The Bounds and Boundlessness of Polyglotism

· Language

Scope of our Article

Well, modestly, we could have settled for bilingualism, but that is neither polyglotism nor multilingualism. Nevertheless, anyone who might settle for one or two second languages might find something of use here.

That said, and in all fairness, we are unsure as to what exactly polyglotism should mean, because it is somewhat of a  subjective term.  We could start with the question: What is the lower limit of the number of languages that need to be considered?

And not just that!  What do we mean by knowing a language?  Is it reading, speaking, writing, understanding, or all four?  And at what level?

Am I, the writer, even minimally qualified to write on this topic?

Let us answer this last question first.  It will be a bit long-winded, thus those who care to skip it are forewarned.

My Exposure to Languages

In the year of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, I found myself in Southern Canada in a multilingual environment, consisting of English speakers, Germans, Hungarians, Yugoslavs and Romanians, although I would only have recognized the first two languages.  I had the idea of what a Slavic language sounded like.

I would be exposed to some Latin, and a very limited amount of Greek.

In grade school, there would be pupils of Polish and Portuguese backgrounds.  Of course, there would be French-Canadians.  Not that they exposed me to their language, but in bilingual Canada, I was already comparing the English and French texts on the labels of Canadian packaging.

In secondary school, I would study French, and some Latin.  During a summer vacation, I headed out for the big city on my bicycle, and bought texts to learn Spanish and Russian.

The need to work during the summer holidays did not allow me to dedicate as much time as I would have wanted to these languages, and in fact, I was not encouraged to do so, on the grounds that it would have been better to improve my native tongue.

Nevertheless, I did make practical use of some of the knowledge I had acquired.  To the French-language radio stations I wrote in the language which they would have preferred, and with the very limited Spanish I had at the time, I wrote to Radio Nacional de Colombia.  From this latter’s director, I received a very kind letter, congratulating me on my Spanish.  That, objectively speaking, was pure flattery.

A classmate helped me write a letter in Portuguese to Brazil.

Around my tenth or eleventh school-year, I picked up some Lebanese recordings. While I did not know any of the language, I was able to decipher the badly mentally-repeated fragments of my favorite one many years later, only from memory.

At university, I brushed up my German a little, to make it less dialectical.  Time spent in studying for the final examination in the first year – 30 minutes at most.

My Study of Spanish

Eventually, I decided to head for Latin America, so I spent some serious time in studying Spanish.  My technique might be worth considering, as compared to that of others.

I bought a couple of courses which were suitable for tourists.  One of these was much better than the other, as the grammar was quite complete, even if a “touristy” vocabulary would be limited to essentials.

The local library sold some books very cheaply – I got a couple, one by an unknown Chilean author, and another by Mexican Carlos Fuentes.  These were read without understanding very much.  The Chilean author was not in his president’s good books.

On weekends, I would go to Yonge Street in Toronto, which sold newspapers and magazines in Spanish.  I would select some, both for the practice in Spanish, and in order to decide which country would be the most interesting target.

I listened to the Voice of America every night, first in English, then in Spanish.  While the latter was not  ever a translation of the former, at least the main news items were the same and he idea was to grasp the essential vocabulary contained therein that one would need in order to understand the current events of that time. I would also listen to Radio Nacional de España, which had a weekly transmission for those interested in learning some literary vocabulary: Español – un idioma sin fronteras, (translated into English as Spanish – a Language without Bounds).  The usefulness was limited a bit by bad reception, but I would meet individuals from Spain in Latin America, so this was not useless. (Some local once listened to a recording I had of one of these programs, but could not understand anything.)

I finally subscribed to a weekly magazine from one of the countries. After a year, I changed from a People type of publication, to one which was more dedicated to real news – it considered itself to be – quoting U.S.  Secretary of State Alexander Haig – “a TIME”. (The magazine no longer exists, and may best be forgotten.  It was more of a “half-Time”!)

I would consider none of this very structured.  The idea was just to absorb vocabulary in my free time.  However, I did obtain a couple of more serious texts.   These would be put to use later.

Once in Latin America, my work did not allow much time for reading, but again, I would buy a Sunday newspaper, and spend the day looking at what I considered the more interesting articles.  I continued reading the news magazine to which I had subscribed from, while in Canada.  I was able to hold conversations, without ever having had a teacher for this purpose.  I continued to listen to the Voice of America.

After about a year in the country, a provincial government was my employer.

