Extreme polyglossia

There’s a lot of interesting discussion on the forum at How-to-learn-any-language.com about the extreme polyglot, Ziad Fazah, who lives in Brazil and speaks 58 languages. Some of those involved in the discussion are sceptical about the existence of this person, don’t believe that he speaks so many languages, or don’t think he could he learnt so many languages in his native Lebannon, due to lack of materials. Later on the discussion is joined by someone who actually knows Ziad, meets him regularly and can confirm that he really does know all those languages. Ziad’s contact details are given and a number of people mention that they have spoken to him and confirm that he speaks their language well, and that he has plenty advice to offer on language learning.

I find the whole discussion interesting on a number of levels: the fact that this man speaks so many languages so well is incredible. The understandable scepticism about his abilities and even his existence is also interesting, as is the way the discussion develops with some participants refusing to believe the claims of those who know the man in question.

One comment, apparently from Ziad himself, that rings true with me is that there’s not a lot of money in being a polyglot, and that someone who speaks 10, 20 or 50 languages doesn’t usually get paid more than someone who speaks two or three. When I tell people that I know many languages, they sometimes ask me why I’m not rich and famous. To which I usually reply that I learn languages mainly for fun rather than for profit.

Do you know or know of any extreme polyglots?

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

20 Responses to Extreme polyglossia

  1. Declan says:

    The previous pope spoke many languages, some quite well. (10 to 20 I believe).

  2. TJ says:

    As far as I know, by the nature of their history, Armenians can speak many languages beside their native one. Here in the middle east I knew some Armenians and usually they know by default 3 main languages: Armenian, Arabic, Turkish.

    Simon>> Did you get my email about the key puzzle?

  3. Simon says:

    TJ – I did get your email and added the info to my puzzles page. It’s there now (I forgot to upload it before).

  4. TJ says:

    Oh, I needed to have an enforced refreshment for the page to view the latest updates. I hope the arabic letters appeared correctly in the email!

  5. AR says:

    And Armenians also speak Farsi, at least those from Persian countries.

  6. bulbul says:

    there’s not a lot of money in being a polyglot

    Do you know or know of any extreme polyglots?
    How do you define “extreme polyglot”? Say, 10+?

  7. Simon says:

    bulbul – I’d say an ‘extreme polyglot’ is someone who speaks 10 or more languages fluently.

  8. Chibi says:

    As far as polyglots that I personally know…

    All of the French teachers in my school are fluent in English, French, AND Spanish. (Not really polyglot-ism…). However, one of them speaks English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian.

    My German teacher speaks at least 3 languages, but I’m not sure how many others (I know she speaks English, German, and Lithuanian).

    I don’t, however, know any “extreme polyglots”

  9. Polly says:

    58 is unbelievable. I would like to talk to this man myself in the presence of about 58 native speakers of the languages he claims to know. I wouldn’t believe the testimony of just one guy. Afterall, he’d have to be a hyperpolyglot himself to verify the claim all by himself.

    I tend to be skeptical when it comes to claims of “polyglossia.” Even when the claim is only to a few languages. I’ve met too many people who claim to be able to speak a language only to find they are unable to say or understand more than a handful of common phrases. Or worse, just the bad words!:-D. By that standard, I’d be considered a hyperpolyglot!

    Part of the talent in knowing many languages is knowing them SIMULTANEOUSLY. Having known several languages over the course of one’s lifetime is not the same thing.

    And Spanish, Italian, and French at best should only count for about 1.5 languages. Same goes for German and Dutch.

    Let’s see someone speak a dozen UNRELATED languages.
    Well, that’s my 2 cents, euros, yen, rubles, ruppees, etc.

  10. Polly says:

    Simon – I read about the many years you’ve spent learning various languages; and, in some cases, you’re still not fluent. After all that, don’t you find it rather in-credible that someone can truly KNOW 58 languages?

    Even Farber (I really enjoyed his book) lays claim to over 20 but has the humility to say that he’s a student of those lang’s. That is probably closer to the truth than saying he speaks them all, which would imply some degree of fluency.

    It would take more than a human lifetime to “speak” all 58 with even a low level of fluency! Even if you factor in language groups like the romance languages or germanic languages or slavic, or semitic, etc., the time constraints are too much.
    The internet is a fairly recent invention. Before the net, nobody could possibly have had that much language exposure – to speak and hear the foreign lang. not just read and write it. I don’t care what country you’re in, you’re going to get maybe 7 lang’s at the most.
    As someone who has put a lot of effort into lang learning, I’d really like to know what you think of this.

