Let’s begin with another term with a couple of very different meanings: the linguist.
What is a Linguist?
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, the word linguist has two principal meanings:
- A person skilled in foreign languages.
- A person who studies linguistics.
This is a term that generates considerable controversy amongst language enthusiasts, mainly due to the fact that the range of definitions crosses both non-professional and professional boundaries.
According to the first definition, to call a person a linguist implies that they have experience and skill in speaking languages other than their native tongue (or tongues). In general terms, this means that anyone from bilinguals to polyglots to hyperpolyglots can, in effect, call themselves linguists, even if they do not have academic qualifications in languages.
The word linguist, in fact, has been in much wider use in spoken English for much longer than polyglot or hyperpolyglot have been, so if you belong to either of the latter two groups in this article, you might find yourself labeled a linguist in your social circles.
Any experienced language learner can serve as an example of a linguist, but the most prominent example within the language learning community of someone who calls himself a linguist is Steve Kaufmann, speaker of 10+ languages and founder of LingQ and TheLinguist.com.
According to the second definition, to call a person a linguist implies that they study the academic field of linguistics.
These types of linguists are generally not learners of many languages, but instead engage in the scientific study of language, just as a biologist engages in the scientific study of life.
Linguistics, in fact, is a vast scientific discipline with a multitude of theoretical and applied sub-domains. According to Oxford:
“Linguistics is the scientific study of language and its structure, including the study of morphology, syntax, phonetics, and semantics. Specific branches of linguistics include sociolinguistics, dialectology, psycholinguistics, computational linguistics, historical-comparative linguistics, and applied linguistics.”
The most famous example of a linguist of the second variety is Noam Chomsky, who is often referred to as the “father of modern linguistics”. Incidentally, Chomsky is not known for his ability to speak languages other than English.
As the field of linguistics is an academic one, linguists of this variety often have bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in either linguistics or any of its myriad sub-disciplines. Given the professional nature of the discipline, it is not uncommon to hear academic linguists disassociate themselves from the language-learning variety of linguist, who do not typically have professional qualifications in linguistics.
Steve Kaufmann, the polyglot and self-described linguist (of the non-academic variety) has often gone on record as receiving criticism from academic linguists over his use of the term.
What is a Polyglot?
In our previous article, we discussed the term multilingual, meaning “many-tongued”, and originating from Latin.
The word polyglot comes from the Ancient Greek polúglōttos, which is essentially the Greek equivalent of multilingual.
In the Oxford English dictionary, the term is further defined as:
A person who knows and is able to use several languages.
From this definition arises two main questions, which should be kept in mind when interpreting any use of the word polyglot:
- What does it mean “to know” a language?
- How many languages is “several”?
Addressing the first question, there is no concrete and universally-accepted point at which someone can be said to know a language. Proficiency-related terms like fluency and mastery (and indeed proficiency itself) are used differently from person to person and institution to institution. Some will say that you know a language if you can communicate in it with relative ease, while others will say that you don’t know a language until you’ve reached C2 level or beyond. Additionally, any definition of language knowledge between these two extremes is possible as well.
Addressing the second question, “several” is yet another poorly defined word. Even Oxford provides only the vaguest of definitions, defining the term as “more than two, but not many”. This implies that, at minimum, a person needs knowledge of three languages to consider him- or herself a polyglot.
The upper-bound on what defines a polyglot is similarly hard to pin down. Oxford has given us our limit of “not many”, which is too ambiguous to be helpful. Indeed, the term polyglot has no implicit upper boundary for the number of languages known. Such a boundary only appears when defining our next term, hyperpolyglot, which in some circles implies a polyglot with mastery of six or more languages.
Using these limits, we can say that in most contexts, a polyglot is someone who knows and is able to use three to six languages.
If you’re interested in learning more about specific polyglots, Wikipedia has an excellent list of famous polyglots throughout history.
