The cult of the hyperpolyglot

Alex Rawlings demonstrates his 11 languages

Many people want to speak a second language, but for some people two can never be enough. Welcome to the world of the hyperpolyglot.

Ray Gillon speaks 18 languages. To be precise, he only speaks eight fluently. His grasp on the other 10 is merely conversational.

Throw anything at him in Portuguese, Thai, Turkish, Russian, Polish, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Bulgarian or Mandarin and he will banter back.

In the UK, where there has been a growing anxiety over the failure to learn additional languages, Gillon might seem to be a bit of an anomaly. More and more children have been giving up languages since the last government made learning foreign languages optional in England from the age of 14.

Publisher HarperCollins has been searching for the UK's most multilingual student, and has discovered a 20-year-old Oxford University undergraduate who can speak 11 languages. And a new book, Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners, by Michael Erard, suggests Gillon is among a set of people who are learning languages for fun.

Ray Gillon Ray Gillon says he sees etymology as a sport and he enjoys looking up the origins of words

So what makes some people learn language after language?

For self-taught polyglot Gillon, 54, his love affair with language started by accident. He says he first learned French and Latin at the age of 11, and later studied French and German as elective courses while studying for his electronic engineering degree.

"But it wasn't until I got my first job, and was sent to live in the south of France, that I had any real enthusiasm for languages," he says.

It was during this chapter of his life, while designing audio visual systems for a cruise liner, that Gillon was introduced to Italian through colleagues.

What's that you're saying?

Beatles promote multi-language version of their song All You Need Is Love
  • Up to 7,000 different languages are estimated to be spoken around the world
  • Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German and French are world's most widely spoken languages, according to UNESCO
  • Languages are grouped into families that share a common ancestry
  • English is related to German and Dutch, and all are part of Indo-European family of languages
  • Also includes French, Spanish and Italian, which come from Latin
  • 2,200 of the world's languages can be found in Asia, while Europe has 260

Source: BBC Languages

"I went to Italy for a weekend, and fell in love with the language. I bought books and started teaching myself. By the end of my three years in France, I was fluent in both languages," he says.

Gillon's next job took him round the world, and pretty soon he was up to speed on German, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese and Swedish.

He says he used half a dozen languages every day for 10 years and his current job, which involves supervising foreign language versioning of Hollywood movies, means he has to stay on top of his skills.

"I have a massive foreign language book library, so I regularly keep up to date, revising grammar, reading newspapers, watching satellite television.

"My much better half is also Swedish and speaks six languages - we probably speak them all every day," he says.

According to author and linguistics expert Erard, there are not many hyperpolyglots like Gillon in the world. He has identified 11 languages as a significant watershed. Those who speak more than this are very rare.

But he says it is difficult to define hyperpolyglots and polyglots because essentially it has to be about speaking and knowing rather than reading and writing. In some cases literacy is not possible, or a language does not have an alphabet.

He says the question of "how much a language weighs" is also significant in determining how unusual a linguist is.

Rise of the polyglots

"Most people say it's easier to pick up languages when you're younger," says David Green, of University College London, who specialises in bilingualism.

"But people can learn languages at any point in their lives. Being immersed in a language is important. Personality is a contributing factor too - not being able to tolerate feeling foolish from making inevitable errors will make learning a new language a difficult process.

"Polyglots are definitely on the rise worldwide predominantly because of migration. In 10 years' time, it is estimated that 50% of America will be Spanish-speaking. Many of these people will speak both English and Spanish."

"If the languages are English, French, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi and Russian - that would be more significant from a learner's perspective than 11 Romance languages such as Italian, French and Spanish," he says.

People who are gifted linguists also often have to make the choice between getting very highly developed skills in a smaller number of languages, or focusing on one aspect like the oral language, he says.

For language-lover Matt Withers, 32, who speaks German, Portuguese, Luxembourgish, French and Welsh, it is not his vocation, but a fascination with language and the world that fuels his hobby.

But rather than relying solely on books, he also signed up to a series of courses.

"When I lived in Germany, I shared a house with three Brazilians, so I did an evening course in Portuguese to converse with them - it was interesting trying to learn Portuguese through the medium of German," he laughs.

