Linguists and Polyglots was uploaded onto Steve’s YouTube channel on

May 29, 2012

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. I’m back from my visit to Rarotonga, New Zealand and Australia and so today I want to talk about linguists because that always generates a lot of controversy. People criticize me for calling speakers of many languages linguists, even though that’s the most common definition in the dictionary. Most people don’t know the meaning of the word polyglot, or the people that I speak to.


I’m going to talk about linguists because on my trip here, as is always the case, I met with people in New Zealand and Australia, therefore, in Auckland, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, who are keeners on learning languages and very competent. In many cases, they learn three, four or five languages and speak them very, very well. Some of them have a monolingual background.


Some of them were born into a situation where they heard many languages. It doesn’t seem to matter. The overwhelming factor of success is their enthusiasm and their interest.


Now, in that regard, if we’re talking about linguists or polyglots or, for that matter, hyperglots, I want to refer back to the book that I reviewed on my blog which was called Babel No More, which is written by Michael Erard. It’s about people who speak 10 languages or more whom he calls hyperglots. I want to talk about that because in about a week’s time or so, I’m going to be participating in a television program here in Canada on Global Television with some other Canadian hyperglots and we’re going to talk about why we’re so interested in learning languages.


So to kind of prepare myself for that, I have been listening to the Polyglot Podcasts and I’m going to post an initiative of David Mansaray. I remembered his name. Pardon me here, I don’t want to mispronounce his name, but I think it’s Claude Cartaginese. He is the person who put together this book, which is a compendium of the stories of different polyglots, whom I call linguists, but I accept the word polyglot. David and Claude interview people who are, in fact, polyglots. There’s a real sort of all-star cast here of people they have interviewed, Moses McCormick, Dr. Peter Brown, Kathleen ________, Susanna Zaraysky, Robert Bigler, Richard Simcott and Luca Lampariello, Luca with whom I had that conversations that you may have listened to here at my channel at YouTube.


Well, I’m going to be talking to Richard Simcott this Sunday and we’ll probably speak a little in English about language learning and in one other language. I’ve asked him if we can talk in Russian because when I did my previous discussion with Luca, we started running out of time. We were speaking all of these languages one right after the other and I had to run off to watch my grandson play hockey. I started getting more and more anxious and so I think we kind of compressed each language to fewer and fewer minutes and the Russian, Swedish and Chinese kind of got short _______. So I might just start out with Russian, if Richard is okay. I know he speaks a number of Slavic languages, but I’m not sure whether he speaks Russian. We’ll see what he wants to do. I’m easy on that score.


There was a criticism that us polyglots or linguists only ever talk about language learning in these different languages and they would like us to cover other ground. So, again, it’s up to Richard, but we will find a common language, whether it be Russian or some other language, and maybe talk about some other subject. We’ll see how that goes. I think with Richard, too, we’ll probably go one or two languages a week rather than trying to do them all at once because it gets a bit tiring after a while. You know, one hour on Skype gets a bit tiring. So that’s coming up.


To some extent, in preparation for my discussion with Richard and also in preparation for the television program next week, I have started listening to these podcasts, the Polyglot Podcasts. They were also mentioned at our forum on LingQ. I must tell you, they are very, very interesting and I recommend that if you have the time listen to them. Now, they’re fairly long, so what I do is download them and listen to them in my car. I had to drive downtown today, so I got a fair amount of it in me while driving and then around the house. Rather than listening to Russian or Czech while doing the dishes, I listen to Richard Simcott and Luca Lampariello here.


Learn languages online at LingQ


So I very much recommend you listen to them because what’s interesting about them is that they are each person’s personal story. I must say that David and Claude, especially David because he’s done the last two alone, are good interviewers. David is a really good interviewer. He brings out their story in a very interesting way and almost has like a radio announcer’s voice. So the whole thing is quite entertaining and all of these people are very capable of explaining the reason why they were interested in what they did and so forth.


