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"Polyglot" redirects here. For other uses, see Polyglot (disambiguation).

Polyglotism or polyglottism[1] is the ability to master, or the state of having mastered, multiple languages. The word is a synonym of multilingualism, but in recent usage polyglot is sometimes used to refer to a person who learns multiple languages as an avocation.[2][3] The term hyperpolyglot was coined in 2008 by linguist Richard Hudson to describe individuals who speak dozens of languages.[4]

Multilingualism, including multilingual societies as well as individuals who speak more than one language, is common. Individual polyglots or hyperpolyglots speak, study, or use large numbers of languages. In rare cases polyglot savants have mental disabilities but are able to learn many languages.

Multilingual societies[edit]

Main article: Multilingualism

Most nation states are home to multiple ethnic groups and multiple languages. Likewise, most individuals use more than one language, at least to some extent.[5] Informal surveys suggest that the number of languages spoken in multilingual societies is typically between two and six languages.[4] There is a lack of consensus on such numbers, however, due to the lack of shared definitions of multilingualism and the difficulty of differentiating among language varieties.[6]

Polyglots and hyperpolyglots[edit]

Further information: List of polyglots

Some individuals speak, study, or otherwise use large numbers of languages. One of the most noted hyperpolyglots – speakers of many languages – was Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti, an Italian priest reputed to have spoken anywhere from 30 to 72 languages.[3][4] Individuals calling themselves "polyglot" generally speak, read, or otherwise use five or more languages, in some cases several dozen.

Many polyglots and hyperpolyglots become multilingual by studying languages.[3] Language proficiency and learning success varies among individuals. Neuroscience of multilingualism points to possible differences among learners. One theory suggests that a spike in a baby's testosterone levels while in the uterus can increase brain asymmetry, which may relate to music and language ability, among other effects.[7]

Study and motivation also affect learning. People learning multiple languages may optimize their learning strategies, making it easier to learn subsequent languages. They may also experience positive transfer – it becomes easier to learn additional languages if their grammar or vocabulary is similar to those of languages already learned. On the other hand, students may also experience negative transfer – interference from languages learned earlier while learning later ones.[8]

Polyglot savant[edit]

Savants are typically individuals with significant mental disabilities who demonstrate profound and prodigious capacities and/or abilities far in excess of what would be considered normal,[9][10] occasionally including the capacity for languages.

In 1991, for example, Neil Smith and Ianthi-Maria Tsimpli described "Christopher", a man with non-verbal IQ scores between 40 and 70 who learned 16 languages. Despite being institutionalized because he was unable to take care of himself, Christopher had a verbal IQ of 89, was able to speak English with no impairment, and could learn subsequent languages with apparent ease. This facility with language and communication is considered unusual among savants.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Definition of "polyglot" - Collins English Dictionary". collinsdictionary.com. Retrieved 13 November 2015. 
  2. ^ Krzeminska, Marta (19 July 2016). "The cult of the polyglot". Retrieved 7 September 2016. 
  3. ^ a b c Erard, Michael. Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. Free Press. ISBN 978-1-4516-2825-8. 
  4. ^ a b c Hudson, Richard (2008). "Word grammar, cognitive linguistics, and second language learning and teaching". In Peter Robinson and Nick Ellis. Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780805853513. 
  5. ^ Valdés, Guadalupe (2012). "Multilingualism". Linguistic Society of America. Retrieved 7 September 2016. 
  6. ^ Cook, Vivian (2008). Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. Hodder Education. ISBN 978-0-340-95876-6. 
  7. ^ Leland, John (March 9, 2012). "Adventures of a Teenage Polyglot". New York Region. The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-04-05. 
  8. ^ Pavlenko, Aneta (2 June 2015). "Can a second language help you learn a third?". Psychology Today: Life as a Bilingual. Retrieved 7 September 2016. 
  9. ^ Miller, LK (1999). "The savant syndrome: Intellectual impairment and exceptional skill". Psychological Bulletin. 125 (1): 31–46. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.125.1.31. PMID 9990844. 
  10. ^ Bolte, S (2004). "Comparing the intelligence profiles of savant and nonsavant individuals with autistic disorder". Intelligence. 32 (2): 121. doi:10.1016/j.intell.2003.11.002. 
  11. ^ Smith, Neil; Tsimpli, Ianthi-Maria (August 1991). "Linguistic modularity? A case study of a 'savant' linguist". Lingua. 84 (4): 315–351. doi:10.1016/0024-3841(91)90034-3. 

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