Polyglotism or polyglottism 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. The term "hyperpolyglot" was coined in 2008 by linguist Richard Hudson to describe individuals who speak–to some degree–dozens of languages.
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.
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. Informal surveys suggest that the number of languages spoken in multilingual societies is typically between two and six languages. However, there is a lack of consensus on such numbers due to the lack of shared definitions of multilingualism and the difficulty of differentiating among language varieties.
Polyglots and hyperpolyglots
Some individuals speak, study, or otherwise use large numbers of languages. One notable hyperpolyglot was Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti, an Italian priest reputed to have spoken anywhere from 30 to 72 languages. Individuals who consider themselves polyglots generally speak, read, or otherwise use five or more languages. In some cases, the number can be as high as several dozen.
Many polyglots and hyperpolyglots become multilingual by studying languages. Language proficiency and learning success vary 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.
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 – the process by which it becomes easier to learn additional languages if the grammar or vocabulary of the new language is similar to those of languages already spoken. On the other hand, students may also experience negative transfer – interference from languages learned at an earlier stage of development while learning a new language later in life. The International Association of Hyperpolyglots represents those with demonstrable hyperpolyglotic language proficiency.[non-primary source needed]
Hyperpolyglots speak a larger number of languages and tend to show an above average ability to learn and speak languages. Linguistic expert Michael Erard says that while there are many polyglots who know 6 languages, the number drops off above this number. Based on the numbers, he says that when people know eleven languages fluently, it puts them in the hyperpolyglot category.
Polyglot savant syndrome
While the term "savant" generally refers to an individual with a natural and/or innate talent for a particular field, people diagnosed with savant syndrome 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, occasionally including the capacity for languages. The condition is associated with an increased memory capacity, which would aid in the storage and retrieval of knowledge of a language.
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 sixteen languages. Christopher was born in 1962 and approximately six months after his birth was diagnosed with brain damage. 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.
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