What To Call People That Speak 2, 3, 4, 5 Or More Languages

Just like learning an instrument, many people have learning a second or third language on their wish list. With people that have made these wishes a reality, entrance into a special group comes along with the accomplishment. These groups are informal, but have titles that come with membership. What are people called that speak many languages?

Titles for languages known:

  • Monolingual – speaks one language
  • Multilingual – speaks more than one language
  • Bilingual – speaks 2 languages
  • Trilingual – speaks 3 languages
  • Quadrilingual – speaks 4 languages
  • Pentalingual – speaks 5 languages
  • Polyglot – speaks many languages

These terms are applied to a variety of situations and reading and writing are included depending on the circumstances. Because these are informal titles and no actual ‘club’ exists, some people are more loose with their definitions. Let’s look at how most people use them as well as their synonyms and exceptions.

What Is A Monolingual Person?

For those that rely only on the language they learned and used from birth, is there a title? What is a monolingual person?

A Monolingual person is someone that only speaks one language. This is the language they acquired from birth to adulthood. They only speak their mother tongue or native language and have not tried to learn or been exposed to another language enough to be able to use it.

The truth is that over 40% of the world fits into this category as measured by surveys and studies. Many are in cultures that choose one major language to teach their children. These people live their whole lives in these communities and never feel the need to learn another way of communicating.

In reality this number is much higher as the numbers showing high amounts of bilinguals and above are relying on self reporting surveys. A good portion of those that claim to be able to use a second language would not be able to pass basic aptitude tests in these languages.

They may be able to use them in limited circumstances, but this should be kept in mind when looking at these percentages.

The exceptions to monolingualism come when these communities are in areas that have multiple language influences. There are some communities that speak two languages and teach them to their children in equal amounts. This can lead to someone having two native languages.

Though, this is the exception and not the rule in most situations, even those where multiple languages are common in a community. One language will usually be used for the majority of communication.

In a study published in the journal Oral History Review, it is noted that race, place, and social practices play a major role in the ‘hometown’. People simply don’t tend to move far from this comfortable structure they like to have in their lives. Because of this, many don’t see the need in learning other languages.

What is A Multilingual Person?

If monolingual is knowing and speaking only one language, is there a term for knowing more than one? What is a multilingual person?

A multilingual person is anyone that knows or speaks any number of languages over and above their primary language. This could be someone that knows 2 languages, 3 languages, or more. This term is loose in its definition of the number, and usually applies to conversational skills.

The numbers are surprising to some when they hear that multilinguals make up 60% of the world’s population. In the majority of these multilingual people you will find knowledge of 2 languages. Yet, smaller percentages of them will know 3 or more.

To be fair though, much of this ability is self reported and comes from surveys. This means that expert proficiency is very unlikely in a sizeable number of those claiming to command multiple languages. The reality is, most people live a monolingual lifestyle.

What Is A Polylingual Person?

There are sometimes several words we will use that mean the same thing, and this applies to titles we give to people. Is there another word commonly used for multilingual?

Saying someone is a polylingual person is the same thing as saying they are multilingual. The two words are synonyms. Some may link a heightened skill level to the title polylingual, and imply the ability to freely switch between the languages, but there are actually other terms for this.

As we will see in the next section, there is a distinction sometimes in terminology that can designate aptitude or ability in a language. Polylingual does not normally have in its definition this delineation.

What Is Multilingualism And Plurilingualism?

Here we will get into a nuanced term that many outside of linguist circles or language loving ployglot communities may not know exists. Is there an implication of skill level in the difference between multilingualism and plurilingualism?

Multilingualism denotes someone who has at least a basic command of two or more languages. Plurilingualism points to the skill not only of using multiple languages, but the ability to ‘code switch’ or change from one language to another in a conversation fluidly.

People that are said to be Plurilingual are not distinguished by their ability in one particular language or having the same level in many. They are noted for their aptitude in changing their language at will and without hesitation.

