What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What about someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. And someone who speaks one language? American. (It’s an old joke, but when I was teaching ESL, my students thought it was funny.) There’s even a name for a person who can speak more than 10 languages. It’s hyperpolyglot. But hyperpolyglotism is not in everyone’s future. Michael Erard, author of Babel No More: The Search for the Worlds’ Most Extraordinary Language Learners, writes, “Hyperpolyglots are not born, and they are not made, but they are born to be made.” Do you have what it takes? Hyperpolyglots tend to be male and left handed and tend to have high IQs . . . and immune disorders. Not sure why.
(“How Do You Learn to Speak More Than 12 Languages,” The Hot Word, January 9, 2012)
Even though she doesn’t fit the mold (being a girl), ten-year-old Sonia Yang last year won a regional competition in England with her ability to speak 10 languages, including Chinese, Taiwanese, English, and Lugandan (spoken in Uganda). “It gets easier with each language you try out,” said Yang, who prepared for the qualifying rounds of the competition by picking up Kazakh and Portuguese.
(Paul Byrne, “10-Year-Old Schoolgirl Can Speak 10 Languages—and Crowned One of Country’s Top Linguists,” Mirror Online, October 19, 2011)
Update: Just saw an essay by Michael Erard in The New York Times in which he says that Americans may not be as far behind the rest of the world as we often think. He figures that more US citizens are bilingual than is commonly reported and then cites an estimate that “80 percent of people on the planet speak 1.69 languages—not high enough to conclude that the average person is bilingual.”
(Michael Erard, “Are We Really Monlolingual?,” The New York Times, January 14, 2012)