  11. renato says:

    First of all, I would like to say to Polly that she is wrong. Mr. Ziad is a very respectfull man in Brazil, which is my country (I’m proud about him). He already proved on Brazilian television that he really speaks 58 languages. His name is in Brazilian version of Guiness Book. He appeared on Greek televesion talking with 58 different people. He really exists and is a great poliglot.
    Second I speak 7 languages, and I’m trying to learn more. For everyperson I say “Oh I would like to learn all languages I could during my life.” People looks to me, and the first thing they ask me is “What is the financial importance on to learn a lot of language?” or Don’t you think that to know English is already sufficient, even why, English is the most important language?”. My answer, of course is I don’t about money, I love to study languages, and this is sufficient to me.

  12. Simon says:

    Polly – I do think it’s incredible that someone can speak so many languages. He apparently is fluent in about 15 of them, which is in itself remarkable. I don’t know how well he speaks the others.

    Maybe you could ask the man himself: his contact details are on this page and his Skype name is ziadyfazah.

  13. Polly says:

    Thank you, Simon. I agree that fluency in 15 is an admirable accomplishment all by itself. I don’t doubt that he has linguistic ability. But the hurdles of time and limited exposure, just seem to me to be too great to overcome 58 times. Where I live is also very, very ethnically diverse. But I haven’t encountered 58 different nationalities, let alone had the opportunity to talk at length to individuals representing each one.

    Renato – The additional facts you provided lend more credibility to the story. However, TV is famous for exaggeration and hype, and I don’t know how well either version of Guiness researches the claims. I remain skeptical, but I thank you for the additional information.
    And, yes, far from MAKING money, studying languages can be a little expensive.

  14. abdul says:

    I my self speak 8 language very well and they are kswahili, ethiopian, arabic, somalian, english, spanish, urdu, hindu, but I can’t write all but I can only speak to it.

  15. kamiel verwer says:

    I know the thrilling experience of learning complete new languages, and suppose that it can be a little addictive. Now in this blog, no-one defined the concept of fluency. On this very page, everyone claims to have fluency in English, however they do not always write grammatically correct (I probably made some mistakes myself as well). Does fluency encompass writing skills, or can one be fluent as an illiterate? Is there a minimum basic vocabulary that should be known and actively be ‘at hand’ of say, 5000, 10000 words? (and doesn’t that imply that the vast amount of words makes the extreme polyglottism unlikely?)

  16. Simon says:

    Kamiel – fluency is a tricky concept to define. For me it means being able to converse about a range of topics without having to stop and search for words and grammatical information all the time. The ability to write a language is a separate though related skill. So you can be fluent in a language without knowing how to write it – as is the case for people who speak their native languages fluenty but are illiterate.

    An active knowledge of around 1500-2000 words is probably sufficient to be considered fluent in a language. For many languages you have to know how to manipulate the words as well, of course, i.e. how to conjugate the verbs, and how to make the necessary changes to other words for number, case, etc.

  17. Ben says:

    I have a friend in Ethiopia who I can confirm is fluent in English, Italian, Amharic, Tigrigna (his native tongue), Tigre, and Arabic. He also said he could speak a bit of French and Oromo. To his suprise, he also could carry a short conversation in Ge’ez (We ran into a priest who had a little conversation with him, then informed him that he (the priest) was actually speaking Ge’ez).


  18. tetsu says:

    hi, I recently wrote a blog entry on learning languages. I myself speak 5 fluently (English, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish) and 3 others to intermediate levels (Italian, Portuguese, and German). Perhaps you may be interested.

    Best regards,


  19. James says:

    I have a friend who speaks excellent English, German, Greek, Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, has a very high level of classical Latin and greek. when I say excellent he is a native bi-lingual in english and French, and can lecture in all of these languages. I have heard reports that his German Greek and Russian are flawless and that when he came out here to lecture in Spanish the students were amazed at his spanish. He is very modest about the languages and we had to force it out of him. He also dropped into the conversation that he reads about 20 more.

    And he´s a historian!


  20. Claudio says:

    Interesting! Ziad must have started at a pretty early age. I am 41 and despite my love and enthusiasm for languages I have not managed to learn more than a dozen over the years, some pretty well, some “poorly good” – I speak Portuguese (both Brazilian & European Portuguese), Spanish (not Portuñol/Portunhol which is a pseudo-language widely sort-of spoken by many Brazilians and Portuguese (which is in fact a mere attempt to speak Spanish from a Portuguese speaker’s point of view), French, Italian, English, German, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and a little bit Dutch, Hebrew, Yiddish and Swiss German (Schwyzertüütsch). Am I an extreme polytglot? Or just a crazy guy 🙂
    Hugs and greetings to all.

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