Plurilinguals are those with a unique skillset that may not be accessible to everyone. Just like some are more athletically built than others, some are better able to command multiple languages.

What Does It Mean To Be A Polyglot?

Now we need to talk about a general term that means not only someone who is multilingual, but someone who knows ‘many’ languages. Is the term ployglot one that means knowing many languages?

Multilingual means to know more than one language, but to be a polyglot many languages are needed. The conventional use of the world polyglot refers to someone that knows 4 or more languages. It signifies a person that knows ‘a lot’ of languages rather than simply multiple.

This term, like many words used for those knowing multiple languages, is used fluidly and sometimes changes a bit depending on who is using it and how. Some may up the number of languages to 5 or even 6 before the term polyglot applies.

At its core, the term speaks to the fact that a person knows more languages than is normally learned.

What Is The Meaning Of Hyperpolyglot?

As the prefix ‘hyper-‘ in the name suggests, hyperpolyglot would mean someone that speaks more languages than a polyglot. Yet, what number would that be? Though this would be very rare, what is the meaning of hyperpolyglot in terms of how many languages they speak?

The consensus among most linguists and polyglots is that to be considered a hyperpolyglot one must have at least a usable command of no fewer than 6 languages. This means that multilingual covers 2 to 3 languages, polyglot designates 4 or 5, and hyperpolyglot points to 6 or more.

As many note, this designation can reside in the grey areas since there is no real standard for a level of proficiency in each of these 6 languages. It is a term that relates to quantity without considering quality for the most part. Some would argue that knowing 3 languages well is infinitely better than knowing 6 poorly.

If you would like to see more into this rare world of these extreme language learners, there is a website here that proports to be a community of them.

How Do You Become A Polyglot?

Now that I have addressed the distinction surrounding what it means to be a polyglot, the next logical question is, “How does one become a polyglot?”

Becoming a polyglot takes many years, extreme dedication, a rigorous schedule, a love of language learning, and a list of languages that spark interest. Most polyglots learn several languages at once portioning out their daily routine. They also spend time each week ‘upkeeping’ others.

Becoming a polyglot has more to do with the act of learning languages than an interest in any one particular language.

It is also important to note, that learning multiple languages in this way goes far beyond being able to perform ‘parlor tricks’ to impress others. If your motivation to become a polyglot is not rooted firmly in the love of learning languages itself, the goal will ultimately be out of reach.

Many polyglots spend much of their day rotating between languages acquiring vocabulary through passive means. This entails hours of reading and listening practice. Once these terms are in the passive memory, using them in writing and conversation can move them to the active memory.

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What Do You Call A Person Who Speaks 2 Languages?

With all of these general terms out of the way, let’s get down to specifics. There are of course many levels of multilingualism, and each of them have names or titles. So, what do you call someone that speaks 2 languages?

A person that speaks 2 languages is called bilingual. The prefix ‘bi-‘ comes from the Latin word ‘bis‘ meaning doubly or twice. Lingual comes from the Latin for the tongue. The purely Latin based term bilingual if used in its original form (bilinguis) means ‘two tonged’.

As with many words in the English language, the roots or their etymology help us to ‘root out’ their meaning (pun intended). Once the original Latin term is known, it makes perfect sense.

Are Bilingual People Rare?

When we think of those that know second languages on a level that makes them useful in the United States, it definitely seems rare outside of first generation immigrants. Yet, is this the case all over the world? Are bilingual people rare?

Self reported bilingual people are not rare and make up over 40% of the world’s population. This changes drastically depending on the part of the world. Some parts of the world have bilingual percentage in the teens where other areas see multilingualism at 60% or more of their populations.

According to the US Census Bureau, only 20% of Americans can converse in even one other language. This is in stark contrast with 56% of Europeans that claim to be be multilingual.

Though these numbers could actually be higher as the much smaller percentages covering those speaking more than two languages are generally not included in bilingualism. This is strange since they too can speak two languages, but the other terms are used as if they are mutually exclusive.

What Do You Call A Person Who Speaks 3 Languages?

