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Could You Learn 40 Languages?

Learning multiple languages may change the structure of your brain.

Is he a genius? A freak of nature? Surprisingly, Freire probably isn't much different from your average bilingual. Known in linguistic circles as hyperpolyglots, people who speak 10, 30 or even 70 languages must work as hard as the rest of us. Freire has been studying nonstop for 40 years. With the same effort and resources, "we're all potential hyperpolyglots," says Eva Fernandez, a linguist at the City University of New York.

Another shocker: Sky-high IQ isn't a prerequisite for extreme multilingualism. In fact, polyglots probably don't have a "gift," but a variety of personality traits and life circumstances that favor language-learning, Fernandez says. These include access to foreign tongues, unflagging interest and the willingness to take linguistic risks.

Maybe learning 50 languages is overkill. A study of Russian hyperpolyglots found that while they can speak dozens of languages proficiently, the majority say they speak just seven fluently.

Speaking In Tongues

Match the language with the number of speakers worldwide.

  1. Spanish

    A. 1 billion

    B. 250 million

    C. 125 million

    D. 2 billion

    E. 450 million

  2. Mandarin

    A. 1 billion

    B. 250 million

    C. 125 million

    D. 2 billion

    E. 450 million

  3. French

    A. 1 billion

    B. 250 million

    C. 125 million

    D. 2 billion

    E. 450 million

  4. Arabic

    A. 1 billion

    B. 250 million

    C. 125 million

    D. 2 billion

    E. 450 million

  5. English

    A. 1 billion

    B. 250 million

    C. 125 million

    D. 2 billion

    E. 450 million

Answers: 1. E., 2. A., 3. C., 4. B., 5. A.