After about another year, I decided to head for the nation’s capital city.  For this purpose, I stopped working, and set myself to study every day from approximately sun-up till sundown.   First, I studied (Continental) Spanish texts, trying to get the answers to the questions verbatim.  As the texts were not that ponderous, they were swiftly finished.  I then set out to read one book per day, paying attention to the vocabulary, writing down new words, with their translations; while marking them in my dictionary; and, if the word sounded to outlandish in the local environment, I consultied with somebody that I had gotten to know who very rapidly absorbed by English.  My study lasted for about six weeks (with some interruptions for novels in French).

Hobby Interest in Language

After about 5 years in the country, I again dedicated myself to listening to various radio stations from around the world.  I have already mentioned listening to Colombia from Canada.  Now my targets would be outside of Latin America.  Radio Japan, Radio Korea,  and Radio Moscow, among others.  Radio Japan sent free material.  The problem was, I would have to be up at two in the morning for the lessons!

A Canadian program transmitted from another country tested the listener’s knowledge about languages by giving snippets from stations around the world, and asking us to guess what it was we were hearing.  Needless to say, we were only exposed to exotic material. How many people, even among the hobbyists, could seriously be expected to identify Burmese, for example?

Well, I just had to be up to date now.  This is not to say that I learned some or any of the languages of the books which I was able to buy.  Some might still be learnt, according to my priorities.  I would think that it is important to learn the widespread languages of the world other than English and Spanish.  Once the C.I.A. was recruiting potential agents through the then British magazine, the Economist.  This, or another magazine once stated that there was a dearth of agents for Arabic, Chinese, and Russian, among others, I suppose – the point of mentioning this being that this suggested to me one or more additional languages to learnt.  Then one finds out, that standard Arabic is not the same as the Egyptian, Levant, or Gulf versions! Mandarin Chinese is not the version spoken in Hong Kong or Shanghai.

And then, how about reading the Bible in its Hebrew, Greek, and Latin forms?

I am not interested in describing my limitations, but as an absolute minimum, I am willing to concede, that if need be, I am capable of using a dictionaries in Arabic, Hebrew and Greek; and have used them for Persian and Turkish (using Arab-type script).  I also understand a methodology of using Japanese and Chinese Dictionaries.

Once exposed to Russian, one has clues about the other Slavic languages.  These indications are much more useful than the benefits of German for learning the related Norwegian, Swedish, or Danish, but Dutch is close. With a knowledge of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese can easily be derived.

Meaning of Knowing a Language

I am sometimes asked how many languages I know.  The reader may have noticed that I am somewhat reticent on this point.  On the one hand, I know less than I would like to. On the other hand, there will always be embarrassing moments when someone challenges you with a non-standard version of the language, and then makes you look like an ignoramus. I do not like to be told that my books are wrong – unless they patently are.  Some should never have been published. This is when, for the self-learner, or even for others, it becomes convenient to compare texts.  Two out of three contemporary texts by different publishers and authors suggest that the third one is wrong.  I say this, because I have seen it.

But exactly, what is it to know a language? Even the definitions of “working knowledge” vary.

I, myself, after considering the information given in the Council of Europe website, would consider the A1 (lowest level) as not acceptable for our present purposes, while the proficient levels (C1 and C2) are not necessarily achieved by even (insufficiently-schooled) native speakers.  For this reason, I disagree with (for example) the chart given by the University of North Carolina (Wilmington), which states that a native speaker is more than fluent. I disagree that “native speakers” necessarily use the language “correctly”.  How often are even the educated among us found to make mistakes which turn up even in learned writing? Then we have the definition of “working knowledge” by the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations, which puts it at the level apparently between B2 and C1 of the Council of Europe.

I am content with what was expected of students at the time I went to university.  A second language was necessary to enter,  perhaps a third for a Master’s degree, and definitely a third for a Ph.D.  One would be tested for comprehension in reading.  After all, the idea of an advanced degree is to write a paper based on research.  In this sense,  at least the Canadian universities were promoting a healthy multiculturalism. (I just saw a much less demanding requirement from an American university, which, in addition, was criticized by student who had not fulfilled it.)[1]

After my second year of French at university (where it was not as well taught as in my secondary school, in spite of professors with impeccable degrees), I asked a teaching assistant how I should rate my ability – that would be in speaking and comprehension.  The answer: “a working knowledge”.  That, too, of course, requires definition.  We have already mentioned the level implied at a U.N. organization, but I would put it this way: going to a country and getting understood in more than sign language. Strictly speaking, that should be more than basic, even though this is what my defintion implies.  The reader may understand it this way: whatever actual level I had at the time, did not meet my expectations.