As with someone speaking two languages being known as bilingual, is there a term specifically for someone speaking 3 languages?

A person that speaks 3 languages is normally called trilingual. The prefix tri- comes from the Latin trēs meaning three and as in bilingual the root word lingual comes from the Latin lingua for tongue, speech, or language. In essence the word trilingual means one who speaks with ‘three tongues’.

Speaking 3 languages to a conversational level is no small feat. It is not a matter of intelligence, but rather an endeavor based on tenacity. So, next let’s look at how possible it would be for the average person to acquire 3 languages.

Is It Possible To Speak 3 Languages For The Average Person?

If it takes an above average amount of effort to learn to speak even one foreign language, how much more would it take to learn two others besides your native tongue? Is speaking 3 languages even possible for the average person?

It is possible for the average person to speak 3 languages with the right discipline, plan, and daily study schedule. Without daily practice learning this many languages is fairly unattainable. So, for the average person to achieve trilingual status, time and tenacity are needed.

Because of the colossal effort that mastering 3 languages turns out to be, it would stand to reason that not many people take up the challenge. Let’s look at how often you may run into someone with this unusual accomplishment.

Are Trilingual People Rare?

It stands to reason that mastering three languages will be an accomplishment that not everyone has the dedication or willingness to see through to the end. So, is it rare to find a trilingual person?

Trilingual people are actually quite rare and even more so when all three languages are usable at a high level. Only 13% of the world’s population claim to be trilingual and even that number is based on self reporting. The actual number fluent in 3 languages could be much lower.

This number of self reported trilingual people turns out to be rather large in raw numbers, but rather small in proportion to the total number of people in the world.

Though the world population is always changing, at the end of 2021 the number was 7,912,555,940 people. This would mean that 1,028,632,272 claim to be trilingual. I am not stating that many of these people are not on some level able to communicate in three languages, but a large portion of them will most definitely not be fluent in all of them.

It could be the case though that they can communicate just fine. Perfect fluency is a goal not necessary in most daily conversations to be understood and to understand.

Is Trilingual A Polyglot?

Per the definition above it would seem that a trilingual person could not claim to be a polyglot nor be called one by someone else. Yet, many use these terms loosely and for some, trilingual people qualify. In general would a trilingual person be referred to as a polyglot?

Trilingual people are not normally considered a polyglot by the vast majority of the linguist and language learning communities. The designation of polyglot is reserved for someone that has a working knowledge of some type in 4 or more languages. Three languages are generally not enough.

Again, a ‘working knowledge’ could also throw a wrench in the works. Some polyglots are proficient in many languages that they cannot speak on a conversational level. Many languages polyglots attempt are on the passive levels of reading and understanding when spoken. Some take many of them to a level of writing proficiency.

This lends credence to those that maintain definitions of these words that are more fluid. Terms have risen from this problem like ‘conversational fluency’ and ‘conversant’ in a language to make the designations more precise.

What Do You Call A Person Who Speaks 4 Languages?

Now we are getting into the realm of the truly rare. When speaking of learning languages, knowing four languages means that normally three of them were learned as additional foreign languages with all the effort and struggle that entails. What do you call a person that took this on as their goal? What do you call someone that speaks 4 languages?

A person that speaks 4 languages is called quadrilingual. The prefix quad- comes from the Latin word for ‘four’ or ‘fourth’ and lingual derives from the Latin word for ‘tongue or language’. Calling someone quadrilingual in the original Latin would be like calling them ‘four tonged’.

This is also the level that some would apply the term polyglot. Though others may up the number required for this title, it is logical to see how speaking four languages would make this term applicable.

Most people have heard the terms bilingual and trilingual. On the other hand, you would be hard pressed to find someone that has heard the term quadrilingual in nearly any conversation. Most that speak of someone knowing 4 languages would usually switch to a term like polyglot if they were looking for precise language.

Is Knowing 4 Languages Impressive?