I find, depending on who is being interviewed, I agree with 30, 40, 50, 80% of what they say, but inevitably have areas where I don’t agree. Where we all come together, I shouldn’t say all because I haven’t heard everyone here, but of the ones that I’ve heard, particularly Richard and Luca, they say as I say, do what you like to do. There are many different ways of achieving success. These people all have slightly different paths to achieving their success in learning different languages. I don’t want to put words in their mouth, but I think they kind of all imply that anyone can do it, that it’s not a matter of some genetic predisposition.


I think they would agree, maybe not, I shouldn’t assume again, but certainly what they had to say confirmed in my mind that the three great keys to language learning still apply and that number one is your motivation, your attitude, your passion, they all talk about this, your confidence. Your whole mindset towards language learning is the overwhelming factor if you have that interest and it’s obvious by listening to these people that they all have this passion as I do, particularly in my later years here, for learning languages and the confidence and that they like the language.


Again, Richard goes into this whole idea of loving the language and it’s obvious from listening to the others that they love learning these languages, so the attitude is absolutely paramount. The second thing is that you have to put in the time. If you listen to them, they have all put in a lot of time. Other than Daniel Kamete who has some unique autistic ability to learn, most people put in a fair amount of time. But, again, in order to put in the time you have to like what you’re doing. That’s why some of the specific techniques that Luca uses, Richard uses or some of the others use, Susanna and so forth, I don’t like doing those things and, therefore, those are not things that I would do. In order for me to be able to put in the time, I’ve got to do the things that I like to do in the sequence that I like to do them.


This is another thing, we all like to talk, but at what point. We all recognize the need to refer to grammar in some way, whether we’re specifically looking at grammar explanations or whether we are studying, as Luca does, the language he’s learning and comparing it to a language he knows very well in order to identify the structural differences and how concepts are presented in the new language. Whatever it is, you have to have some way that you’re dealing with the issue of grammatical structure, but we can all do it our own way, in a way we like.


So, again, to kind of repeat, you’ve got to have that attitude, you’ve got to put in the time and then the third thing is you’ve got to find some way of helping your brain notice what’s going on, hopefully, a way that you like. This then gets back to the idea of Luca’s techniques. Both Luca and Richard like bilingual text, I don’t, I find them distracting, but they are very successful polyglots/linguists, more successful than I am. I don’t know whether on a per unit of time input-basis they are, but in terms of the net result they certainly are more proficient than I am in most languages.


Their system works for them, I don’t like doing it so it wouldn’t work for me, but I recognize that I have to do things to help me notice. For example, one thing I’ve started doing now in my Russian when I read away from the computer, since I have very few words if I’m reading through Tolstoy — I’m reading now a book by Edvard Radzinsky, the biography of Alexander II — I go through there and I have decided to give each case in Russian a number. Nominative is 1, accusative if 1, genitive is 2, dative is 4, instrumental is 5 and the prepositional case is 6, so I write in a little number right above the nouns and adjectives and if it’s plural I write it twice.


What does it do? It forces me to think about the structure. It forces me to get a grasp not only of that specific adjective and noun, but of the overall way these things work. I understand it in principle, I have for many years, but I have trouble nailing them down when I’m speaking. I regularly make mistakes with my cases, so I’m now forcing myself to pay attention to them. This is, again, a way to increase our ability to notice. Luca has techniques with regard to working on your pronunciation. Obviously, you have to notice, you have to hear the pronunciation; otherwise, you can’t imitate it.


Again, in listening to these, I recommend that you listen to them. I’ve enjoyed them and they’ve only confirmed my belief of the big three. Attitude, time on task and improving your ability to notice are the keys and the way we do that can vary from individual to individual. There we are, the polyglots/linguists are all over the world, everywhere I go I meet them. It’s not something we are born with, some kind of a genetic gift, it’s very much something we’re all capable of doing.


So thank you for listening and if you have any specific subjects that you would like me to raise with Richard Simcott when we speak on Sunday, please let me know. Bye for now.