Which words come easily?

Road signs in English and Polish
  • Usually easier when second language is close to learner's native tongue in terms of vocabulary, sounds or sentence structure
  • So Polish speakers find it easier to learn Slavic languages like Czech rather than Asian ones
  • And Japanese speakers will find it easier to learn Mandarin than Polish
  • Easiest language for native English speakers to learn is said to be Dutch
  • Five most difficult languages for native English speakers are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean

Source: BBC Languages

"For the past few years, I've been living in Wales - I share an office with predominantly native Welsh speakers, so I've been learning Welsh."

Withers thinks that fluency in one language allows people to accumulate others more easily.

"Most monoglots in this country aren't really able to explain English in terms such as the perfect past tense and past tense. When you learn about cases and tenses and grammatical formations, I think the tool box is there for other languages," he says.

But he concedes it is not always the case, "as Welsh isn't like any other major European language, in terms of the way it is constructed, and is incredibly different".

So what enables hyperpolyglots to seemingly pick up a new language at the push of a button?

Erard says it is hard to explain, but whatever an individual's biographical reasons are, he believes there is something that distinguishes hyperpolyglots neurologically.

"They have a neurological hardware that responds to the world, that's fed by the world, that is suited to a pattern that is recognition-heavy, sound-heavy and memory-heavy - that is very structured, and also very sociable.

Manuel from Fawlty Towers Manuel probably spoke three languages - Basil Fawlty just the one

"They have an ability to switch between languages very easily, and that involves cognitive skills which are often heritable," he adds.

But Gillon says he has no idea what the secret to his success is.

He says some "blocks" - Germanic, Slavic, Latin - make it "easier to go with the flow, and language becomes intuitive". He agrees that by the third or fourth language, it also gets easier to assimilate vocabulary and grammar much more quickly.

"Etymology is a sport for me. I enjoy looking up the origin of words and seeing which particular invasion was responsible for bringing that word into our vocabulary. I am immersed in it for my work and it will continue to intrigue me for every day of my life."

But he concludes: "I can't explain it - if I could, I would bottle and sell it."

Additional reporting by Sophie Robehmed

Send us your comments using the form below and we will post a selection

Watching Alex Rawlings, I am sick with envy! But I must say that unlike lots of other self-proclaimed polyglots out there, he seems like the real deal. Besides his native English, I can only comment on his Russian and German, and they are both excellent - his pronunciation is near-native in both, and I think I noticed just one (potential - it might just be a pronunciation fluff) grammatical mistake in his Russian. Russian morphology can be tricky, and making almost no mistakes when speaking at speed after one and a half years' study is simply incredible. I think the key to learning languages is to enjoy it. Across all of the people I've met around the world who learn languages, the only consistent predictor of success is whether they get a kick out of picking up new stuff or not. Have fun with it, and it will come.

Steve, Ilfracombe

It's surprising we haven't learned more about how to teach languages. I suspect that for most of human evolution, most members of a tribe spoke at least two languages. One local, unique tribal language and one more expansive trading language for contact with other tribes. Even learning another group's language later in life seems like something that would have evolved out of necessity. We should have the capacity to rack up at least a handful without years of mindless toil. But how? Futher, it's surprising teaching multiple languages to children isn't more widely studied. Who wouldn't want their child speaking Mandarin, English, Hindi, Arabic, and Spanish from a young age onward?

Drew, USA

Impressive - and heartwarming. Languages are more important than ever. I think the UK is making a big mistake by placing a low emphasis on language skills. The more languages you speak, the better your job chances. If you can't manage as many as the guy in the article, never mind, just try and learn one other language. It makes all the difference!

Margit Appleton, Munich, Germany

Having had to learn Dutch (and speak it pretty fluently), I think it's ludicrous to say it's the easiest language for English speakers. The sentence structure is totally different and pronunciation much harder than most other European languages. My second unlikely language is Burmese, which is on another level altogether. I think the key to learning a language is actually to understand its rhythm - otherwise you will never be able to speak intelligibly or really to hear others.

