How many languages can the average human speak?

I guess the title says it all.

Average american: one

Guess you should define average and maybe define language (dialects versus language for example Mandarin versus Cantonese)

I don’t know if there’s a limit, but the highest numbers I heard about were in the 30 range. One being a former professor of my arabic teacher and the other a linguist I heard an interview of.
(By the way, when asked is it wasn’t very hard to learn so much languages, the linguist answered that only learning the ten first languages was difficult…past that point it was easy…)

Well, most of the people I work with speak at least three, several speak five, and one speaks seven. They are not particularly well educated, and in several case not even all that bright. They come from places where many languages are spoken in common cultural association among divergent social groups. They learn multiple languages from very early, and consider it only mildly interesting that someone knows four or five languages.

Highly educated multilingual people are really demonstrating an entirely different type of learning. Those who are raised in multilingual social settings do not learn language as an exercise in education, they simply have learned by behavior, to associate many symbols and symbol groups to the same set of reality tags. Learning Greek in college after speaking only one language all your life is much more of an intellectual matter.

Literacy in multiple languages follows an analogous, although not identical pattern. Learning to read early, and learning to read in multiple languages while learning to read changes how difficult it is to learn to read additional languages later. I don’t know if learning pictographic languages is fundamentally different in this respect.

Cardinal somebody in the Vatican learned 119 languages, most of them at least conversationally, and many of them fluently. With thousands still extant (for a while) that could be a record worth beating.


No hablo Español, soy Gringo.

If speaking multiple languages requires being fluent in multiple, distinct languages (not just dialects), I’d guess:

mode: 1
median: 1
mean: about 2

These are only guesses.

To answer the OP, my WAG is 1.20.

What was that super-linguist cardinal’s name? The story goes how he found out that a foreigner whose language he didn’t know was going to be executed the next morning. So he sat up all night studying the language and by morning learned it well enough to hear the condemned man’s confession.

IMO, your guess is pretty much off. Consider that 1/5 of the Earth’s population lives in China and that the majority speaks at least two languages: their local dialect and Putonghua, Mandarin Chinese. (The problem with China is that the “dialect” terminology is mostly political, they are for the most part not mutually intelligible and often more different from one another than Spanish and Italian.) Then consider that close to another fifth of the Earth’s population lives in India where, again, a vast range of languages are spoken and from my understanding, bi and trilingualism is the rule rather than the exception. And consider yet that a significant portion of the population lives in Africa, where again polyglots are common.

It wouldn’t be such a WAG to say that, worldwide, unilingualism is a “western” exception rather than an international rule.

The book Native Tongues by Charles Berlitz is a compilation of a huge number of facts about language and languages.

His grandfather was the M. D. Berlitz who started the language school and spoke 58 languages.

He also mentions Sir John Bowring, once British governor of Hong Kong, who “could speak 100 languages and read 100 more, doubtless aided by his collection of dictionaries.”

And Cardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti, 19th century chief Vatican librarian, who “reputedly spoke 50 languages fluently, including American Indian and African tongues, and could translate 114 more.”

O.K., let’s assume that what’s being asked is how many languages a person of normal intelligence could easily learn. There’s no point in further examples of exceptional examples of people who have learned dozens of languages in their lives. There’s no doubt that such people exist, but it seems that most people can’t do that. To learn dozens of languages with any fluency would not only require exceptional intelligence, it would require one spending most of one’s time learning those languages. The people who do that are professional translators. Most of us have other jobs and thus don’t have time.

There’s lots of cases though where children grow up speaking two or three languages because they live in communities where two or three languages are spoken. These people have native or near-native fluency in the languages as adults. It appears then that if someone learns to speak the languages as a child, there’s no problem for someone of average intelligence to speak three languages with near-native fluency.

Mezzofanti! That was it. Grazie. I used to have that book, but after I’d read it several times I donated it to a library I worked in. Fascinating collection of trivia in there. That’s how I learned that if you write Richard Nixon’s name in Chinese characters, it says “Mud Overcoming Forest.” :slight_smile:

Well, there’s several questions here, really.

