Hyperpolywhat?

Posted on: 24 Feb 2012

Written by: chris

There’s a fascinating article on the BBC website this week about what they’re calling “hyperpolyglotism” – or, in layman’s terms, the ability to speak not just two or three languages, but many. With up to 7,000 distinct languages worldwide (832 of which are apparently found in Papua New Guinea alone!), the logical ultimate goal of the hyperpolyglot – a fluency in all human languages – is clearly unattainable, but it does seem that a number of people out there are capable of managing ten or more, as Joel’s blog post reveals here.

Without wanting to get into the question of what would drive someone to these extremes (I imagine a typical answer would paraphrase George Mallory‘s famous “Because it’s there” quote), I’ll merely note that a casual acquaintance of mine used to claim that he could speak “seven or eight” languages – a boast which (for a variety of reasons too tedious to elaborate upon here) didn’t seem all that likely. Then again, he may have been technically correct – I suppose it comes down to how you define “speaking” a language. Does knowing a handful of basic phrases count, or is a much more in-depth knowledge necessary?

When people find out I’ve studied French, their first question is often, “Are you fluent?”. I generally answer in the affirmative, but at what point did I earn the right to that boast? Was it the day I passed my final oral exam at university? Or the first time I successfully ordered a drink in a French café? And what about my German? I seem to put quite a lot of time into improving my reading and listening skills in that language, but not very much into my spoken proficiency. As a result I can manage the occasional fairly involved conversation, albeit with the odd inserted bleep and whistle where forgotten or non-learned vocabulary items should have gone, but does that make me fluent? And if not, why not?

Taking this further, would it be reasonable for me to tell people that I “speak” Chinese, which I once spent a year or two painfully attempting to learn on my own with little to show for it now (although to be fair, I can still remember how to say, “Here is my passport”)? For example, I don’t go around telling people I can speak Dutch, a language which I’ve never studied or learned more than the odd word of, but which the BBC have rated as apparently the easiest language for native English speakers to learn. However, if you were to force me to choose between being dumped in either Amsterdam or Beijing without any money (OK, and also instructed the natives to give me no linguistic help!), I’m pretty sure my past experience in German would equip me a little better to cope in the Netherlands than in China (the Beeb rated Chinese as one of the hardest languages) – especially if you gave me a pen and a pad of paper too.

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