Everything You Know About “How Many Languages Can a Human Learn and Maintain?” is WRONG. Here’s Why…

Possibly one of the emotionally charged topics in the language learning world (and one that no one has good answers to, myself included) is the topic about how many languages a human being can learn.

We will never know the answer to that questions for way too many reasons. Here are some of them:

  • While most language enthusiasts haven’t thought about it (or have been put in a position to think about it), the language vs. dialect debate is getting increasingly muddy. Should the Caribbean English Creoles count as separate languages? The ISO 639-3 codes seem to think so. But would governments think so? How about universities? And obviously different areas where this question is more relevant will approach it differently (such as Jamaica and Italy, two completely different countries).


  • There is no definite way to quantify or even qualify proficiencies (except for, maybe, extended interviews on tape or eyewitness accounts of polyglots at conferences or gatherings). Even test results aren’t safe, given how many people may pass them and proceed to forget everything. (And if people can forget their native language, this is certainly also a possibility).


  • Human history and, by extension, history of human languages, is too long and too varied to take all the variables into account. I may have said this before in another one of my articles, but in some places like Western Africa or Melanesia, speaking ten languages is seen as normal. In many areas of the west, especially former British colonies, ten languages is seen as nearly superhuman if not in fact outright disbelieved by some people. This is despite the fact that there is no dearth of polyglot videos on the internet.


  • In addition to that, different areas of the world and different time periods would measure fluency differently. Mezzofanti, considered by some the greatest polyglot of all time, obviously had no usage for words pertaining to computers in any of his languages given as they did not exist when he was alive. He probably didn’t need to discuss complicated matters of science, either. Also (and this is another thing a lot of languages gurus don’t even realize because the languages they tend to choose) not all languages on the planet have that vocabulary. (In the event that you would talk about it, you would possibly use loanwords, primarily from a colonial language, or even switch into English or another colonial language periodically. However yes, there are some languages that have that vocabulary even though you think they might actually not.)


We will never know the answer to how many languages a human being can possibly know, and I highly encourage you to distrust ANYONE who tries to come up with an answer to the question. Because in attacking the question, they get the methodology wrong for all sorts of reasons.


Here are some of them:


  • Only taking into account their language experiences and those of their friend circle, which tend to be overwhelmingly skewed mostly towards politically powerful languages of Europe and sometimes Asia. Dialect continuums are not accounted for. If you think that Italian and Spanish are the equivalent of closest languages there are, give it some more thought. The Persian Languages are even closer, as are the “BCS” languages (Bosnian, Croatian and Serbia) not also to mention my own pet languages, the Melanesian Creoles (of Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama). Not all language counts are created equal, and this point alone would be capable of disqualifying the question altogether, but I’ll go on.


  • Not realizing that technology has changed and will continue to change. Mezzofanti didn’t have Memrise and many of the memory tools that I use on a daily basis. Technology has the capability of turning us into superhuman versions of our ancestors. An average person who has trained with contemporary first-person shooter games (which I never play, by the way) would have significantly better reflexes and hand-eye coordination than pretty much ANY soldier that fought in the Second World War. They would be considered SUPER SOLDIERS back then (this was a factoid I picked up from the 2016 Games for Change Conference). But for some reason almost no one considers that a similar thing is also happening for language learning and skill acquisition.


  • Using Ziad Fazah’s “Viva el Lunes” performance in order to automatically disqualify anyone who claims to speak 50+ languages. For those unaware, I’ll summarize it in one sentence. Liberian/Lebanese Polyglot who won Guinness Book of World Record’s title for most multilingual person goes on Chilean television, is tested and struggles even with basic sentences in most of his languages. But to dismiss any claims of that nature just because of ONE incident is a logical fallacy, and while I haven’t met anyone who has significantly pulled off that number, I wouldn’t automatically revert to skepticism. Just because of one person who may have likely overestimated his abilities doesn’t mean that we as a species should hold ourselves back. Who knows? There may be someone who may actually speak 59+ languages and who actually CAN show the skills. You never know!


I get it. A lot of people have deep insecurities, including many in the polyglot community. The temptation to knock others down or be dismissive only shows defensiveness and maybe a poor attempt to hide your own imposter syndrome. This is why I’m willing to consider anyone’s language proficiency based on claims alone (note I said “CONSIDER” not “definitively judge”, because there is no way to really do that.)


