How many languages is it plausible for somebody to ultimately speak fluently or at least on a conversational level, and does speaking more than one closely related language help to leave room for more languages to learn relatively easily?
Answer by Judith Meyer:
We don’t know the upper limit. Historic polyglots are said to have spoken 65 or 58 languages. In the modern day and especially in terms of verifiable claims, I present to you:
Emanuele Marini speaks more than 30 languages on a conversational level and has proven it: at the Polyglot Conference in Budapest, he was accosted in 16 randomly-chosen languages (with less than an hour to prepare) and the result was posted on Youtube:
He is a shy, quiet guy who doesn’t have a language-learning product to sell you. He doesn’t even have his own blog or channel, but he sure impressed all the polyglots who attended the conference.
Relatedly, here’s a video of Richard Simcott (the guy on the left in the above video) speaking 16 languages more fluently; he has also studied 30+ languages:
Alexander Arguelles knows 38 languages – his focus is to read literature in them, but he also speaks most of them fluently.
Ioannis Ikonomou, an in-house translator for the European Commission, speaks 32 languages () – and that includes Chinese at such a high level he can do official translations of classified documents in Chinese.
The limit is really time rather than languages. All the people I mentioned above have jobs that allow them to spend all day speaking or writing various languages, so they are investing more than 8 hours a day in maintaining their languages or studying new ones. At that level of commitment, the sky is your limit.
I calculated my own average as well and it’s more like 2 hours a day. That’s enough to learn and maintain 12 languages – if you accept that for some I’m significantly better at reading than speaking, simply because it’s my focus and I don’t see much point in speaking Latin for example.
Regarding the question of closely-related languages, I personally find that they can be a hindrance as much as a help. When you learn too many closely-related ones, it becomes really hard to keep them straight in your head. That’s why I have lately only added non-European languages to my roster.