The Defintion of “Polyglot” (And Why I’m Not One)

I’ve been blogging about language learning for over a year now, and I’m finally going to discuss something that’s been on my mind for a while:

I’m not a polyglot, nor will I ever claim to be one.

If you’re not familiar with the term, a polyglot is someone who knows or speaks several languages. The most famous polyglot is Mezzofanti, an Italian cardinal alive in the 18th and 19th centuries who spoke over thirty languages.

Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti

Nowadays you can follow several polyglots online, such as Alexander Arguelles, Benny Lewis, Luca Lampapriello, Richard Simcott, and Moses McCormick. I have a ton of respect for these guys and for what they’ve accomplished. All of them, without exception, acknowledge how much time and effort it took for them to learn their languages. For them, language learning is a way of life, and their hard work has paid off.

As for myself, I’m comfortable claiming four languages: English, Arabic, German, and now Spanish. I also studied Pashto for eight months and tested at a B1 level. (I don’t bring up Pashto very often because I have pretty much forgotten all of what I’d learned, which is a shame.)

But no matter how many languages I speak, now or in the future, I’m never going to claim to be a polyglot. Instead, I’m going to stick with my preferred term: Language Addict. I’ll also use terms like Language Enthusiast, Language Lover, and of course Language Surfer.

The reason I’m bringing this up at all is because on language blogs and YouTube language videos, polyglots–both current and aspiring–are everywhere.You could make the case that they’re the dominant force in language learning right now.

But there are several reasons why I’m staying away from the label myself.

1. Shaky Criteria.

No one can agree on what qualifies you as a polyglot. Some people say you have to speak at least four languages. Some people say six.

The same with proficiency levels. Do you have to be fluent in each language you claim? Conversational? Native-speaker like?

Kind of hard to hit a moving target.

2. Unhelpful Expectations.

Since the criteria are so undefined, if you call yourself a polyglot, people’s expectations for you become out of control. For whatever reason, that word is incredibly loaded. You might as well be calling yourself a language genius.

People who have never seriously studied languages have all sorts of crazy ideas about language learning. Some people think that if you claim a language, that means you can speak like a native. So to get their approval, you better be able to produce accent-free speech, on a variety of topics, using slang and jargon comfortably, while not making any mistakes.

Get real. That’s going to happen for some bilingual people, especially people who grew up speaking two languages. But it’s an incredibly lofty goal for most people. And doing that for six or more languages? It’s definitely possible, but you’d have to dedicate your entire life to the pursuit.

For me, I’m not going to call myself a polyglot and risk people expecting too much from me. I don’t see what good that would do.

Look, I know you’re all silently judging me and deciding whether I’m worth taking advice from, and I have no problem with that. But I’m very specific about what I’ve accomplished as a language learner and translator, and I do that so that I’ll be evaluated on specific criteria, not a vague “polyglot” label.

Also, with expectations, the focus becomes the destination, not the journey. And as you know from my Language Surfing and Imperfect Language philosophies, that’s just not what I’m about.

3. I don’t really want to be a polyglot.

I like languages. But my personal preference is to concentrate on a few I want to learn rather than to learn several just for the sake of learning them.

Again, I have the utmost respect and admiration for polyglots. They all have their own reasons for why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I wouldn’t dare say what their motivations are, because I have no idea.

And I do admit it’d be cool to be able to rattle off six, ten, or fifteen languages–but for me, not so cool that I’d be willing to sacrifice all of my free time to reach that level.

The thing is, you don’t have to learn a dozen languages to get benefits. Learning even one other language can enrich your life infinitely.



  • Teddy Nee

    Exactly correct, there is no clear definition about “polyglot”

    • Ron G.

      Hey Teddy. Do you have a personal opinion on how many languages qualifies one as a polyglot? What about proficiency levels?

      • Teddy Nee

        “polyglot” sounds to me like an imaginary character, such as “superman”. 😀 And proficiency level is ambiguous, because native speaker of a language may even perform poorly in a certain aspect.

        • Ron G.

          Awesome answer. :)

  • Natalie

    To me, polyglot means someone who speaks at least three languages fluently. But as you said, there isn’t really a hard and fast definition of the word.

    Point #3 really resonates with me. I have an entire list of languages I’d like to learn. Sometimes I do work on them for a bit – for example, I’ll read the occasional newspaper article in Spanish. As much as I’d like to speak every Slavic language, plus Afrikaans, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese, I really don’t want to spend every free moment of my time engaging in language learning because there are so many other things I like to do. So I mainly stick to perfecting my Russian (with the occasional foray into Ukrainian or Belarusian for fun).