There are two main terms associated with polyglot that you should be aware of:
- Internet/YouTube Polyglot
In the age of social media, it has become easier for polyglots to put their skills on display for a wide audience. Nowhere has this been more apparent than on YouTube, the Internet’s leading video platform.
The past ten years have seen the rise of dozens of self-proclaimed polyglots who create YouTube videos in which they speak several languages.
Examples of such YouTube Polyglots include, but are not limited to:
- Luca Lampariello
- Richard Simcott
- Susanna Zaraysky
- Benny Lewis
- Dr. Alexander Arguelles
- Timothy Doner
- Vladimir Skultety
- Stu Jay Raj
- Olly Richards
- Moses McCormick
- Mike Campbell
- And others.
Many of these same polyglots have started language learning blogs and business in which they share their methods and skills for learning and speaking multiple languages.
Several of the aforementioned polyglots have even organized polyglot events, such as the annual Polyglot Conference, Polyglot Gathering, and the North American Polyglot Symposium (NAPS).
Given that many Internet/YouTube Polyglots have gained increasing levels of notoriety and internet fame over the past decade, the term polyglot has also gained an additional, marked connotation within the language community as a serial learner of multiple languages who is overtly public or vocal in his or her displays of skill.
Not all learners feel this way, of course, but there are some who would fall under the traditional definition of polyglot who have sought to disassociate themselves from the term. Even the events mentioned above are beginning to shed the seemingly exclusive moniker of polyglot in favor of more neutral labels that imply openness to all varieties of learners and enthusiasts. This is particularly clear in the case of NAPS, which has since been renamed to the Montreal Language Festival.
This is a term that was popularized by language learner (and the first self-proclaimed PolyNot) Anthony Lauder, in his speech at the Polyglot Conference in Budapest, Hungary in 2013.
Though Lauder himself has studied multiple languages, he does not self-identify as a polyglot due to his belief that they are good at “noticing, processing, guessing” and generally “have better memories”, while he is not. The lack of such skills, according to Lauder, has led to his creation and identification with the term PolyNot (occasionally written as “Polynot”)
Since Lauder’s speech, the term PolyNot has popped up elsewhere, either following Lauder’s definition, or simply meaning not multilingual.
What is a Hyperpolyglot?
Hyperpolyglot, a word formed by affixing the prefix hyper- (“over, beyond, above”) to polyglot, refers simply to polyglots who speak a large number of languages.
The question with this term is this:
How many languages does a polyglot need to speak to be deemed a hyperpolyglot?
Sadly, there’s no official answer. The term is not in wide use, even online.
Michael Erard, in his book Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, writes the following:
“According to one definition, a hyperpolyglot is someone who speaks (or can use in reading, writing, or translating) at least six languages; this is the definition around which I built my investigations. Later I found that eleven languages may be a more accurate cutoff”
The lower-bound of six languages for hyperpolyglots is further corroborated by The International Association of Hyperpolyglots, an organization founded in late 2016 “to spread the wider message of hyperpolyglotism to a wider audience.”
Usman Chohan, president of this organization, stated directly in an interview with BBC World that he defines a hyperpolyglot as “someone who can speak six or more languages fluently”.
There are two several terms that are largely considered synonymous with hyperpolyglot:
You will find that these are used interchangeably, and that depending on the person using them, the exact number of languages necessary to be in that group can vary significantly.
So now you’ve seen the six major types of language learner: the language enthusiast, the language learner, the bilingual, the linguist, the polyglot, and the hyperpolyglot.
The actual number of terms used to describe language learners, both inside and out of the online community, is quite large. Though these six categories can never be entirely comprehensive of the entire range of language learner, we hope that they will serve to orient you in a sea of interchangeable and often confusing terminology.
Furthermore, we hope that these groupings will serve as a way for you to plan your growth and development as a learner. This list of six groups was structured to be progressive, so that anyone can move from enthusiast, to learner, to bilingual, to linguist, to polyglot, to hyperpolyglot.
So, now that we’ve covered everything, I’ll ask you again:
Who are you?
Which of these groups are you in?
Who do you want to be?