Here I think it is important to make a general observation about motivations people have for learning other languages. Some begin the process of learning a language with the goal of impressing others at least at the top of their list. So, would this be a good idea for learning 4 languages or any foreign language? Is knowing 4 languages impressive.

Learning 4 languages is very impressive. This observation is usually shared by all and is based on understanding the work required to achieve this type of accomplishment. Yet, learning this many languages says more about tenacity than intelligence and should not be done simply for accolades.

For most people, learning 1 foreign language is a monumental task. Learning two or more can become oppressive and simply cause them to stop altogether. Learning multiple foreign languages should be a goal set only after careful and honest deliberation.

In mine and my husbands experience, if someone is learning a language to impress people at parties or other gatherings, the goal will fall short. Motivation such as this doesn’t tend to last long enough to complete the goal and in reality, people are only impressed with foreign language ability for about 10 seconds.

Parlor tricks are just that… tricks.

Language Learning Aptitude

According to the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI) there is a level of aptitude required to learn languages efficiently. In no way is this a diagnosis for if someone can learn a second language or not. This language learning ability level simply determines how fast one can learn one and with how much effort.

If looking at learning 4 or more languages, it is important to understand if you are someone with above average language learning aptitude.

FSI even gives its foreign service officers aptitude tests to determine their language learning abilities. They are not rating if someone can learn a language, only if it will be something that a person can do in a reasonable amount of time for the jobs they need done.

What all of this says is that for some, learning four languages could be above their motivational and aptitude level. They will more than likely quit before seeing the goal through due to obstacles like the time and effort required.

What Is It Called To Speak 5 Languages?

When looking at the polyglots that speak, read, write, or understand 5 languages, is there a specific name for them? What is someone called that speaks 5 languages?

When someone speaks 5 languages they are referred to as pentalingual. Less than 1% of the population of the world is able to speak or understand 5 different languages. This is an extremely rare feat and is usually only attempted by those that have the confidence that they can achieve it.

This may mean that they are fluent in all 5 languages, but not necessarily. They may be conversational on some level in all of them, but many times pentalinguals are more reading or listening proficient than conversational.

This is not to say they couldn’t have basic conversations in all of them. They more than likely could. The issue is that no matter the aptitude someone has in language learning, acquiring this many languages takes time. They may simply not be interested in complete fluency due to time constraints and personal goals.

This time is not only measured for learning these languages, but also for their upkeep. Yes, we do loose language ability over time if the language is not used.

So, when hearing of someone that has command of 5 languages, it is important that we not hold them to standards of complete fluency, when this may not be a goal they hold for themselves.

What is Hexalingual?

Now we are entering into the realm of the hyperpolyglot. As stated above, a hyperpolyglot is someone that speaks 6 or more languages. But, is there a term specifically for this type of person? What is a Hexalingual?

A hexalingual is someone that speaks 6 languages. The prefix hexa- comes from the ancient Greek language and designates 6 when applied to a root word. Lingual comes from the Latin word lingua (tongue, language). When used together the literal meaning is six-tongued.

It probably goes without saying that this achievement is extremely rare. Ture hexalinguals make up such a small percentage of the population that only fractions of a number suffice.

The Final Word Those Speaking 2, 3, 4, or 5 Languages…

Learning languages has physical and mental benefits that studies have shown conclusively. Acquiring any number of languages above a second language doesn’t add to these benefits. Yet, there are other reasons that people learn multiple languages.

For those needing them for family ties, work related situations, or travel needs, the effort be worth it in the end.

The words we use for these people are filled with the recognition of the effort and time they have put into achieving their very public goals. Though there are not set guidelines for some of these words, the general convention usually follows the same usage.

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Mathew Booe

Mathew Booe is a proud father of four, husband of over 26 years, and an avid lover of languages and language learning. He taught himself to conversational fluency in German and then did the same for his daughter Lexi. She went on to spend an exchange year in Germany, minor in German at LSU, and become president of the LSU German club. Mathew continues to this day to learn languages with an emphasis on communication.

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