The Definition of a Polyglot

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What is the definition of a polyglot?

As some of you know, I was a speaker at this year’s North American Polyglot Symposium. Here are the main points from my talk on the definition of a polyglot.

As people who speak multiple languages, polyglots like to use those languages; we like to see how we do. But there is an element of performance. Are you better than me? Am I better than you? For some people that’s fine. I think a lot of us are very happy, in fact, when we hear somebody speak better than we do. We’re full of admiration. Even if someone only speaks one other language but speaks it very well, I’m always in awe. But not everyone reacts that way. Some people are timid about trotting out their level of the language, so the question is can we be a silent polyglot?

Anna Karenina begins with “Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему”. Words to that effect, which means all happy families resemble each other,  but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. So I turn that around and say every unhappy language learner is unhappy in the same way. They can’t do this, they can’t do that. Whereas every happy language learner is happy in his or her own way. In other words, we find our own way to happiness in language learning.

I remember being in this café in Vienna in 1965. There was a fellow there and people would write him questions in 13 languages, and he would answer in writing. It was all done in writing because he was a deaf mute. There wasn’t a question that people put to him in writing that he couldn’t answer, but he couldn’t speak. Maybe in those days sign language wasn’t as widespread as it is right now, but he was, in a sense, a silent polyglot.

People engage with languages differently. There are people who read, understand very well and still don’t speak, and there are people who are very good at social banter but have a very limited knowledge of the language. To me, it’s whatever turns your crank. Either one is certainly fine. I do the latter in languages that I don’t speak very well at all. I say a few words and get a charge out of the people whose language it is, so both are equally good in my opinion.

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What’s interesting about the definition of a polyglot is that it’s someone who “knows and is able to use several languages”, it doesn’t say to speak. I said this on my YouTube channel and someone said, “well, the definition of a polyglot means many tongues in Greek, so doesn’t it mean that you have to be able to speak?” Possibly, in terms of the etymology of the word, but in terms of the definition in the dictionary it’s just “knows and is able to use”. If you are connecting with the language by reading or listening, you are using the language, you know the language and, in fact, you’re even communicating. Listening is a form of communication, reading is a form of communication and you are communicating with the culture, the history and so on.

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To me, when I start studying a language I want to get to know it. Here are my statistics from LingQ. The way we count words we know at LingQ is that we count every form of the word, so in Slavic languages you can very quickly run up a huge word count. There’s so much inflection in Slavic languages. As you can see, my statistics at LingQ tell me that I know 20,000 words in Romanian. I worked very hard on Romanian because I have a lumber business and we buy lumber in Romania, which we then sell to the east coast of the U.S. I was going to go visit some of our supplying mills in Romania, so I spent two months studying the language. The first month was spent just listening and reading, and then in the second month I had some online conversations.

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I had a great time in Romania. If you travel in Romania and you rent a car, for five Euros a day more you can get a driver. I pictured myself driving amongst all these horse-drawn carriages and decided for five Euros a day, it’s a deal. The driver I had was a university student, so we were speaking Romanian. He was my driver, guide and Romanian teacher for six-seven hours a day. The mayor of the town where the saw mill was located would grab me and kiss me on both cheeks every time he saw me because I spoke Romanian. That’s just to show that if we speak the language in a country like that, it’s very well received.

A year later I was in Edmonton and I went to pick up a rented car. There was a Romanian girl there but I couldn’t say a word to her, zero. So you can lose it pretty quickly if you don’t take it up to a certain level. That I couldn’t say a thing was very disappointing, but the language is there somewhere and if I were to go back to listening and reading for even a weekend, a lot of it would come flooding back.

So the idea that, because you speak lots of languages you should be able to say something on request or instantly start up a conversation is wrong. You’re not necessarily going to be able to pull it off, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean that you don’t know the language, it means that you’re going to require a minimum period here to refresh it. Depending on how far along you’ve gone, how long it’s been since you last used it, that might be an hour, it might be a day, it might be a week, it might be a couple of weeks.

Kató Lomb was a very famous polyglot who lived mostly in the twentieth century. She was totally self-taught, in reply to the question “how many languages do I speak?” she once replied, “I have only one mother tongue: Hungarian. I speak Russian, German, English and French well enough to interpret or translate between many of them and then I have to prepare a bit for Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and Polish. At such times I need for the parts of my diaries are written in these languages.” So, again, this idea that you sometimes have to refresh a language. I’m sure any polyglot who says I speak several different languages probably has five they can turn on at will and another five that they would need to refresh a little before they could perform, so to speak, in those languages.

Lomb was entirely self-taught and, of course, this was at a time when there were no mp3 files, no internet, so she would just go at books. She was bored with the fabricated dialogues of course books and her favorite method was to obtain an original novel in a language completely unknown to her and work with a dictionary. She says she didn’t let herself get set back by rare or complicated expressions, she skipped them. She believed that what is important would sooner or later emerge again, which I totally agree with. People say, first, you have to learn the most common 1,000 words. If there’s one thing you can be sure of, those most common 1,000 words, if they’re common, they’ll show up again.

The thing I found very interesting with Kató Lomb is she had, basically, an equation: the language-learning equation, and I think this is brilliant. Language learning is all about motivation and time and I’m sure we’re familiar with that, motivation and time over inhibition.

