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Are You Bilingual or Multilingual? Maybe Even a Polyglot?

What's the difference? Don't they all mean that a person knows and speaks several languages? And is it true that you need to be a genius to become a polyglot? Let's find out.


Being bilingual has become very common in today's society, whether it is due to the fact that many people have parents who come from two different places, or they were born in one country and then moved during their childhood to another country, or simply because they live in a country where there are two official languages. Whatever the case is, it always has to do with specific external circumstances and pratical needs. The same goes for multilinguals who know and speak more than two languages regularly for education or work purposes, meaning that they have a need to do so because of their environment. But what about polyglots? That's where the real confusion kicks in, hence, I decided to write this article.


Neither the Oxford Dictionary nor the Merriam-Webster Dictionary distinguish between "multilingual" and "polyglot", as both terms seem to have the same meaning according to these dictionaries, namely: to know and use several languages. So they're basically synonyms? Not quite.


Let's trace down the origins of polyglot and multilingual. Polyglot comes from the ancient Greek word πολύγλωττος (polyglōttos), a combination of poly-, meaning "many" or "multi-," and glōtta, meaning "language" or "tongue", so from this point of view polyglot means "many languages", which is the same as saying "speaking in many tongues", a.k.a. being multilingual. The word polyglot first appeared in the dictionary in 1650. Conversely, "multilingual" comes from Latin, namely from the word "multus", which means "many", and "lingua", which means "language". Its earliest entry in the Oxford English Dictionary dates back to 1838, which is almost two hundred years later. So, they have different origins, but as to their meaning, it would appear in fact that polyglot and multilingual are one and the same. However, there's more to it than just that.

Similar But Not the Same

See, being a polyglot is choosing to know and speak several languages just because you love languages in general. It's a hobby, not a need. This is why in my bio I say that I am a bilingual individual (since I speak, think and write in Portuguese and Romanian on a native level) who aspires to become a polyglot. I am also proficient in English and I speak and write (and many times think!) in English on a daily basis. But I don't consider myself a polyglot (well, not yet!), because I had to learn the English language out of necessity, not passion. I do love it though, but with polyglots it's all about motivation. Therefore, until I manage to learn a new language even when my environment doesn't require me to (so just for the sake of it!), I am multilingual, meaning I know and use more than two languages, for example I also know and use Italian and Spanish along with all the other languages I just mentioned, but this is due to my external circumstances. I could have said in my bio that I am multilingual aspiring to become a polyglot, but I was afraid it would get misunderstood, since I know many people consider these two terms as having the same meaning. They are in fact virtually interchangeable, but there's a subtle difference that I hope you're starting to get now, because, in the end, being a polyglot is a true labor of love!

Inspiring Polyglot Profiles

Let's delve a bit into the stories of remarkable individuals who have acquired the mastery of languages to achieve extraordinary feats.

According to BBC Science Focus Magazine, the record for the most languages spoken by one person belongs to Sir John Bowring (1792-1872), a British political economist, Governor of Hong Kong from 1854 to 1859, writer and literary translator, who was said to know 200 languages, and capable of speaking 100. There's no way of telling whether such numbers are inflated or not, but many agree that, before his death, Bowring could speak eight languages fluently, read and write another seven and understand a further twenty five. He travelled extensively and that's probably why he developed such a fascination for languages. He also studied foreign languages, especially those of Eastern Europe. But it was in a merchant's house where young Bowring was working after finishing school that he started developing his language skills, through speaking on a daily basis with visitors from around the world. According to a biography written by his son, Bowring learned French from a refugee priest, Italian from barometer salesmen and Spanish, Portuguese, German and Dutch through his business dealings.

Bowring also spoke out passionately for equal rights for women and the abolition of slavery. He even appears in this painting of the 1840 World's Anti-Slavery Convention. Despite an active political career, Bowring pursued a secondary career by translating songs, poetry, and literature from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Spain. And he is in fact best known for his language skills. An accomplished polyglot for some, a controversial hyperglot for others, what matters is that John Bowring's reputation as a great linguist helped him to attain powerful positions which, in turn, allowed him to learn more languages and explore more cultures. 

Still regarding the world's most prolific polyglots, we need to talk about cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (1774-1849) as well. Born in Bologna, this Italian ecclesiast showed exceptional language learning skills from a young age. Various anecdotal reports claim that Mezzofanti knew, to varying degrees, many different languages. The precise number is uncertain, but it is said that he could speak up to 114 languages, not necessarily meaning that he was fluent in all of them. In fact, according to the Guiness Book World of Records, Cardinal Mezzofanti spoke fluently over 27 languages. What is interesting is that, unlike John Bowring who was a traveller, Mezzofanti never left Italy and yet managed to learn how to speak dozens of languages without any accent! Many travellers, such as Lord Byron, came to visit Mezzofanti and they always tested him in their native tongue to see if he could actually speak it. More often than not they reported that Mezzofanti spoke accent free, and that he would even joke in those languages.

One more interesting fact is that Mezzofanti is not considered to be a great intellectual but rather a man with an extraordinary capability for language learning. In case you are a language enthusiast and want to learn more about Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti, here's a 500 pages biography by Charles William Russel published in 1863.

