When I read reports like this, I'm also envious, but at the same time I too always want to ask exactly what 'fluent' means in each case. For one thing, has their fluency been empirically tested, or is it only self-reported?
Probably a fair number of us in this self-selected forum understand and can make ourselves understood in three or four languages, but I suspect that in many cases (well, mine, certainly) it isn't what you could call true mastery, just enough fluency to read, have conversations, and travel.
I imagine that was probably also true in past times in history when people needed several languages to do business or scholarship across cultures. Gart's example may be an exaggeration, but it's a valid point to consider. Wasn't medieval Latin, for example, full of what classical scholars would have considered mistakes? But it served people's practical purposes as a lingua franca.
I remember the reports after the death of the award-winning American reporter Anthony Shadid in Syria last month. Many US commentators gushed posthumously over his ability to 'get close to the people' and praised him for his 'fluent Arabic.' In fact, as it turned out, he had grown up in somewhere like Kansas and learned Arabic only as an adult; one native Arabic speaker interviewed said something like (WTTE), Well, when he first started out reporting in the Middle East, his Arabic was really minimal, but after a couple of decades he had gotten to the point where he could actually hold a conversation on his own. If that's true, to me it's misleading to describe that kind of contact as fluent -- even though it doesn't detract from the fact that at least he did evidently spend a lot of time trying to talk to people on the street directly, with or without an interpreter, which is more than most Western reporters seem to have the budget or the patience to do.
I just wonder if our standards for foreign language learning may be relatively low, especially when it only comes to racking up points on a list, checking off languages learned like birds spotted. Perhaps especially in the US, as opposed to more truly multilingual countries like Switzerland and South Africa. Here, I'm afraid quite a few people consider themselves 'bilingual' who can't really put together an error-free sentence in either English or Spanish.
Wasn't Charles Berlitz a person about whom stories like this were often told? I always wondered if he was really fluent, or if he only learned all the sentences out of his own guidebooks. (-:
Psst #14 —> motivation (typo) ... I speak only three languages fluently ... very keen on improving ... a hobby I've established
Wow, Finnish, anyone who takes that on must be really brave. (-: