Kenneth L. Hale (1934–2001) was an American professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He spoke over 50 languages, including Basque, Dutch, French, Hopi, Irish Gaelic, Japanese, Jemez, Lardil, Navajo, O'odham, Polish, Spanish, Warlpiri, and Wômpanâak.
- Teresa Teng (1953–1995), a Taiwanese singer, recorded songs in Mandarin, Taiwanese, English, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Indonesian, languages that she also spoke fluently. She also spoke Sichuan dialect, Shandong dialect, Malay, and French.
Polyglot savant 
Savants are typically individuals with serious mental disabilities who demonstrate profound and prodigious capacities and/or abilities far in excess of what would be considered normal, including the capacity for languages.
A well-known case of a polyglot savant is that of "Christopher", who participated in studies with Dr. Neil Smith, Ianthi-Maria Tsimpli, and Jamal Ouhalla. Christopher is fluent in approximately sixteen languages and possesses the capacity to acquire new languages very easily. Researchers taught him new languages, controlling the methods and exposure, so that they could study his language-learning process and extrapolate the results to determine how most people acquire languages. Christopher was taught two completely new languages: Berber language is a real language spoken in Africa, while Epun is an invented language. Some of Epun’s structures and rules were made to violate the parameters of universal grammar, which are hypothesized to underlie all human languages. Christopher was able to learn Berber as easily as he could any other foreign language, but had difficulties learning Epun. For example, he had trouble processing sentences structures that weren’t in the S-V-O order. This provided further evidence for the theory that there is a Universal grammar shared by all human languages which defines what is linguistically possible (in terms of word order, syntax, structure, etc.). The researchers applied what they discovered from studying how Christopher learned Berber and Epun to the general process of acquiring an L2 (a language that it is non-native). They conclude that L2 learning consists of transferring familiar rules from one’s L1 (native language) to the new language system and of applying the principles of universal grammar.
This research demonstrates the hope that studying how extraordinary individuals, such as polyglot savants, will help reveal how humans in general acquire languages.
Christopher learned languages by quickly "devouring" introductory self-teaching books, interacting with native speakers, and receiving explicit instructions. Another remarkable capability that Christopher possesses is one similar to that of professional linguists. He can identify languages just by looking at their written form, although he cannot speak or translate them. For example, Christopher correctly identified Bengali, Chinese, Czech, Gujarati, Icelandic, just to name a few, when shown examples of these languages. This is especially interesting because these languages are from a range, both genetically and typologically. Also, they are written in many different scripts.[dead link]
While polyglot savants such as Emil Krebs may have anatomical or biological differences that allow them to organize language in a different and more efficient manner, it has also been suggested that the entire language acquisition process for polyglot savants is different than the process most humans undergo. It has been proposed that these individuals with unparalleled linguistic abilities undergo the same first language acquisition process over and over again with each new language. Because they are able to consciously or unconsciously learn the pragmatics, grammar, syntax, etc. of a language as if they were learning a language for the first time they are able to acquire it as proficiently as a native speaker. Most humans allow the grammar of previously learned languages affect and influence their ability to learn a second, third, etc. language. This is an issue that these polyglot savants do not struggle with. This ability may be tied directly to how these individuals organize Broca’s area of the brain however; their learning abilities for languages are unparalleled and still not 100% understood to this day.
There is still much research that needs to be done regarding the mechanisms through which polyglot savants acquire language. Although it is apparent that polyglot savants, such as Christopher, have amazing linguistic abilities, quite often, their general intellectual ability is impaired. Poor hand-eye coordination, weak problem solving abilities, and social and conversational problems, make every day tasks very difficult for Christopher. This, paired with his incredible ability to process languages, demonstrates the fact that there is still much to learn about the nature of learning new tasks, and how it ties in with learning new languages.
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Further reading 
- Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. By Michael Erard. Free Press; 306 pages. ISBN 978-1-4516-2825-8
- "Adventures of a Polyglot: My Life in Two Worlds". By Giovanna S. Phillips. iUniverse; 248 pages. ISBN 978-0-5953-9994-9