I haven’t had much use for French in Latin America, though I do occasionally read something, and used it with some Haitians this year.  It is frustrating to know that the Parisians will never like my accent.  Worse – we were told in high school that we were learning the Parisian accent, and then one day I discovered that I was learning the Canadian version.

I have met a couple of people who claimed to know a dozen languages.  Based on their life-style, I would say that they were trying to pull the wool over my eyes, as no proof was ever given.  Furthermore, I realized that they were charlatans.  For example, a person who says he has a house in the north of the country, and in the south of the country, but rooms in a building from which he is locked out when the owner goes on vacation cannot very likely be telling the truth.  The same can be said for someone who does not understand a very common word of a foreign language which that individual claimed to know.

This idea of the common word can give immense satisfaction in watching a James Bond movie.  These have the habit of throwing in some tidbit of the local vernacular, such as “Thank you” in Arabic, “How are you?” in Chinese, and something in Russian; as well as the more recognizable European languages.  There were the four evil agents working for KAOS’s Siegfried in the series Get Smart, where each answered “yes” in his own language: Ja, oui, da, sí.  If those who claim to be multilingual do so on the basis of these snippets, the matter is relatively simple.

We do not believe that this is so.

Minimal Standards for Multilingualism

Wikipedia has a page, List of Polyglots.[2]   The absolute minimum was 3 languages, in the case of the Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, then there is an actor who spoke 3 languages fluently, and some of a fourth. An actress is listed who speaks four.  However, the usual minimum seems to be 5 or 6. Yet, knowing this, we still do not know how much a person would really need to know.  I wasted my time on making a spread-sheet of the information, but it was so incomplete, with different levels of competence involved, that reliable conclusions cannot be made.  However, as an average number of languages known by the living polyglots named, 5 Africans speak 7.6 languages; 24 Asians speak from 8.9 to 11.3 languages (the higher number includes those with less than whatever the standard for fluency may be); and 34 Europeans speak from 7.1 to 8.1 languages.  The result for the Americas is 5.7 to 6.6.

The mode values for Europe and the Americas was 6, while for Asia it was 8. The median for Africa was 7.

The high values for Asia come from Indians and Pakistanis – their multilingual countries make it useful for successful individuals to appeal to a wide audience. (The same was true in the Austro-Hungrian Empire in Europe.) If we separate the languages of the Indian subcontinent from the Indo-European languages of continental Europe, we see that in Asia, for those individuals with complete data, there were 72 Indic languages spoken versus 65 European. The latter, if Asia is included, has one instance each of modern and ancient Persian.

A different example of the word “polyglot” occurs in the title of some tomes referred to as the Complutense Polyglot Bible, of which I first heard of in a course on the Renaissance and Reformation.  Here we see but 3 languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.  Later versions added some Chaldaic.

Based on a strict interpretation of my Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 3 languages are sufficient to make one a polyglot.[3]  How much of reading, writing, speaking, and understanding would need to be part of this, as I interpret it, would be at least the first two of these, but to be safe, I would say all four are required.  Anything else is icing on the cake.

I would like to suggest that the ability to do crossword puzzles with a reasonable level of success in 3 languages might be an indicator of something, if it were possible to objectively evaluate the required difficulty of these. There used to be one in a local English newspaper – it was so easy that I could do it in under 10 minutes – the time it took me to walk around the block.  Later, the same paper had more difficult ones, which would probably require native fluency.

When my eyesight was good, I once watched a subway passenger doing crosswords in Spanish.  I was surprised by the words that had stumped this individual, to which I knew the answer.

A more difficult crossword, in Spanish, was handled by a team of four individuals at an Internet café. My contribution was equal to those whose mother tongue was castellano.  Sometimes I contributed the last word, to which they might reply that such a word did not exist.  I suggested looking up the word on one of the computers for which they were responsible.

An example of items in a puzzle recently done included clues such as Saturn’s wife, exchange premium, Skype cap, Charon’s waterway, Yemeni city, and Thai currency; plus a question giving Aten as the answer. Here we see a need for a certain level of education. However, I doubt the validity of questions about actors, singers, TV shows and movies, as some of us seriously have more important things on our mind. Perhaps it is because of this latter type of question that I once read in an English textbook a short story which suggesting this past-time as less than truly intellectually edifying.

Two Examples: Leo Tolstoy and Heinrich Schliemann

My admiration for polyglots was aroused by a reading in a German textbook about Heinrich Schliemann.[4]  Last week, I again read about him, but this time in a book about archeology. [5]  It was stated that at 22 he knew 7 languages, at 33 he knew 15, he learned Russian in 6 weeks, and later learned Arabic.

