A polyglot is a person who can master numerous languages. If one speaks more
than six languages, he will then be called a hyperpolyglot, a term coined by Richard
Hudson, professor emeritus of linguistics at University College London.
Numerous theories exist as explanations for polyglotism. For example, it has been
recognized that someone who is interested in languages, with a sufficiently developed
intellect, and who optimizes his/her learning technique with experience, will become
increasingly efficient as each new language is learned; therefore, such an individual is
able to master new languages with less effort than the average person. Also, different
languages overlap in the areas of grammar and vocabulary, and this makes it easier to
acquire connected languages, such as English and French words.
One theory suggests that a spike in a baby’s testosterone levels while in the uterus
can increase brain asymmetry, while others have suggested that hard work and right type
of motivation—which any adult can apply—are the key factors of polyglotism.
Neuroscientist Katrin Amunts studied the brain of German polyglot Emil Krebs and
determined that the area of Krebes’ brain that was responsible for language—the Broca’s
area—was organized differently in comparison to the brains of monolinguals.
One well-known polyglot is Alexander Arguelles. An American scholar of foreign
languages, Arguelles can read and fluently speak approximately thirty-six languages. In
college, he took classes in French, German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Medieval
French, Gothic, Old High German, and Old Norse. He claims to have developed
conversational abilities in Swedish, Dutch, and Italian during visits to those countries
while doing research in Europe, Portuguese by conversing with a Brazilian student,
Russian during a month-long stay, and Korean and Arabic during his years of residence
in South Korea and Lebanon. During the first portion of his time in Korea, he also
engaged in the intensive simultaneous autodidactic study of a wide range of languages
including Irish, Persian, Hindi, Turkish, and Swahili.
On average, Arguelles spends nine hours a day studying dozens of languages. A
typical daily regime may consist of the following: writing and reading in Arabic, then
writing at least two pages each of Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Latin, followed by
reading Persian and writing two pages of Russian grammar before composing in Latin,
doing grammatical exercise in Turkish, trying out a bit of Swahili, and reviewing Irish
Arguelles is notable not only for his achievements as a polyglot, but also for the
advice and information about autodidactic language study that he provides to language
learners on web forums. He does not maintain that there is any special key to language
learning other than systematic and disciplined hard work over long periods of time.
Among techniques he has advocated are “shadowing”—listening to and simultaneously
echoing a recording of foreign language audio loudly and clearly while walking briskly
rather than sitting, and “scriptorium”—reading aloud while transcribing texts by hand. In
reviewing and evaluating textbooks he tends to favor older and more traditional materials
over contemporary publications. In terms of time management skills he recommends
simultaneous rather than sequential language study.
Even if you don’t aspire to be a polyglot like Alexander Arguelles or Joseph
Mezzofanti, the 19th century Italian cardinal who could speak 72 languages, giving these
two techniques a try can at least help you acquire a few foreign languages.