10

Note: I'm not asking about how many languages the average human knows. Rather, I'm asking how many languages the average human brain can hold, and still allow the person to speak all of them fluently.

I'm not sure if there is some sort of psychological limit reached when you surpass 6 or 7 languages, as I haven't heard of many people who know more languages than that, but I could be wrong.

  • 3
    Honestly this reads more like a psychology question. I doubt that how many languages one can possibly learn has anything to do with learning them. – user3169 Apr 26 '16 at 2:23
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    This question also suffers from ambiguity. "Fluent" is not a very precise term. It's possible to "communicate fluently" without having a broad understanding of a language, as long as your communication is limited to your area of expertise. – Flimzy Apr 28 '16 at 5:15
9

The question is inherently unanswerable because science doesn't really investigate questions like this. You can have a scientific study that asks how many languages the average person can speak. You can't really answer how much they could possibly speak.

We can observe that people who put in a lot of time can learn 20 languages but we can't run studies that investigate how much people who currently don't spend their 10,000 hours on learning new languages would learn if they would choose to do so.

5

In "Babel No More" the literature on hyperpolyglots is reviewed.

I'm going from memory, but he said the most languages you'll find people using every day in a community is about 6. In some places where this happens, like India, this can be less impressive than it sounds because the speakers, to some degree, homogenize the grammar across the languages they speak, which are typically similar to begin with.

For individual instances of hyperpolyglots, the number of languages known is a slippery metric, people mention numbers of languages known between 7 and 100. Even the best hyperpolyglots usually do a refresher to be able to resume using them and they spend stupendous amounts of time studying. Given that they need to spend so much effort on study makes me think that's the main limit.

Sciencewise, there just aren't a lot of these people and some of the more famous ones are dead, so I wouldn't expect a lot of scientific data on them for a while.

  • Welcome to Language Learning Matthew! – fi12 Apr 26 '16 at 22:36
  • Michael Erard, the author of Babel No More, also said in a Google talk that hyperpolygots are typically extra-institutional, that linguists generally don't show great interest in studying polyglots and that language teaching institutes don't copy language learning techniques from hyperpolygots. – IkWeetHetOokNiet Aug 4 '16 at 14:35
  • @ChristopheStrobbe that's all about prestige and cultural and social attitudes, a different topic. Lots of social conservatives don't like people learning a second language, especially if spoken by disadvantaged minorities, learnings lots of languages spoken by minorities would be so much the worse! This attitude can be seen in academia too, when profs have to decide if to study just English (or some other prestige lingua franca) or include exotic languages of low class minorities. – MatthewMartin Sep 7 '16 at 13:55

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