With roughly 6,500 languages currently in use worldwide, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has never heard a language other than their own. In fact, it’s estimated that 43% of the world’s population is bilingual, and another 16% speak three or more languages.
There’s also a very small portion of the population, only about 1%, who are polyglots.
While “polyglot” is sometimes defined as “a person who speaks five or more languages with great proficiency or fluency,” it also refers to a person who acquires languages with extreme ease, much fast than the general population. Typically, polyglots have a very good grasp of syntax and universal rules of language; this was supported by a polyglot who was able to learn the very obscure Berber language with ease, but struggled to grasp Epun, a fictional language designed to break all the rules of universal grammar. Polyglots also tend to enjoy learning languages and will often teach themselves to speaks various languages with little to no assistance.
There are several very well-known polyglots. One was Emil Krebbs, one of the most multilingual people in recorded history. Born in German in 1867, he became fluent in 68 languages throughout his lifetime, with competency in 120 more. He had mastered the first 12 languages by the age of 20, and became fluent in Mandarin Chinese, a notoriously difficult language, to the level of a well-educated native speaker in only four years. He worked as an interpreter, diplomat, and sinologist in China for most of his life, returning to Germany several before his death in 1930.
A notable moder-day polyglot is Dr. Ioannis Ikonomou, the head interpreter for the European Commission in Brussels and the only interpreter the EC trusts with Chinese documents. Born in Crete in 1964, he was speaking both his native Greek and English by age six, and to date can comfortably speak 32 languages. Ikonomou says that the key to learning a language is “falling in love with it.” When studying a language, he cooks that country’s food, reads their newspapers, watches their television programs, and tries to spend as much time in the country and around native speakers as possible.
I myself am a budding polyglot, fluent in two languages, competent in two more, and learning a fifth, but I’m nowhere near as good as Krebbs or Ikonomou, and may never be. I’d seriously like to though. But with 6,500 languages out there to choose from, which do I learn next?