10 Most Impressive Polyglots In World History

Written By: Angelita Williams

Most of us are pretty impressed when we meet someone who can speak more than one language, but some people go above and beyond being bilingual or even trilingual and become hyperpolyglots. Throughout history, a few intrepid language enthusiasts have taken on the challenge of learning not one or two but dozens of languages. A few have even purportedly mastered as many as 100 distinct languages and dialects, which when you consider how hard it is to learn a single new language, is pretty impressive to say the least. Read on to learn more about a few of these astonishing language learners, who just might inspire you to step up your own language learning game.

  1. Ziad Fazah:

    This Liberian-born Lebanese polyglot currently holds the Guinness World Record for speaking the most number of languages. Fazah claims to be able to read and speak 58 languages including Arabic, Polish, Thai, Urdu, Norwegian, and many more. While Fazah has proven his prowess in some tests of his abilities, he has had some major slipups as well, including one notably disastrous appearance on Viva el lunes, a Chilean TV program, where he failed to understand beginner-level phrases in Finnish, Russian, Chinese, Persian, Hindi, and Greek, all of which he claims to be fluent in.

  2. Guiseppe Gaspardo Mezzofanti:

    One of history's greatest polyglots is the Cardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti. This Italian theologian didn't just know his stuff when it came to religion, he also had in-depth knowledge of ethnology, archaeology, numismatics, and astronomy. Mezzofanti's true passion was in linguistics, however, and he was known to definitively speak at least 39 different languages, ranging from Hebrew to Gujarati, as well as dozens of other dialects (some believe he may have spoken almost a hundred languages and dialects). During his lifetime he served as a professor of Arabic at the University of Bologna and later became a professor of Oriental languages and Greek, all while learning languages, heading up missionary activities, and maintaining the Vatican Library. He was such a well-known linguistic genius that when he died, people all over Europe vied for his skull.

  3. Sir John Bowring:

    British political economist, traveler, writer, and fourth governor of Hong Kong Sir John Bowring had many talents, but perhaps the one he is best known for is his love of languages. During his lifetime, Bowring claimed to know 200 languages and to be able to speak 100. Despite having an active career in politics, Bowring enjoyed a secondary career translating folk songs, poetry, and literature from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Spain. His son, Edgar Alfred Bowring, would follow in his father's footsteps as a translator, though never learning the great number of languages his father did during his lifetime.

  4. Kenneth Hale:

    It shouldn't be especially surprising that an MIT linguistics professor would also be a noted polyglot. Hale's studies at MIT focused mainly on endangered languages, especially those in North America, Central America, and Australia. Hale didn't just study these languages, however, he also learned them himself, becoming fluent in Tohono O'oham, Jemez, Hopi, Navajo, Warlpiri, and about 45 other languages. What's most amazing about Hale, however, is the rapidity with which he could learn a new language, often being able to have a basic conversation after just 10 or 15 minutes of listening to a native speaker.

  5. Georges Dumezil:

    Noted French philologist Georges Dumezil is best known for his work on mythography and social classes. This academic work was facilitated, however, by Dumezil's love of learning ancient languages, which made it possible for him to use a wide range of primary source material in all of his research. Eventually, Dumezil's studies in linguistics ranged outside of classical languages and by his death he was said to speak or read more than 200 languages with varying degrees of fluency.

  6. William James Sidis:

    William James Sidis was a child prodigy, who had exceptional linguistic and mathematical abilities. His IQ was estimated to be between 250 and 300, one of the highest ever recorded. Sidis taught himself eight languages (Latin, Greek, French, Russian, German, Hebrew, Turkish, and Armenian) by his eighth birthday and even developed his own language called Vendergood. As an adult, he claimed to be able to speak more than 40 languages and dialects and is reported to have been able to learn the fundamentals of a language in a day (though this claim may be spurious). Unfortunately, the public attention garnered from his gifts drove Sidis into seclusion and he would take on menial jobs and live in seclusion until his death at 47 in order to avoid the attention.

  7. Ferenc Kemeny:

    Hungarian translator Ferenc Kemeny is perhaps one of the most accomplished in his field in terms of sheer linguistic ability. It has been reported that Kemeny understood more than 40 languages, was able to write in 24, and speak in 12. He spent the bulk of his career translating poetry and literature, often from his native Hungarian into more than 17 other languages and from 30 other languages into Hungarian.

  8. Emil Krebs:

    A turn of the century German diplomat and expert on China, Emil Krebs is perhaps best remembered for his extraordinary linguistic abilities. During his lifetime, he spoke and wrote 68 languages with a fair degree of fluency, though he also studied more than 120 other languages. He collected more than 3,500 books in languages from around the world, the volumes of which are now stored in the National Archives. Oddly, Krebs often used his secondary languages (not his native German) to learn new languages. Some examples include learning Basque in Spanish, Hindi and Irish through English, and Finnish through Russian. His abilities were so renowned that upon his death his brain was preserved and studied at the Institute for Brain Research in Dusseldorf (researchers claim that there is evidence in his brain structure for his language abilities).

  9. Lomb Kato:

    Lomb Kato was a Hungarian hyperpolyglot who worked as an interpreter and translator. She taught herself Russian by reading Russian romance novels, and other languages soon followed, often learned through detective novels and pulp fiction. She was self-taught in all, and believed that “one learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.” Eventually, she would be able to interpret in 10 languages, translate technical literature in six, read in 11, and work with 16, including Bulgarian, Chinese, Danish, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, and Ukrainian.

  10. Sir Richard Francis Burton:

    British explorer, geographer, diplomat, spy, and cartographer Sir Richard Francis Burton is said to have spoken 29 languages and countless dialects. Many of these languages were learned during his explorations through Asia, Africa, and the Americas, but he began learning others as a child, mastering French, Italian, Neapolitan, Latin, and several other dialects before graduating from high school. He also helped to translate and publish many famous books including One Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra.

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