Communicating with another human being is an ability that is never truly appreciated until a person finds him or herself in a foreign country with no knowledge of how to speak the resident language. For some, knowledge of languages other than their mother tongue is a consequence of choice or circumstance and gives rise to multilingual individuals. But is it possible to suddenly develop an encyclopedic and comprehensive knowledge of all languages?
Omnilingualism refers to the capacity to instantaneously understand any and every language, and conceptually represents an extreme instance of xenoglossy. Though investigations into the ability to spontaneously speak a foreign language with no prior study or knowledge have been carried out in the past, it is more than likely that the cases being investigated were episodic bouts of a learned behavior called glossolalia.
While there have been no documented reports of actual omnilingualism demonstrated in recorded history, there are individuals, called polyglots, who have mastered an impressive array of languages that they could be considered, for all intents and purposes, omnilingual. The most renowned of these individuals, Emil Krebs, purportedly had a linguistic repertoire of 68 fluent languages, with an additional 120 that he studied.
The role that the human brain plays in determining facility of linguistic acquisition cannot be denied. Daniel Tammet, a high-functioning autistic savant who has demonstrated prodigious memory skills and a remarkable form of synesthesia, is a contemporary polyglot who has, to date, learned 10 languages, and has been the subject of multiple neuroscientific studies in an attempt to characterize his abilities. Where his language skills are concerned, one of the most fascinating accounts was the documentation of how he was able to learn Icelandic in seven days. In instances such as these, scientists believe that superior memory encoding and/or highly developed mnemonic devices play a large role in multilingual development.
As the basic human need to communicate has not changed, modern day electronic connectivity has enabled a global society where many language boundaries have become virtually obsolete. This is reflected in the plethora of currently available online tools, downloadable apps, and integrated software geared towards translating one language into another. However, before the advent of electronic media, some humans already had a remarkable ability with languages, and some believe that this skill is something a regular human being can learn, or be taught. It is encouraging to know that some superhuman abilities are not completely out of our grasp… the challenge lies in reaching for it.