There’s a good review over at The Economist of a new book on hyperpolyglots – Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners by Michael Erard.

A hyperpolyglot is someone who speaks a lot of languages, although there is debate over how many ‘a lot’ constitutes. The term was apparently coined by the linguist Richard Hudson, and derives from the word ‘polyglot’, meaning someone who can speak multiple languages.

Erard defines a hyperpolyglot as someone who speaks eleven languages or more. Yet whilst many have claimed to be hyperpolyglots, hard evidence is more elusive.

Ziad Fazah, raised in Lebanon and now living in Brazil, once held the Guinness world record for 58 languages. But when surprised on a Chilean television show by native speakers, he utterly flubbed questions in Finnish, Mandarin, Farsi and Russian (including “What day is it today?” in Russian), a failure that lives in infamy on YouTube. Perhaps he was a fraud; perhaps he simply had a miserable day. Hyperpolyglots must warm up or “prime” their weaker languages, with a few hours’ or days’ practice, to use them comfortably. Switching quickly between more than around six or seven is near-impossible even for the most gifted. (Source: The Economist)

The book certainly looks interesting, and Erard makes a discovery familiar to many language learners – Cardinal Mezzofanti of Bologna, birth date 1774, used flash cards.