  • Using data about famous polyglots that have been dead for centuries (or even those that are STILL ALIVE) in order to draw conclusions as to what human beings in the 21st century can do. Really? In the case of the ones that have been dead for hundreds of years, they’re not relevant to our brains and our technology and our learning abilities NOW. Maybe they could be used in order to speculate about limits before the technological revolutions that happened during my lifetime, but we’re changing now and most people who answer the “how many languages is it possible to know?” question don’t acknowledge how contemporary technology sets our time period apart.


  • Different vocabulary thresholds for different languages. One person whose opinion I very much value said that a vocabulary of about 16000 words were required to reach a C2 level (the highest possible level, considered equivalent to a highly educated native speaker) in a language. But here’s the thing: in Bislama (an English Creole that is the primary language of Vanuatu), there are literally about 4,000 words (excluding proper nouns, which would bring the count up to 7,000) IN THE ENTIRE LANGUAGE. So if you speak with one-quarter of that amount with some languages, you get a near-native vocabulary, an advantage not afforded to languages like French and Swedish with significantly larger vocabulary lists (Swedish’s list of loan words from English ALONE is likely larger than the comprehensive vocabularies of the Melanesian Creoles COMBINED). And before you say “well, that’s just concerning Creole languages”, the same variety of comprehensive word counts can also be found the further away you get from the developed world AND the further you delve into languages without as much political support.


If there is a definitive limit for amount of languages learned, even to a high level, we will never know what it is, in part because of all of the factors that I lay out here.


It’s an interesting mental exercise that, let’s be honest, is usually used to discourage people and create skepticism so that some people can have their egos buttressed, but it’s one with no definitive answer (in the Talmud, we end such debates with the word “teyku”, meaning “let it remain unresolved”. And that’s what we’re going to have to go with this debate as well.)


What do I intend to do? Well, for one, I’m going to try my best and learn many languages, some to fluency, others to degrees of curiosity, and I fulfill MY vision. Because if you constantly live in the fear of judgment of others, you’ll never live your full life.


And that’s something you deserve to do! Don’t let ANY discouragement get you down!

come back when you can put up a fight

I really need to start using new pictures of myself.

My First Post of 2018: Looking Inside My Soul (+Happy Birthday, Slovakia!)


Let’s just do the lazy thing and get the list of goals for 2018 over with. Yes, it’s large, but I set very high standards for myself. Even if I don’t make them, I’ll ensure that I’ll still do very, very well!

  • Master Hungarian, Lao and Greenlandic (B2 or higher)
  • Get the Scandinavian Languages to C2 (understanding virtually EVERYTHING written or spoken)
  • Make significant gains with Hebrew, Finnish, French, Breton, Icelandic, Jamaican Patois and Sierra Leone Creole.
  • Gilbertese and Uyghur at B1 or higher
  • Learn Comorian to A1 at least.
  • Vincentian and Antiguan Creoles at C1 or higher
  • Brush off Russian, Irish, Cornish and Ukrainian (B2 in them would be great!)
  • Tongan, Palauan, Mossi, Welsh, Persian and several Indian languages to A2 or higher.
  • Learn Swahili, Khmer, Haitian Creole, Basque, Fijian and Fiji Hindi in earnest.
  • Colloquial Arabic dialects (esp. Sudanese) to A2
  • Diversify my language practicing materials.
  • Gloss articles in languages I speak and read and put versions of them online for learners making them “learner-friendly”.
  • Continue that same work of throwing away limiting beliefs and practice all of my languages for 3 minutes a day at least one day a week.
  • Come out with a new polyglot video every season (Winter / Spring / Summer / Autumn). They don’t have to showcase ALL of my languages at once, but at least show something.
  • Start a “Coalition Blog” with folks like Kevin Fei Sun, Miguel N. Ariza and Allan Chin and … anyone else I forgot! Guests welcome!

Also, no new languages for 2018. I will make exceptions for picking up new languages for travel, business purposes or relationships that sprout up as a result of various happenings.

Anyhow, with each passing year it occurs to me that what becomes more and more important is not so much learning new words and expressions but rather developing mental strategies.

I could be fluent in a language but if I’m in a negative headspace words will elude me. I’m certain that anyone reading this has also had them happen when speaking their NATIVE LANGUAGE.

Anyhow, here are some difficulties I’ve been noticing;

  • I remember from “Pirkei Avot” (a Jewish text about ethics and life in general that I’ve periodically mentioned on this site) that it is said that “the reward for a good deed is another good deed, and the reward for a bad deed is another bad deed”. Namely, positive feedback ensures that you’re likely to continue to speak and act in your most optimal manner, and negative feedback will drag you down in a similar way.

