Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a Democratic presidential candidate, has become famous for speaking lots of languages. Depending on the day and the media outlet, the number rises and falls. He’s been granted six languages, seven languages, and eight languages. After the fire at Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral, he dipped into French to answer questions from French media. He fielded questions from Norwegian journalists in Norwegian, which he’s said to have taught himself in order to read novels in the language.
While speaking so many languages may be rare among the American public, Buttigieg’s ascent is a textbook polyglot path to fame. An aura tends to grow around multilinguists—and often beyond their control. Their fame can be immediately disqualifying if the stories seem too fantastic to be true. It can also set polyglots up for failure and embarrassment if they rely on their myths for attention and livelihood. Either way, the embellishment of their abilities says more about the era in which they live and the culture that surrounds them than the possibility of speaking a lot of languages in any objective sense.
Hyperpolyglots—the world’s best language learners—can perform some prodigious linguistic feats. Early in the 20th century, a German diplomat named Emil Krebs, stationed in Beijing, was a favored interlocutor of the Empress Dowager Cixi and could translate 32 languages into and out of German. In 1990, the Scotsman Derick Herning was crowned the most multilingual person in Europe for having 10-minute conversations in 22 languages in a row with native speakers. Hyperpolyglots like these two men must put in tremendous amounts of time and effort. But even in cases of genuine talent, some recurrent factors contribute to things getting exaggerated.