  1. How many languages is a person who does not devote his whole life to lanuage able to learn and use fluently?
  2. How many languages is a person who devotes his whole life to language able to learn annd use fluently?
  3. How many languages DOES an ordinary person know?

I don’t know the answers to any of these for sure.
I, too, have heard of that funny cardinal who was a linguistic genius, except I’d heard he was a monk, and had to talk to a pair of men captured for some reason (natives from South America or something?). He started knowing nothing of them, worked with them for six hours, and was then able to speak as well as either foreigner, and to teach the language to his assistants. At the end of his life, he was tested and found fluent in 30 and was able to easily understand more than a hundred.
I know that Americans are rather bad with foreign languages. I’d say that the average number of fluent languages in an American is 1.6 or so (this number is complete BS, being somewhere between one and two). Europeans are much more wordly - most of my cousins there speak three or more fluently, and EVERYONE speaks two fluently. Of my cousins, always English and French, with the extra languages Italian, German, Spanish…

I heard tell of a linguist, one Kenneth Pike, IIRC, who gave a demo every year at the MLA meeting. They would put him on a platform with a native speaker of a language he had never met before (which must have got harder every year) seated at a table with a few props. After about a half hour he was carrying on a conversation with this native speaker. But this is evidently exceptional. My wife once overheard the bakery clerk (an elderly man, who turned out to be Polish) speak some language she didn’t recognize but it wasn’t Russian (which she does speak some), but definitely Slavic. When it was her turn, she asked him what he had been speaking and he replied that he didn’t know. He apparently knew essenitally all the Slavic languages (plus English and French). There are some amazing people out there, even humble bakery clerks!

I interpret the question as “How many languages does the average human know how to speak?” not “How many languages could the average human learn how to speak?”

cdhostage, you exaggerate quite a bit. In my experience, English people are only slightly more likely to speak a second language than Americans. Outside of the UK, English is the most widely learned second language, but any English speaker who’s traveled around Europe knows you can’t count on being able to communicate with everyone.

I know someone who can speak eight languages… yes, it evidently helps being raised in a multilingual environment.

Hari Seldon writes:

> I heard tell of a linguist, one Kenneth Pike, IIRC, who gave
> a demo every year at the MLA meeting.

Are you sure you don’t mean the LSA (Linguistic Society of America) meeting, not the MLA (Modern Language Association) meeting? The MLA is the professional association of English professors, while the LSA is the society for linguistics professors. That would be a more likely place for such a demonstration.

My wife and I spent a week in France (last June) and very few people spoke English. They had no clue, not this nonsense about they weren’t proficient and didn’t want to be embarrassed. Having to deal with a world where you cannot communicate, starts to get to you after a week. I’m not bitching, just adding info. :wink:

Well I’m 11 yrs and know 9 languages.

Those of you above who can speak several are not “the average human”, so your talents are not typical and therefore not an answer to the question as stated. The wording of the question is problematic, since the answer is probably somewhere near 1.5, but no single individual can speak one and a half languages. The question is not “How many languages is it possible for a human to learn to speak?” Quote, I guess the title says it all.

I believe, based on my travel experience, that the majority of the people in the world can speak two or more languages. Virtually everyone in Africa who has been to school for a year or two can speak two. Nearly everyone in India can speak two or more, and so can at least half the Chinese. bilingualism is now very widespread in Europe, probably accounting for a majority. English, Spanish, Russian and Arabic countries probably account for the largest share of people who can speak only one.

Well, I can find some self-reported numbers for Europe, at least, so that’s a start. In terms of being able to hold a conversation in another language:

54% of Europeans can do it in at least one other tongue other than their mother tongue
25% in at least two; 10% in at least three.

So, this breaks down to

One language - 46%
Two languages only - 29%
Three languages only - 15%
Four or more languages - 10%

So, counting “four or more languages” as four languages, this means the mean for Europeans is 1.89 languages. But the median is going to be 2 or more.