I’ve noticed this at Mundo Lingo. I speak the Scandinavian Languages “very, very well” (that’s what Richard Simcott told me, so I believe him). So when there’s a Swedish native speaker who shows up, I’m in a good head-space and then I speak languages that I usually am not so good at (French, for example) better than I normally do.


On the other hand, sometimes I’ve heard racist comments at Mundo Lingo (yes, it does happen!) Or people disparaging me for my choice of languages. As a result, I’m in no good headspace to do anything, because it feels like I’ve been “wounded” and will act accordingly.


I think one way to counter this is to usually start the day with some good feedback. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to post daily in a closed group called “Polyglot Polls” (you can join if you’d like! Just let me know) Given that a lot of open-minded and curious people are in that group, ones who mutually support each other with their missions, it helps put me in a good headspace. It is a good thing to start any day with.


  • Imposter syndrome in the polyglot community runs a bit like a fear of turning out like Ziad Fazah, the polyglot who claimed to fluently speak 59 languages and, on live television…well, he was asked what day of the week it was in Russian and said that he couldn’t understand it because it was Croatian.


Only this past weekend I was asked to count to ten in Tongan (a language that I am weak at) and, sadly, I couldn’t do it. But I don’t claim to speak Tongan fluently. But still I felt down.


I think moments like these are good for recognizing my weak points. Even in our native languages, we have them. It’s not a reflection that you’re a fake, it reflects on the fact that you have something that needs patching. That’s what life is. Telling you where you aren’t doing well and bringing you on the path to recovery.


Unlike Ziad, I don’t claim to have any divine gift for languages. I just spend a lot of time struggling with things until I get them. The contemporary schooling modules have taught us that learning isn’t supposed to be about struggling. That’s not true in the slightest, certainly not at the advanced levels of anything.


  • The last one: sometimes I feel that I’m falling into the trap of thinking that I became a polyglot for the sake of others rather than for my own sake.

Again, to tie in Jewish themes, in studying holy texts and observing ritual we use a phrase “Leshem Shamayim” – literally, “To the name of Heaven”, figuratively, “for heaven’s sake” and more figuratively “doing something for love of the subject-matter rather than for acquiring validation, reputation, praise or any other contemporary form of social currency”.

Every dream chaser has felt poised between doing something “leshem shamayim” and doing something for the sake of personal gain or admiration of others. I have to resist that, now more strongly than ever.


Professor Alexander Arguelles (right) and yours truly, Jared Gimbel (left)

On a side note, I’d like to wish my Slovak and Slovak-speaking friends a happy Independence Day!

May 2018 be full of blessings, everyone!

How to Recover From an Embarrassing Defeat (In Language Learning)

Especially if you’re not a veteran language learner yourself, it may not be apparent to you, but the path to poylglottery (well, mine, because it is the one that I see best and, what’s more, in a “behind the scenes” manner) is littered with great pain alongside great mirth (but isn’t this true about acquiring any skill?

Let me tell you about some extremely embarrassing incidents that have taken place throughout the years:

  • Froze up in front of an Icelandic native speaker (last November)
  • Froze up in front of a novice Irish speaker, hadn’t practiced for weeks (earlier this month)
  • Had difficulty having an Ecuadorian visitor understand my Spanish (March of this year)
  • Struggled in giving a presentation in novice German so badly that one of my lecturers was visibly frustrated (February 2014)
  • Told off by some speakers of Hasidic Yiddish (twice this Spring / summer)
  • Crashed during a German conversation (earlier this month)
  • Pretty much every time I’ve been answered in English while ordering food in places like Israel and Sweden (in Israel it was more frequent, I’ve noticed that Swedish-speakers from immigrant background NEVER used English with me after I got the basics “down”) (2012 – 2013, and 2009 in the case of Hebrew only)
  • Having a Burmese taxi driver telling me that I needed to work on my tones (May of this year)
  • Having that same Burmese taxi driver telling me that I should learn languages from “people” rather than from “books” (he has a point, actually! But I didn’t have access to too many Burmese speakers in New York. Hoping this will change in the future!)
  • Having trouble understanding Burmese numbers at times (also May of this year)
  • Drawing blanks when trying to speak novice Vietnamese (July of this year)
  • Speaking super-slow Hungarian with iffy grammar with both native speakers and learners of all stripes (pretty much this whole summer)

A good deal of my languages from across levels are involved in this list, but interestingly some of my strongest languages (Danish, the one language that I have CONSISTENTLY been complimented the most by native speakers, as well as Norwegian and all English Creoles) are absent from this list. And those of you who know me well know that, very sadly, I keep a tally of pretty much every negative thing that has ever happened to me (hey, I’m working on improving it!)

