America: The Target of All Polyglot Jokes


What do you call a person that speaks three languages?


What do you call a person that speaks two languages?


What do you call a person that speaks one language?


Sigh. The sad thing is we deserve these jokes. In the past few days, I have met handfuls of people who are bilingual, trilingual, quadrilingual, onwards and so forth. I learned that Ziff and Von, guys around my age from Suriname, speak Dutch, Portuguese, French, English, Chinese, and Sranan Tongo, a Creole dialect of Suriname. Fun fact: Suriname is the only Dutch-speaking and one of two non romance-speaking nations in South America. I met a Danish man Anders who speaks Danish, Norwegian, English, French, German, Chinese, and Greek. I met a Norwegian man Bes who speaks Norwegian, Finnish, Bulgarian, Albanian, Serbian, English, and Chinese. It seems every foreign person I run into here at the World Expo speaks at least six different languages!

Yes, I can blame this imbalance on the fact that I didn’t grow up surrounded by several small countries that all speak different languages, but that’s not a good excuse. I’m still at most bilingual, and that’s only if you include my conversational Chinese.  When I get down in the dumps about my language deficiency (yes, I know this is very nerdy of me), I like to read my favorite book- How To Learn Any Language by Barry Farber. After reading this, you will be motivated to jump off the couch and start learning a language right away.

Barry Farber. My polyglot hero. Although Mezzofanti is a close second but more on him later. Barry Farber can speak over 25 languages. After almost failing his Latin class in ninth grade, he went on to teach himself Mandarin Chinese that summer with the help of only a language-help book and some local Chinese navy sailors. He also began studying Italian, Spanish, and French during this same summer vacation and taught himself Norwegian during the next school year. He took Russian classes in college and learned Serbo-Croatian and Indonesian on two separate boat trips to and from the U.S. If that isn’t enough for you, he also knows Yiddish, Swedish, Bulgarian, Korean, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Bengali, and Portuguese… to name a few.

If you  are interested in languages even a tiny bit, I strongly suggest that you check out his book. Or if you just want to see how amazing he is, check out this interview.

Now on to Mezzofanti. This guy is slightly older-  lived 1774 to 1849- and spoke 38 languages fluently. And that was back in the day! No internet, no telephones, no easily accessible textbooks, no Google translate and no cell phone app phrase books. Joseph Caspar Mezzofanti was so well-known for his language speaking skills that people from all over the world came to Italy to challenge him in their native tongue. How I envy these men so.


  1. It is fascinating to read about people’s ability to learn languages!
    I suppose one needs to have the gift of good memory and also a strong interest in learning…
    I found your post to be interesting and inspiring and wish you good luck in your own language studies.

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