Jon Wilkinson, London, UK

Indo-European languages are fairly similar as far as grammar goes. You just have to play around. It's just syntax that changes. It's when you start studying Eastern languages that things get a bit more complicated: Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, etc.

David Marr, New Mills

I too have a fascination for learning a new language. I can read about six and can usually communicate if I go abroad. i teach french to adults and tell them that listening is the most important. I listen all the time. Arabic in marrakesh airport then in an egyptian restaurant in Brighton. I couldn't cope with more than about five at a time though. Some come forward and some slip away a bit. Very interested to hear about other experiences

Roger Burman, Gravesend, UK

I think it is a shame that English-speaking countries don't make more of an effort to learn other languages, as this also opens the doors to exploring new cultures, something which attracted me to learning languages. I was fortunate to be brought up bilingually, speaking English & German, and having grown up in South Africa, could also speak Afrikaans and some Zulu as a child. I then went on to study French, Spanish & Russian at uni, with Japanese on the side, also dipping my toes into Arabic & Mandarin. I recently went on an Italian course and often wish I had more time to learn even more languages! I would say that growing up speaking several languages as a child definitely helps!

Sonja, London, UK

Dutch can't possibly be easier to learn than Afrikaans! Afrikaans being Dutch minus any complicated grammar.

Richard N, Marseille, France

I find this fascinating. I grew up bilingual in English and German but found it difficult learning French grammatically. I have always been much better at speaking rather than reading and writing. I wonder if this is the same for others? I always try to learn a bit of a language if I go to a different country, so have a smattering of Polish and Turkish but these are just set phrases. I think that you need to have a passion and gift for learning so many languages and really admire the linguistic intuition polyglots must have.

Sarah Robinson, Edinburgh, UK

I spent most of my long life (born 1944) as a monoglottal Englishman. Growing up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) I had ample opportunity to learn the local Bantu language (Sindebele) and Afrikaans, and would have had no shortage of practical opportunities to hone those language skills. However, the (white) government of the day gave no encouragement to to the study of what it regarded as a primitive language, and my British mother (herself a monoglot, although very well read and eloquent in her native, English tongue) abhorred the very sound of Afrikaans and influenced me into studying French at school. After five academic years, I left school with an F (fail) in my French O level and my subsequent brief stays in France left me embarrassed and ashamed of my inability to speak the language of one of the world's most beautiful countries. At an advanced age, I started studying Russian: I married a monoglotttal Russian almost thirteen years ago, and have since had ample, almost daily opportunities, to regret not having learned Russian at an age when language studies come easier. It's difficult, very difficult, to learn a language when youth has passed you by; I urge all young native English speaking people to slough off the typical, almost traditional, English disdain for foreign languages, and study at least one foreign tongue while your brain is still active and flexible enough to overcome the impediments of native tongue interference and ingrained contempt for speakers of other languages.

Laurence Paradine, Republic of Chuvashia, Russian Federation

I learnt 4 languages at school - French, German, Latin and Classical Greek. Later easily picked up enough Spanish and Turkish to travel off the tourist track and talk to the natives. Living in India I found that most Indian children learn three languages at school, in Kerala this was usually Malayalam, Hindi and English. They seemed to have no trouble with this. Hardest for an English person? Try Malayalam!

helen m., Ludlow

h how I wish I could speak even one other language, never mind several! I find it impossible to remember the words. I have a very large English vocabulary, but get me to learn words in another langauage, and a minute later I have either forgotten the sound or I have forgotten the meaning. In every other aspect of life I have an excellent memory and am very well educated- PhD level. Maybe I am the opposite of a polyglot? Presumably we must exist. It's not like I can't be bothered learning another language, I just don't seem capable.

John March, Edinburgh

I started taking Arabic lessons from Spetember last year and have just quit. We were never taught the technical side of English at school and I found that this was my undoing trying to learn another language as I had no idea on past participals, definitives etc etc. I spent more time learning the technical construct in language then the languge itself and was overwhelmed. Maybe we should put more emphasis on this at school to make other languages easier to learn?

Vanessa Pinder, Canterbury, Kent

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