    • Ron G.

      Thanks for your POV, Natalie! Yeah, obviously there’s no right answer for which path a person “should” choose in the language learning game, and it’s cool to dabble if that’s someone’s thing. It’s cool to really dive in too.

      I’m coming up on the end of my one-year Spanish project/experiment/whatever, and having a specific goal with a date has been helpful in keeping me on track. But I realized recently that I really hit my stride in the last month or so. Just because the project is over doesn’t I don’t want to switch to another language now. Things are just starting to come together! haha

      Have you written anything about your Russian studies? Links? I’d like to read about them.

      • Ron G.

        Never mind–I found them on your site under the “Russian” tag. :)

  • Adam Pearson

    Hey man, great site. I am really impressed! I am also ashamed that I have not kept up with my WordPress blog. Thanks for that! 😉
    As far as polyglot, I know what you mean by not wanting to claim that. I claim about 7 languages. From best to worst: German, Arabic, French, Dutch, Spanish, Scandinavian (Danish, Swedish, Norwegian), and Farsi. I could survive in a couple of other languages but barely know enough to mention. Now, while that may seem impressive, my brain says otherwise. I would only consider myself really fluent in German, proficient in the next two and conversational for the others (I lump the Scandinavian languages together because they are so similar). Arabic is a beast. As you know we spend years learning MSA only to talk to a native on the street and sound like a doofus. At one point I felt fluent in Arabic. This was after 5 solid weeks of speaking Arabic with natives every day for hours. But this was years ago and just one dialect. Now, I have devolved back into MSA. Most language maintenance with Arabic nowadays is reading or listening to al-Jazeera in Arabic.
    Full disclosure: I used to work with Ron over a decade ago. Unfortunately I haven’t seen him since. His Arabic skills were/are phenomenal. I remember him getting near perfect scores on his Arabic tests. His advice is pure gold.

    • Ron G.

      Hey Adam, good to hear from you! (Love that picture by the way.) I appreciate the compliments, but I’ve always been envious of your skills. Seven languages is amazing. Like you said about MSA, no one IRL understands you when you speak it, so for a long time it felt like I had a cool party trick with Arabic and no one to really speak it with. Learning the new languages has felt a little bit like redemption.

      Let me know if you get your WordPress blog back up and running. I’ll plug it, take a guest post, an interview, whatever–not just to get content for the site, but to see what kind of tips you have that I can start using myself.

  • João Almeida

    Well, technically would require, at least, four languages. The root “poly” brings that meaning, I believe!. In most languages you have the terminology for two, three languages, then polyglot. The writer is correct when questioning situations such as the level of fluency, if the person needs to speak as a native, for example. Those points are important. I like to say “I can communicate in five languages”, but I only speak my native one, Portuguese. I think claiming to be a polyglot is a more advanced step, I would expect fluency in four languages, but this is not a rule, and I don’t believe there is one set. But, again, the common sense, at least within the Brazilian/Portuguese culture is that a polyglot is a person that speaks four languages with fluency.

  • marcomundo

    Polyglot, lolyglot, seems like there are several people online saying they speak several languages when they have only a limited knowledge of these languages. I can’t figure out if they are just flat-out lying to build business or if they are exagerating a bit for some other reason.
    I am at least fluent in English and Spanish, thanks to my mexican american family. I have taught both languages in high school. I have listened to some of these people, I won’t mention names, speak spanish and I can’t believe they claim to be fluent spanish speakers. If a person does not know the word for ‘lazy’ in spanish – if you pronounce the word ‘to begin’ with an undetectable collection of letters, then, I would not consider this person as fluent in the language. These guys not only say they are fluent in spanish but claim to speak 12 or 14 different languages. Don’t believe the hype. To speak 6 languages fluently or native-like you need six lives. Two lives I can imagine but six … Even Einstein, after living in the USA for over 20 years had a distinct problem pronouncing English words. In my opinion, if someone wants to become fluent in more than one language they should stop at two languages.
    Polyglot = a word invented by people who don’t understand or refuse to accept the complexities of language.
    Now I think I’ll hit the curves real hard with this wip and hope as I chingar esta servesa – Oh no, andando pedo? Que no me metan en el bote con los otros serotes.

    • baru314

      You are only considering the language learning of adult learners. There are kids in the villages of Myanmar who can speak 4 or 5 languages at native fluency, often from two or three different language families.

  • marcomundo

    See look at that. I have been spending too much time on my japanese and I just spelled cerveza – servesa-. What a joke!!!