The description of his language-learning technique suggests it was mostly limited to reading and writing.  Supposedly he dedicated an hour a day to reading out loud.  How much time he devoted to writing and getting someone to correct his work is not mentioned in this source.  That he learned Russian in six weeks sounds like the title of some of the cheaper texts in my library.  He is supposed to have been able to speak it too. If it was from a book, then the person he was speaking to, in my opinion, was very tolerant of his pronunciation.

The case is similar for Tolstoy, We will expand this a little in the near future (if possible), but a cynical description we once were exposed to suggested that his method was by reading the Bible in several languages.  Considering that there can hardly be a 100 per cent correspondence between terms in various languages, the method would seem flawed.  We have also read that the vocabulary in the Bible is limited.  I suspect this is sour grapes. [I have not found confirmation of this – it is remembered from a pamphlet received with a set of books, perhaps a well-known encyclopedia – and the content was an annual lecture given some time before 1970 at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada.  My memory should be correct about the basic fact expressed, because it struck me in the same way as Schliemann’s abilities did.] ( ) Our unlinked reference suggests, through a great-grandson Vladimir, a knowledge of 13 languages, “various degrees of proficiency” and “a decent knowledge” of some of these”. It disappoints me that his still-existing library has books in 10 languages more than my own – but then, I am not a nobleman – nor even wealthy.

We have one source, Death and the Meaning of Life: Selected Spiritual Writings of Lev Tolstoy by Maureeen Cote, which grades the Russian’s knowledge of French, English, and German as fluent – thus being even more positive of his knowledge than his own descendant. However, a blogger calling himself by the same name as that influential Russian, claims that “Tolstoy spoke bad Russian“.  This adds credence to my own position, that being a native speaker has nothing to do with fluency.

Learning Through a Good Dictionary

I have described the supposed method of Tolstoy, the procedure of Schliemann, and my own methodology for learning languages.  By this, we exclude any studies at schools, universities, or institutes, because these would be too slow.

A method for learning a second language was once mentioned in an American news magazine of note, perhaps in the 1980s.  An immigrant to the States spent his time memorizing one page a day (if memory serves me well) of a dictionary.  What value could this have?

We must first consider the size of the dictionary. A very small pocket dictionary can have a considerable amount of vocabulary, but it provides neither context nor familiarity with idiomatic expressions.  In fact, they may not even impart pronunciation or accent rules, let alone the fact, that this eager learner still hand need of grammar.

Some pocket dictionaries overcome these limitations to a certain degree.  For example, I had (and have replaced) the University of Chicago dictionary for the Spanish language.  However, for the amount of reading that I did, I really needed a “handbook”-sized dictionary.  That said, if a person really spent the time to learn all the vocabulary in a good pocket-sized dictionary, with the help of some study of grammar, and correct pronunciation, then that individual could pass for a proficient speaker of the language.

Ideally, one should have access to the best publications possible.  For example, if I had the money, I would buy the Langenscheidt Muret-Sanders Encyclopedic English-Germand and German-English Dictionary in the unabridged version.  It is the equivalent of having a complete up-to-date version of the Oxford Dictionary, or Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. For someone who has some French and German, I would recommend the Langenscheidt Großwörterbuch Französisch Sachs-Villatte. However, such a level of thoroughness would be most suited to a person with the intention of being highly bilingual at perhaps a doctoral level – one would not have much time to become an impressive polygot (by number of languages) with such tomes.  The doctoral level of such works can be compared to the Oxford Latin Dictionary by Louis and Short. If one looks at the vocabulary in a one-year college text-book, it becomes evident that so little study does not even approach a single percentage point of what the scholarly work provides.  However, I find that when a translation does not meet my expectations, the Lateinisch-deutsches Schulwörterbuch, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Etymologie by Hermann Menge can clear up doubts not only on this point, but also on length of vowels.  Its only drawback is that the modern user will have to learn the old German printing.

Reading Comprehension only – or More?

Doctoral candidates may only need to have reading comprehension of a second or third language, but to enter university, I had to be able to be able to read and write a language (French).  How much of my grade was based on oral production is unknown, but it would not have been that much – and would have probably been subsumed under class participation. Our reference to a scholarly Latin-English dictionary – we could just as well have mentioned Greek or Hebrew – for biblical studies – suggests speaking ability should be included.  Now, in the so-called dead languages, we might have some difference of opinion about pronunciation, but then, even Continental English does not sound American.  The same is true of Spanish and Portuguese, as spoken in the Old and New Worlds.  However, grammatically they are either unified by language academies, or otherwise substantially similar based on frequency of usage.  Nevertheless, we would not want to say that someone incapable of speaking the the languages read disqualifies that person from being or becoming a polyglot. Based on the Wikipedia list, we have the following examples: one individual knows Polish, French and German, can read Latin, and understand Ukrainian; another “claimed” to know 8, to be able to read 4 more with the help of a dictionary, to have studied 11 more, and to understand several German dialects.