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So you’ve got to get as motivated as possible, spend as much time as possible and reduce the resistance, the inhibition. I think this is a very good description of the process of language learning.

I’m sure Lomb would be amazed if she could see the opportunity to access interesting content in today’s world. It’s unbelievable and a lot of people are not aware of it. Though in the initial period you have to go through boring content because you can’t start with interesting stuff straight away. I’ve talked about an inverted hockey stick. You’ve got a very steep period where you’re working hard, you’re learning new words and you really feel you’re making process. Like, wow, I couldn’t do a thing in this language and now look at me. I can actually understand something, I can say something. There’s this sense of achievement, and because you are discovering the language you can actually deal with boring stuff because it’s exciting that you’re discovering a new language.

Then you hit a point, maybe two months, three months, four months in, and all of a sudden you feel like you’re not making any progress at all. You feel there are so many words. You figured that by now you’d be able to understand everything but you still can’t understand because there are just so many words. People always say, well, if you have 1,000 words that’s 70% of the content. Maybe, but if you’re reading a book, it’s those other words that keep on getting in the way and those other words may only show up once, twice or three times in the whole damn book. It’s a long way.

To my mind, if you picture an upside down hockey stick, you have a steep rise,”hello, look at me”, and then you’ve got this long, slow, gradual period. However, the good thing is once you get on to that point in your journey there are so many resources available. For the first part of it, the starter part, maybe you’ll buy Benny’s Teach Yourself series to get you up that first ramp. Then when you get to a point where you can understand radio programs, movies, books and stuff there are so many resources available.

Audible.com is one I wasn’t even aware of. They don’t have all languages on there, but it’s a great resource. I had to give a Skype discussion in German and I hadn’t done any German for such a long time I figured I wanted to refresh it. I’m interested in German history, so I Googled it and up came a number of audiobooks. I downloaded one on my iPhone and now I’m listening and learning about German history wherever I want. It’s fascinating.

I found the same for Polish, but it takes time. I went to Polish websites to buy an eBook with a matching audio book. I found these resources, went through all the steps, went to register so I could buy the thing and then they asked me for my Polish postal code. So I went off and found another website. Finally, I found a website where I could download eBooks and audiobooks in Polish. Nowadays, of course, if I buy an eBook I sock it into Calibre so it can be in PDF or any other format. You put it into Calibre, which is either free or you make a donation, and it converts any file format into whatever format you want. I convert it into a format that I can import into LingQ, so now I have an audiobook in LingQ and I’m able to look up all the words and phrases that I want.

One of the great questions when finding input is when to focus on output. For some people, using what they have just learned actually increases their motivation, encourages them to spend more time and reduces their inhibition. For others, the fact that they don’t understand very well and don’t have the words to say much not only increases their inhibition, it also reduces motivation. So every person has to look at this equation and think, in my case, am I motivated by speaking early? Am I not motivated by speaking early? Does it increase my inhibition? Does it reduce my inhibition?

I think on that basis we decide how much we want to speak. In the end, the decision often is “I don’t want to speak; I just want to listen and read because I live in say, Vancouver, and I don’t have the opportunity to speak with people, but I’m very interested in the literature of that language and so that’s what I want to do”. If that is your approach, you still qualify as a polyglot, even though you’re a relatively silent polyglot. I do believe, though, that rich input creates rich output. Here are two great resources I’ve recently come across for Polish and Italian:

Publio.pl – If anyone is learning Polish, a great site and they don’t require your Polish postal code.

Rai – this site has the Alle Otto Della Sera series of phenomenal podcasts on history, unfortunately without transcripts. It’s not always possible to get a transcript. In my case, for example, for Korean and Romanian I actually had to find someone on the internet who would create some transcripts for me because there were none available. I don’t like to listen to stuff I can’t understand and I want to have a chance of understanding it, so I prefer to have a transcript so I can save words and phrases. My Italian is good enough that I don’t need a transcript, but to refresh the language it’s a great resource.

These are just two examples, but there is so much rich content out there, and rich input leads to rich output. This is true not only for foreign languages, it’s also true in your own language.

In her book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing Melissa Donovan stresses that you learn your grammar and vocabulary from reading interesting things. It’s a book to help native speakers of English write better, and she explains that the best way to write better is to read better (and I would add listen with an mp3). Sound goes with reading, always, even in your own language. If you listen to rich material, your language will become richer and your vocabulary will grow.

There is more than one definition of a polyglot. We can be silent polyglots. We can be talkative polyglots who don’t read. We can be any kind of polyglot we want. The main thing is to engage, enjoy the process and to discover new languages.

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4 comments on “The Definition of a Polyglot

Thanks Steve for another great post and for the useful resources. It looks like the debate of what is a polyglot will never end, but it’s not something I’m particularly worried about. It’s all part of the discussion of language learning.

My experience is also that certain languages need a warming up period to begin to flow more naturally. It’s almost like switching a chip on in our heads to turn on the other language.

Gustavo Henrique

Thank you so much, so much for share these ideias and thoughts with ours.

Brazil
Vitória – ES

1 year self taughted english.

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