How many languages = polyglot?

There’s an old joke that someone who speaks four languages is quadrilingual, a speaker of three languages is trilingual, someone with two languages is bilingual, and someone who knows only one language is an American, or British. There’s certainly some truth in this.

How many languages do you have to speak before you can claim the much coverted title of polyglot? The prefix poly means (1) more than one, many or much; (2) having an excessive or abnormal number or amount, and comes from the Greek polus (much, many). This doesn’t help much really. As far as I’m concerned, a polyglot is someone who speaks four or more languages.

What do you think?

This entry was posted in Language.

15 Responses to How many languages = polyglot?

  1. Ramses says:

    I thought the ‘official’ number was around 7?

  2. Bill Walsh says:

    Hmm. I’d say demotically, at least in these here American parts, three or four would do the trick. The bar’s slightly lower than in the Netherlands or the Congo, say.

  3. Polly says:

    Sad, but true. I didn’t think that joke applied to Brits, too!
    Must be the English language itself. It can be hard for one to get L2-speakers to speak anything but English if they know it.
    But, why are so many language learning materials from the UK? (How can I tell? Aha! The telltale, “u” in “labour”, and “neighbour.”)
    —-Oh yeah, the topic—-
    I’d agree with 7 as a benchmark. But, I often see that the more lang’s a person knows, the shallower the knowledge of each. There are, after all, only 24hrs. in a day no matter how smart one may be.
    There are varying degrees of fluency and it can get very specific to situations. I don’t remember who it was on this blog (I think) who said something along the lines that just because one can negotiate a contract in a lang. doesn’t mean he/she can go out and have clever cocktail conversations in it, too. The sets of vocabulary are different and don’t necessarily overlap that much. But, does that mean they can’t speak? What if a native speaker doesn’t know all the technical jargon that a foreigner knows regarding his business or interests?

  4. TJ says:

    >> Simon: I’ve sent another email I hope it reached you this time!
    if it didn’t maybe something wrong with the mailing system!

  5. Jared says:

    Sometimes it seems as if an American who reads many British publications or watches British television IS bilingual. So many things are different from those in America.

  6. SamD says:

    I’ve heard the words “bilingual” and “trilingual” often enough, but almost never “quadrilingual” or anything else that suggests a higher number of languages. For that reason, I could go along with four as a threshold for polyglot status.

    I have a problem with the idea of “excessive or abnormal” for a number of languages. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as too many.

  7. Geoff says:

    If your life circumstances are such that you speak several languages in sophisticated contexts on a regular basis, you are much too busy with other things to notice that you are, in fact, a polyglot.

    If your love of languages has prompted you to learn a bit of three languages beyond your mother tongue, you may in the dark of night go into your kitchen, stick your head in the refrigerator, and whisper to yourself that you are a polyglot.

    The title of polyglot is bestowed upon you by others if you become known to them for your modestly acknowledged passion for languages. If you attempt to claim the title, within one month you will meet someone whose life circumstances have prompted them to learn more languages than you, and better. Worse, they will think nothing of this. And you will feel very foolish.

    I speak from experience.

  8. parkbench says:

    I think it’s basically the same rules that apply to “few.” Three +

    7’s kind of steep, eh? Not that it’s not possible, but an incorrect assumption, I think. Someone who speaks 5 languages isn’t a polyglot? Not in my book.

  9. Matt says:

    Poly ( As in 5 ) Polygon 5 sides So 5 ?
    But still not sure as my smart girlfriend listed seven ?
    Hope that narrows down the search

  10. Simon says:

    Matt – poly = many. The Greek root for 5 is penta, as in pentagon.

  11. fran says:

    I am American and I study French, Spanish, and Italian, so does that make me a polyglot?

  12. gary says:

    fran, that makes you a europhile;)

  13. Miro says:

    “In the land of the blind, one eye man is king.” One who speaks two foreign languages somewhere in the middle of a large monolingual area (Northern USA, central France,…) is considered as polyglot. In Luxemburg or Bratislava you have to speak slightly more languages to get above the average.

    A few years ago I tried to get an internship in one French company. They returned my CV with the remark, that “we couldn’t afford to pay such a polyglot”.

  14. Bao says:

    I speak spanish, french, chinese, and english, currently on japanese, what am I then?

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