The Bounds of Polyglotism

One is only limited by inate intelligence, self-discipline, time, and resources.  To be fair to the vast majority, we exclude the requirement of a photographic memory.

Let us assume that a person has 60 years to dedicate to learning languages, and that these are learnt, as Schliemann’s Russian, in 6 weeks.  This would allow 8.5 languages per year, for a total of 510 languages, much less than the total number of languages in the world, and much more than would give any practical use.

Of course, the above is a misuse of statistics.  As long as one studies languages within the same family, the study of a second and third language would become progressively faster (with luck).  On the other hand, with age, and the necessity of learning completely new rules for a language in a new group – for us, outside of the Indo-European – learning would slow down. It could speed up again for languages related to the one under immediate consideration.

A question that critics of one’s knowledge might raise is about the ability to read and create poetry correctly in another language.  The rules do not always conform to what we think.  Latin poetry, for example, does not base itself so much upon rhyme, and the emphasis is not on the accented syllable as much as on the length of the same.  If poetry is not so much in vogue nowadays as in the past, it still leaves its mark in songs.  While it may not be expected that we become songwriters, it might be appreciated if we know some popular or folk song in a foreign language.

The Boundlessness of Polyglotism

Strictly speaking, there are always bounds in our material world, but we are speaking in terms of imagination.  Going from one language to another, and another, and so on, suggests a certain boundlessness.  Knowing many words in one language gives insights into some of the words of another, it allows one to become a wordsmith, poet, switching from formal language to a colloquial style, – and my favorite idea – punning in several languages at once.

Related Articles by the Present Author

The first article, which can not be edited any more, as the editor has been deprecated, was about perfective and imperfective aspects in Slavic Languages.

A challenge which I gave myself, without having the necessary software, was the editing of a page based on the first letter of the Russian alphabet as presented in various 19th Century dictionaries.  It was given an etymological emphasis, so it incorporated, among others, Arabic, Greek, and Hebrew words, written with the characters of the languages involved. Words Beginning with “А” from Selected 19th Century Russian Dictionaries. I would like to continue with this project, but currently lack the necessary resources.

In Mapping Vowel Sounds – A New Model, I proposed a method which I believe more convenient to understanding the specific case of vowel harmony, such as is found in the Turkish language.

Most relevant to this page, but not as weighty as the above, is my article, Collecting Languages as if They Were Butterflies. Some other pages deal with etymology.  While somewhere the reader may see may claim to have a touch of history on every page, etymology is the history of words; and for anything that does not appear to have this “touch”, I do think that it is somehow still present.


[1] As I have not found the first of the relevant articles in this sense, a similar one refers to one language being required (or having been required), and that some universities require two: John McMillian, “Against Foreign Language Requirements” in The American Historian, [ #  ]. Accessed October 19, 2019.  Another article shows that the foreign language requirement seems to be disappearing at American universities, though not in Europe: Terry McGlynn, “English-Only Ph.D.’s”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Apr. 2, 2015, [ # ]. Accessed Oct. 26, 2019.  Another article mentions a Ph.D reading requirement of two languages (other than English) or fluency in one: Doug Steward, “The Foreign Language Requirement in English Doctoral Programs”, MLA Commons, May 5, 2015, [ # ].  Accessed Oct. 26, 2019.

[2] “List of Polygots”, Wikipedia, (version of October 10, 2019), [ ].  It is interesting to note that this article, to an extremely limited degree, is only available in Persian and Lithuanian. Accessed October 19, 2019.

[3]  Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary [1991].

[4]  “Ein Kindertraum wird Wirklichkeit”, slightly adapted from Frank Otte, “Heinrich Schliemann” in Ein deutsches Lesebuch für höher Schulen, II, Moritz Diestermannin, Frankfurt am Main; as found in Das Erste Jahr, 2nd ed., by Margaret Keidel Bluske, Elizabeth Keidel Walther, Scribner’s, New York, 1970, pp. 359-364.

[5] Leonard Cottrell, Leonard, Der Faden der Ariadne, trans. into German from English, by Micaela Mohl-Wille of The Bull of Minos, Zürich: Diana Verlag, 1954).


October 19 – 26, 2019

© 2019, Paul Karl Moeller



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