Another distinguished polyglot was George Dumézil (1898-1986), a French philologist who is usually remembered as a prolific historian of indo-european mythology, but his achievements in linguistics were also impressive. His interest for languages was precocious. As a teenager he got interested in Sanskrit and learned to master it on his own, along with the usual Latin and Greek. He truly had a love for learning ancient languages. It is widely reported that he knew up to forty languages, the same as William James Sidis (1898-1944), an American child prodigy with exceptional mathematical and linguistic skills, who could apparently learn a language in a day. Speaking of American linguists, Kenneth Locke Hale (1934-2001) was a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who reportedly spoke more than 50 languages and was internationally renowned for studying several languages that were endangered, particularly the indigenous languages of Australia, Central America and North America. Professor Hale studied Ulwa, Warlpiri, O’odham and Navajo among others. Allegedly, he was one of the rare individuals who were able to learn a language by listening to a native speaker for about 15 minutes.

Back to Europe, Kató Lomb (1909-2003) was a linguist from Hungary. She is considered to be one of the world’s first simultaneous interpreters. She was a fluent interpreter in up to 10 languages, translated into 16 languages, and understood 28, including Ukrainian, Spanish, Slovak, Russian, Romanian, Polish, Latin, Japanese, Italian, Hebrew, German, French, English, Danish, Chinese, and Bulgarian. Lomb said that she learned these languages simply to fulfill her interest. Fun fact: she graduated with a degree in chemistry and physics and she only had one mother tongue: Hungarian. She was self-taught in all the other languages she spoke.

In a beautifully written article about Kató Lomb, I found out that she "struggled with German as a child, but a few decades later, a Russian-English dictionary she found in a shop sealed her fate forever. Kató Lomb was forced to go into hiding during the Second World War because of her Jewish origins, but she continued to learn languages even during the siege of Budapest."

She also started to read a lot about Russian literature. Russian was a forbidden language at the time, so she had to hide the books, but she managed to learn the language within two years without a language teacher. She was a linguistic genius, but she didn't consider herself one. The article goes on to say: "Her book, Polyglot: How I Learn Languages, was published in 1970 and has gone through four editions. When the last edition was published in 1995, she told journalists:  'When learning a language, it always helps to give yourself a bit of a pat on the back. Self-criticism and anxiety can be crippling.' She believed that self-confidence and a good method play a much bigger role in language learning than linguistic talent. She did not believe that language learning should only be done at a young age, because language, according to Kató Lomb, is an effective tool not only for building human relationships but also for maintaining our mental ability and spiritual balance."

And there are many other names worth mentioning, I could go on and on, but for the curious minds out there, here's a list of noted polyglots.

Are Polyglots Geniuses?

A study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex recruited 34 polyglots, each with at least some degree of proficiency in five or more languages, but they were not bilingual or multilingual from infancy. Sixteen of the participants spoke 10 or more languages, and one spoke 54 languages with at least some proficiency. They all underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they listened to passages read in eight different languages. The results showed that their brain lit up when they listened to languages that they didn't speak, while listening to passages in their native language elicited a lesser brain response. So yes, it seems a polyglot's brain works diferrently but does that mean that they are geniuses? The real question we should be asking ourselves is: what do all these individuals have in common?

High IQ? Not necessarily, although this paper does mention that many prove to have exceptional memory, but that can also be the case for monolinguals, so it's not what sets the tone. Opportunity to travel the world? Also not the case (as mentioned above, one of them never left their home country). Access to the best schools? Again: no. Many of them were self-taught. Some special talent that allowed them to learn languages as if by osmosis? Not according to Kató Lomb, but she has talked in her books about memory hacks and language learning techniques to facilitate the process. So what is it then? I believe, from my own experience and from everything I have read so far, that it all comes down to this: curiosity, motivation, determination, self-discipline, adaptability and having an open mind. Oh, and obviously: passion for languages.

Tim Keeley, an author and hyperpolyglot who is proficient in more than 30 languages, argues that the process of learning a foreign language involves a re-shaping of one's self-identity and that the best linguists are mostly 'linguistic chameleons' who are adept at acquiring new personalities.

One thing is for sure: polyglots are intrinsically motivated. For them, learning new languages is considered leisure activity. It's just something they do for fun, out of pleasure and personal interest, just because they are fascinated with languages. There's no outside requirement in that regard, meaning they don't have to learn a new language for work, school or daily activities, but they do it anyway! Indeed, they learn a language not because of what it can do for them, but simply out of pure intellectual curiosity, which means that the learning process is intentional but not inherently practical. Becoming a polyglot truly requires a lot of effort: you will need high motivation, self-discipline, hard work, and free time to devote to studying. Personally, I have the first two abundantly, as I have self-taught myself many things, and I don't mind putting in hard work either, but I lack the free time part.

In conclusion, next time you think about a polyglot, consider a person who is curious by nature and very flexible. Someone who is not afraid of taking risks and getting outside their comfort zone. They actually thrive the most in unknown territory because it challenges their mind and they love that. And is it true they have multiple personalities? Well, sort of. It's not a personality disorder though. This mechanism of shifting personalities has to do with their adaptability to different environments and cultures. But the most important distinction between a multilingual and a polyglot would have to be their motivation! Polyglots don't mind learning a foreign language they may never actually use. They are the true definition of what it means to love languages selflessly.

So what about you? Are you a bilingual, multilingual or polyglot? If you are a monolingual person, I want to encourage you to learn a second language because it is a powerful tool that connects people across borders, cultures, and ideologies. Being able to communicate in multiple languages enriches you as a person and it also opens up a world of opportunities.

Summary: Polyglotism is a synonym to multilingualism, yet it stands for a person that has learned additional languages as a hobby. Indeed, polyglots learn languages for the sake of learning languages. In contrast, multilingualism is usually a term used to refer to people who speak more than two languages for work, school or everyday life, which means they have a need to learn and speak additional languages. It is also important to add that there is no generally agreed language level a person has to reach to be considered a polyglot.

TN done at Lisbon

May 2nd, 2024

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