It can be intimidating enough to tackle a second language without knowing that there is such a thing as a polyglot, that mythical speaker of six tongues, who can make your feeble attempts at conversational German look woefully inadequate. But have no fear, for the hyperpolyglot is also here, and they can serve to daunt, to inspire, or just plain impress you with a sense of how much the human brain is actually capable of.
There’s actually no clear consensus on what separates a polyglot from a hyperpolyglot other than a relative sense of “more” — of speaking, understanding, and communicating in more languages. A polyglot will impress you, but probably not as much as a hyperpolyglot.
The word “hyperpolyglot” has actually only been around since 20 years ago, when it was coined by British linguist Richard Hudson. He was in search of the world’s greatest language learner at the time, but in the decades since, this has probably raised more questions than answers. Does quantity of languages make the world’s greatest language learner, or is there some degree of quality to be considered too? Does a person who speaks six languages really well count as a better, or more “hyper,” polyglot than one who speaks 11 languages very poorly?
Besides, it can be hard to separate fact from fable in this regard. History had its fair share of polyglots and hyperpolyglots, among the most impressive of which was possibly Italian cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849), who was fluent in at least 30 languages and apparently studied an additional 42. That’s more than 70 languages! But Mezzofanti isn’t alive today for us to analyze or test the depth of his knowledge, so we’ll have to rely on the myth surrounding the man.
Still, there are ways to use “hyperpolyglot” as a meaningful distinction — and we have at least some understanding around what it would take to become one.
Where Polyglot Ends And Hyperpolyglot Begins
Depending on who you ask, a polyglot could merely be someone who speaks more than two languages. Others would posit that a polyglot must speak at least four or five — in other words, a multilingual with a cherry on top.
This overlaps with at least one metric for the hyperpolyglot, which moves the goalpost to six languages or more.
Michael Erard, author of Babel No More, initially used six as his benchmark but later moved it to 11 after some careful consideration. The reason he began with six was that there is a distinct difference between someone who is merely multilingual due to being brought up in a multilingual community — which describes a vast number of people in the world — and a hyperpolyglot, who actively pursues language studies.
“When I started the project, I was using the number of six [as a cutoff] because there was a survey of multilingual communities around the world, and the maximum used in any one community was five. So ordinary people, who don’t have any special mental gifts or access to education, can speak five. In my work, I did a survey and many people said they could speak six or seven, but they started to fall off at 11. So I suggest that number,” he told Time Magazine.
Erard also makes an interesting point about community participation. In a sense, the hyperpolyglot is, by definition, a bit of an outsider because learning another language takes them outside of their immediate community, whereas a multilingual absorbs the languages around them to participate within their community.
What Does It Take To Be A Hyperpolyglot?
Though hard work, motivation and persistence certainly count for a lot in this game, it does appear as though there’s a bit of nature mixed in with the nurture when it comes to who, ultimately, becomes a successful hyperpolyglot.
Based on whatever research we have available to us (and it’s far from conclusive), a statistically disproportionate amount of hyperpolyglots are male, gay, left-handed, likely somewhere on the autism spectrum, and suffering from an autoimmune disorder (like asthma or allergies).
It’s hard to say whether a hyperpolyglot’s brain is substantially different from a monolingual’s at birth, or whether it merely becomes that way because it was exercised and trained to, thus forming new neural pathways that allow it to more successfully tune out irrelevant information.
Scientists actually had the opportunity to dissect the brain of Emil Krebs, a German diplomat who was said to have attained mastery of 65 languages over the course of his life. There were, indeed, differences in the structure of the Broca’s area of his brain (one of the parts responsible for language), but they couldn’t determine whether it was something he was born with.
If one were simply “born with it,” there are a few traits that would set their brain apart: better connections between the regions of the brain that involve language, for one, and stronger cognitive abilities in the prefrontal cortex, which implicates executive function and working memory.
But according to Erard, hyperpolyglots are “neither born nor made, but rather born to be made.” A combination of the right genetic predisposition, a curious mind, and an active dedication to mastering multiple languages is basically the secret sauce we’re talking about here.