A multilingual person or a polyglot is someone with a high degree of proficiency in several languages. (A bilingual person can speak two languages fluently, a trilingual three. One who can speak six or more languages fluently is known as a hyperpolyglot.)
Multilingualism in the past and present
Multilingualism has been more common in the past than usually supposed; in early times, when most people were members of small language communities, it was necessary to know two or more languages for trade or any other dealings outside one's own town or village, and this holds true today in places of high linguistic diversity such as Sub-Saharan Africa and India. Widespread multilingualism is one form of language contact.
The world's most prolific living polyglot is Ziad Fazah (born 1954) who apart from his mother tongue Arabic is reported to speak 55 other languages. Calculations as to how many languages now-dead polyglots spoke is difficult, since no one can offer an objective description of what is required to "know a language" fluently, but the greatest polyglot in history is believed to be cardinal Giuseppe Gaspardo Mezzofanti (1774-1849), who is reported to have spoken up to a hundred languages fluently (though about fifty of them were "only" dialects). On a visit from the Lord Byron, he surprised Byron by showing a more extensive knowledge of local London slang than the poet himself.
30 or more
20 or more
- Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), British explorer/orientalist - spoke 29 European, Asian, and African languages and countless dialects
- Sir William Jones (1746-1794), British philologist - reported to speak twenty-eight languages.
- Géza Képes, Hungarian man of letters, understands 25 languages
- Mithridates (said to have known 25 languages)
- Dr. José Rizal (1861-1896), National hero of the Philippines, 22 languages
- Pico della Mirandola, Italian scholar of the Renaissance (said to have known 22 languages at the age of 18)
- Kevin Golden, British translator, speaks or understands 21 languages
- Taneda Teruyoto, Japanese interpreter, leader of a conference centre, speaks 20 languages
- Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976) American actor, athlete, singer, writer, and political and civil rights activist. He was conversant in over 20 languages.
10 or more
- Joao Guimaraes Rosa - one of the most famous Brazilian writers, spoke more than twelve languages fluently, read eighteen.
- James Joyce - famous Irish writer, spoke thirteen languages.
- Anthony Burgess - British writer, knew thirteen languages, fluent in eight.
- Niels Ege, Danish translator, translates into 6 languages, interprets from 15 languages, knows 5 further languages
- Narasimha Rao (1921–2004) - Indian politician and former Prime Minister, could read and write 17 languages
- Sándor Kőrösi Csoma (aka Alexander Csoma de Körös), Hungarian scholar, explorer of Eastern languages, could read in 17 languages
- Kató Lomb, Hungarian translator and interpreter, spoke 17 languages, could read in 11 further languages
- Andrew Sugár, Hungarian translator, speaks 10 languages, understands 6 more languages
- Ármin Vámbéry, Hungarian linguist, spoke 16 languages
- Comenius (Jan Amos Komenský), Moravian linguist, scholar of learning languages (said to have translated his own book into 15 languages)
- J.R.R. Tolkien - British writer and conlanger, as well as a professor at Oxford. He is known particularly for the Lord of the Rings. He knew some thirteen languages, in addition to his own creations.
- Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) - French egyptologist, mastered at least 13
- Heinrich Schliemann, German archaeologist, who discovered the ruins of Troy, was familiar with English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Italian, Greek, Latin, Russian, Arabic and Turkish
- André Martinet, French linguist, speaks 12 languages
- Thomas Young (1773—1829), British scientist - 12
- Admirable Crichton, Scot musician, sportsman and linguist (said to have known 12 languages)
- Aleksandr Naumenko, Russian translator, speaks 8 languages, translates from 4 further languages
- Herbert Pilch, German scholar, speaks more than 11 languages
- Gedeon Dienes, Hungarian consultant, speaks 11 languages
- Jacques Berg, French historian and linguist, writer, speaks 11 languages
- Eva Toulouze, French, speaks or understands 11 languages
- Lajos Kada, Hungarian archbishop, spoke at least 10 languages
- Michel Thomas Polish born linguist spoke at least 10 languages
- Otto Back, Austrian, director of the Translators' College, speaks at least 10 languages
5 or more
- Roman Jakobson, famous Russian linguist, structuralist, knew at least six languages fluently.
- Alexander Lénárd, (1910-1972) Hungarian linguist, doctor, musician,painter, writer and translator, spoke at least nine languages
- Julien Green, American-French, speaks at least nine languages
- Sol Plaatje, (1877–1932), South African journalist and statesman, spoke nine languages.
- Philip King, British teacher of English in Birmingham, speaks nine languages
- Sascha Felix, German professor of Language Institute at Passau University, speaks at least eight languages
- Otto Habsburg, Hungarian-German diplomat, speaks eight languages
- Albert Lange Fliflet, Norwegian professor, speaks eight languages
- Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Italian linguist, mathematician, and philosopher could speak French and Italian by age 5 and Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Latin by age 13
- Angelo Possimiers, Belgian translator of the European Parliament, speaks at least seven languages
- Susan Polgar, Hungarian, professional chess player, seven languages including Esperanto
- Will Hay, British comedian/actor, was first an accomplished translator — fluent in French, German, Latin, Italian, Norwegian and Afrikaans
- Juan Alvaro Sanges d'Abadie, English politologist, speaks six languages
- Julio Dam, Uruguayan Messianic Renewed leader, writes English, and Spanish, speaks Hebrew, Yiddish, and some French and Italian
- Yesudas, Malayali singer, recorded songs in Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Tamil, Gujarati, Telugu and Bengali
- Arvydas Sabonis, Lithuanian basketball player, speaks Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, Spanish, and English
- Dikembe Mutombo, Congolese basketball player, speaks English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and five African languages
- Data on multilingualism in India (http://www.censusindia.net/cendat/language/language_data.html)