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.
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.
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.
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.