It goes without saying that I’ve noticed patterns in my “defeats”:

  • Rusty practice (Irish and Icelandic have been subjected to this the most…)
  • Novice status (Burmese!)
  • Lack of deep cultural resonance (my mild antipathy towards global languages like Spanish or German is well-documented in this blog, I say that I “don’t love them any more than I have to”, and I’m under the impression that they’re not my strongest languages, nor will they ever be, barring circumstances like getting into a relationship with a native speaker)
  • Sometimes not feeling well (interestingly one time I showed up to Language Exchange NYC, met a Danish native speaker and managed an entire conversation with a native speaker without slipping up. I was on five hours of sleep and kept telling my friends that I “shouldn’t have gone” and that I “should have stayed in bed”)

The one important thing to do in situations like these is detach yourself from the situation. I don’t care if you’ve been interviewed by global news outlets or are revered as a global star of language learning, realize that you’re allowed to be defeated at times and that, at your core, you are someone who is (1) either on the way up or (2) very much on the top with well-deserved work.

Recognize the many times you’ve managed with languages that are not your native language(s), or without using your native language or English. Remember the many victories and compliments from native speakers, not also to mention the bridges that your languages have built, including those you’ve learned to fluency and those that you haven’t made fluent quite yet (I got free drinks out of Hebrew, I also got it out of French back when I was quite bad at it, and also with Burmese with three weeks of practice [at the Shwedagon Pagoda, no less! Relax, by “drinks” I mean “water bottles”! I wasn’t drinking beer at the Shwedagon Pagoda! I promise!])

If you’re still feeling pain so deep that you can’t bring those victories to mind, allow yourself to experience pain and just…wait. (thankfully I haven’t undergone anything like what Ziad Fazah underwent on Viva Lunes, nor has any friend I know—namely, being asked to speak a handful of languages and being unable to muster basic phrases in almost any of them. Oh, and I’m super-careful to ensure that what happened to him won’t happen to me in the slightest).

Come to the realization that it is through these defeats that you will find progress. Mr. Burmese Taxi Driver Who Said that Jared Needs to Improve His Tones served as a motivator for me to get better with the language, even though it doesn’t seem that I’m returning to Myanmar at any time in the near future (plenty of Burmese diaspora folks around many places, though!). Each of the embarrassing incidents above motivated me to get better. EVERY. ONE.

In the event that you weren’t feeling well that day, keep in mind that it doesn’t reflect on your true abilities. And in the event that you DID manage to speak a language very well when you were ill, give yourself applause. You deserve it!

Keep in mind two things:

  • Don’t compare your L2’s (or L3’s or any other languages beyond that) to a higher standard than your native languages. So, SO many English monoglots expect me to understand EVERYTHING that’s said in (Spanish / Hebrew / Yiddish / Swedish) all of the time. I don’t understand everything in ENGLISH a good deal of the time, so why would I expect it in any other language?
  • Don’t compare your L2’s to foreigners having learned English. English is like half-a-native-language to many people almost everywhere. In some places like the Netherlands, Scandinavia, or areas of the Pacific or Africa where English is an official language (and any other places besides these), it’s even more than half-a-native language. They’ve been encouraged to learn English their whole lives, you’ve probably received loads of discouragement, even from learning global languages like Spanish, and possibly even more for languages like Danish, and even MORE for endangered or minority languages.

Realize that every journey comes with slip-ups, regardless of HOW good you are with a language. Heck, I’ve even messed up English spectacularly on several occasions (and some HATERZ might like to think that it is because I’m a polyglot, but that’s not true because I’ve heard monoglot English speakers mess up their native language in similar ways).

Remember to give your “failure” some time, and then it will be something to laugh at. But it will become something to laugh at on one condition: if you rise above it and use it as a motivator to become even better at the language(s) involved!

I’m with you, encouraging you every step of the way! Don’t pay attention to discouragers or haterz! Get up and get going again! You’ll reach your goals before you know it!