How to Become a Polyglot
This post is a transcript of a video on my YouTube channel.
Studying English? Here’s the transcript as a lesson to study on LingQ.
How do we become polyglots? The reason I’m talking about this is because my wife and I were playing golf the other day at our golf club with a couple, probably in their sixties, and often you’re teamed up with people you don’t know, this was our first chance to meet this couple.
They told us they were going on a bicycle trip with their friends, eight couples going to Girona in Spain to bicycle around in Catalonia. So I said, are you gonna learn Catalan or Spanish or Spanish? And the answer was, well, I’ve heard that you can get by with English. All right, true enough. Maybe, maybe not. In the city of Girona, certainly at the hotel and the restaurants you can get by in the shops, but then outside of Girona? I don’t know. I think if you’re in a little town and you get a flat tire you’re in trouble.
If I were going on a bicycle trip to Catalonia, I would learn Catalan. Now I speak Spanish, so I have the mentality of a polyglot and to me that would be fun. Fun to explore Catalan. if I learned Catalan, I would read books about Catalonia in Catalan. I would speak to people in Catalan. That gives me a great sense of pleasure. I feel that I’m enriching my life by learning another language, connecting with people in their language. I have the mentality of a polyglot.
I tweeted about this and I called this the “English language disease”. English speakers, they have the option, or they think they have the option, of not learning the language because we can get by. And most of the responses to my tweet were very much in agreement, but one fellow from England, he says “where I live, there was just a Portuguese person showing a Danish person around our compound and they were speaking English. That’s just the reality. That’s how it works. Too bad.” So that person also doesn’t have the mentality of a polyglot.
So number one, to become a polyglot, you have to want to become a polyglot. You have to like speaking languages, not just one, but several. That is a mindset. The second thing is, you know, I didn’t set out to become a polyglot. I had not really heard the term polyglot in English. To me, a linguist was someone who spoke several languages, but I also didn’t set out to become a linguist. I got interested in French and then I had the opportunity to learn Mandarin. Then I was in Japan, so I learned Japanese on my own. And stepping back, when I was in France I would hitchhike around in Europe and I would always try to speak the local language. So I think it is useful to note there is that the first step to becoming a polyglot is to learn one more language. For people who have never really acquired fluency in another language, who have never converted themselves into a fluent speaker of another language, they don’t have that feeling. You can’t skip past the stage of learning one language to become a polyglot. You learn one language. You now feel confident that you can learn languages. You enjoy the process, or maybe you don’t. I think if you’re doing it the right way, you can enjoy it. And then what happened to me and I think what would happen to a lot of people is you think “gee, I learned one language. Now I’d like to learn another language.” Because the experience of speaking another language, of connecting with people in their language is so rewarding that we want to do it again and again, and that sense of satisfaction that actually we were able to succeed in this task, which is not such an easy task, but that sense of satisfaction makes us want to do it again.
Another thing about becoming a polyglot, in my opinion, is that we shouldn’t be afraid. Obviously, when we go from language B to language C and then language D that means that we aren’t spending time on language B. So we’re leaving language B because I firmly believe we never master another language. We can always improve in that other language, and yet we make the decision: I’m not going to become even better. Let’s say my best foreign language is French. So I’m not going to become even better in French. Or let’s say that the next language is Japanese, and I know there are great gaps in my Japanese learning. Okay, I’m not going to work on becoming even better in Japanese. I’m going to go and explore a new language. So there’s a choice there. You sacrifice what I would consider the futile pursuit of perfection.
Other people can disagree, they want to pursue perfection, that’s fine. I’m not making any value judgements, but I think to be a polyglot, it’s different than trying to become perfect in one language. So we accept the fact that we’re going to not be as good in some of the languages that we have learned. We even accept the fact that there’s going to be interference, not only from our own language, which is always the case, but there’s going to be interference from these languages that we have learned in the new languages that we are trying to learn. I hadn’t spoken Russian for a long time and I was speaking Russian the other day. I’m searching for words and up comes Persian. So the more languages you have in your head bouncing around as your brain is going down different pathways to find words there greater likelihood is that it’s going to go into some rabbit hole, as they say.
Part of becoming a polyglot is accepting that you’re going to be less than perfect. That means you’re going to speak with mistakes. Your pronunciation may not be perfect, but you have this sense of achievement and the intellectual stimulus of discovering a new world, yet another new world with all of the people, and as you learn another language, then the people of that language come alive, the history comes alive. And so I think the secret to being a polyglot is to be interested in many different languages and cultures. It may be that some people are motivated to learn languages in order to demonstrate that they’re able to learn languages and, like another notch on my belt. I only had eight languages now I have nine. That can also be a valid motivation for becoming a polyglot, just to demonstrate your prowess at learning languages. I wonder if that can sustain you though, because if all you want to do is show off, “Look, I can say a few things in this other language” that doesn’t take a lot of time and effort and you can get to where you can say hello, how are you in many different languages. That too is fun. I’m not criticizing that, but in so far as my own motivation as a polyglot, if you look at my experience, not with Persian and Arabic, which are my 19th and 20th languages, I’ve been at them for more than two years. It’s not a, it’s not like three months. And, uh, I’m continuing to discover new things about those languages in those cultures.
I do want to get back to Turkish and I hear that we may have our LingQ Mini Stories in Urdu, in which case, once we get LingQ 5.0 launched, we will add Urdu and then I would like to get into Urdu as my approach into the south Asian languages. Then because I’m a bit lazy at learning new writing systems, I won’t have to learn either the Hindi or Punjabi writing systems and I’ll still be able to get some sense of the sounds of those languages. I may still end up learning the writing system, we’ll see. As a polyglot, I have this tremendous world of languages to look forward to, and I don’t know which languages I’m going to explore in the future.
I think soon we will have Tagalog and Vietnamese at LingQ. Also Thai, and perhaps Indonesian and Swahili. As a polyglot, my motivation is to get in there and explore these, but I recognize that each and every one of them is going to be a lot of work, but enjoyable. That’s what I have to look forward to. So perhaps that’s my perspective on how to become a polyglot.
To summarize, you have to be motivated to learn languages. You have to be interested in learning these languages. You have to be interested in a particular language. You learn them one at a time and as you achieve success in one language, you may find that you’re motivated to learn another language. You have to be unafraid of interference from languages that you have previously learned. You have to be unafraid of the fact that some of the languages that you have learned will actually get very, very rusty. You may in fact, not be able to speak in that language. Like if you were to ask me now to speak in Romanian or Greek, I wouldn’t be able to do it and yet I know that I have learned those languages to a level where I went to the country and I was able to communicate. That’s okay. If you have 20 pots on a stove, it’s very difficult to keep them all simmering without burning any one of them.
All of those things are part of, at least in my case, the attitude of a polyglot, I can’t speak for other polyglots.