Guest Post: Why I’m Not A Polyglot (And Probably Never Will Be)

Today’s guest post is from the very talented Natalie at Fluent Historian. Take it away, Natalie!


I’ve been involved with the language learning community for over four years now (even longer if you count the time I lurked in forums and on other people’s blogs before blogging about language on my own) and as diverse as language bloggers and their blogs may be, there does seem to be a commonality amongst them: many, many language learners who blog and post on forums learn more than one foreign language.

Nevsky Prospect - St. Petersburg, Russia By floridaguyjoe ( - image description page) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Nevsky Prospect – St. Petersburg, Russia
By floridaguyjoe [CC BY 2.0 ], Image Source

In some cases, it’s just a few languages. Someone likes Spanish, then decides to do French and eventually German, then works at maintaining these three. Or a person learns something common and conventional like Spanish and wants to pick up something more exotic, like Russian or Arabic. And in some cases, it’s even more extreme. I’ve seen forum posts and bloggers who claim to know eight, nine, or even ten foreign languages, and sometimes even more. (Alexander Arguelles knows over thirty languages at a relatively high reading comprehension level, if I remember correctly. I think he speaks a fair amount of them, too.)

I’m not trying to criticize people who learn a ton of languages. Honestly, I understand the temptation. Since starting Russian, I’ve sporadically studied other languages, too, including Swedish, Serbian/Croatian, Ukrainian, Spanish, and Afrikaans. I even wrote a short-lived blog about my brief Serbian experience.

However, I’m not fluent in any of these languages I studied after Russian. (With the exception of Ukrainian. I can kind of fake fluency sometimes. Like when I’m listening and understand a lot of what is said, which only happens sometimes. Don’t ask me why—I don’t understand it either.) I would argue that a lot of so-called polyglots aren’t fluent in all the languages they claim fluency in, either, but that’s the subject of another blog post. Studying other languages was fun for a little bit, but ultimately, I wasn’t able to stick with any of them.

The reason why I didn’t stick with any of these languages—and the reason why I’ll probably never be a polyglot—is I just love the Russian language too much. Whenever I studied a language besides Russian, I always thought that my time could be better spent improving my Russian. In other words, I’d rather be really good at Russian than mediocre at two or three foreign languages. And as controversial as this may sound, in my experience a lot of language bloggers who claim to be polyglots aren’t actually fluent in most of the languages they think they are. (Some notable examples to this rule are Ron*, who writes this excellent blog, and Donovan of The Mezzofanti Guild. I’m sure there are others but I can’t remember them right now.)

(*Editor’s note: Natalie is very kind to mention me, but like her, I don’t like to label myself a polyglot. I explain why in an older post, which bears similarities to the one here.)

One of the reasons I’ve stuck with Russian all these years is because I love it so much. It’s the first foreign language I studied that I truly fell in love with. I’m interested in other languages but that interest is mild compared to the passion I feel for Russian. So yes, I may not fit in with many fellow language learners in our part of the blogosphere—but that’s okay, because right now, Russian is the foreign language I need in my life.


About the author: Natalie studied history and Russian language at university. Her Russian obsession has been going strong for over seven years now and shows no signs of abating. She also plays violin, works on novels, and writes about her life on her blog, Fluent Historian.

  • Anna

    Great post! It seems like there’s an obsession with “collecting” languages to show off to others, and is quite disappointing, though not surprising, when you realize that for some people, “fluency” is not much more than being able to order a beer. I find a lot more satisfying and enriching to delve deep into two or three foreign languages and therefore their cultures than bable in ten or twenty.

    Is curious than I’m also learning Russian, play the violin and like to write :)

    • Tante Leonie

      I couldn’t agree more.

      I’ve stopped reading language blogs [except for Ron’s] because the endless chest-thumping on them.

      • Natalie

        I only read a few language learning blogs as well. I’d love to find more, but as you say, there can be a lot of chest thumping and that can get annoying.

    • Natalie

      Thanks, Anna! Glad you like the post.

      Also it sounds like we have a lot in common. Feel free to get in touch on the contact page on my website. (My site is linked in the post itself and should be on my Disqus profile, too.)

  • Red/

    Alexander Arguelles’ homepage is interesting, I read everything, and here is something that made me think a lot:

    “Most importantly of all, however, I was coming to understand the nature of language learning curves better and better:”
    “making progress in foreign languages still inevitably and necessarily requires greater and greater investments of time. There are, of course, no clear cut points in language knowledge, but still if it takes one unit of time to go from 0 knowledge to a certain point A, then it takes two units of time to develop from point A to point B, and four units of time to develop from point B to point C, and so on geometrically until an ultimate point Z. In other words, while getting a solid grounding in a language is relatively easy, developing more advanced knowledge quite simply takes much longer.”
    in relation to this, the following video:

    I think, in general, there is also a problem: by consulting the Linkedin profiles of some well known polyglots it appears that the list of their languages, and their level of expertise in each of them, looks different from the perception that one could have through their blogs…

    • Tante Leonie

      Thanks for posting the video, Red.

    • Natalie

      I definitely agree with that last paragraph you wrote after the video. Sometimes, when push comes to shove, you find out that people aren’t quite as good at their languages as they’d lead you to believe…

  • Natalie

    Ron, thanks for letting me guest post! It’s nice to be able to reach out to a different audience than the one for my own blog.

    Also, I love the photo you chose for this. Very appropriate. 😉

    • Ron G.

      Thanks for the article, Natalie! I decided to stop taking guest posts for the most part…long story. But I love sharing things from people I’ve built genuine blogging relationships (lol) with over the past few years, so it was my pleasure.

  • Katherine Anderson

    Awesome article, Natalie! :) Your passion for Russian really shines through here. I feel the same way, with two exceptions:

    – sometimes when frustrated with Russian, I turn to Spanish in a “screw you, великий могущественный русский язык” way :p It can feel pretty good, haha!

    – there is something deliciously, deliciously cool about using one foreign language to study another, like a book in language A teaching you language B.

    • pablomaz

      That’s pretty cool indeed…I was using English (I’m Brazilian) to learn Russian (I’m on a break with the language, again) and I constantly try to learn new things in Spanish and in English at the same time (I mean, if I happen to find a word in Spanish that I don’t know, I immediately try to learn it in English as well). So cool! : -)

      • Katherine Anderson

        Wow, Pablo! :) I love your enthusiasm for all those languages! Do you by any chance keep a blog about your studies?

        • pablomaz

          Nah… In fact, I only studied English as a kid. Of course I’ve learned a lot as the time passed (and I keep learning), but I don’t see it as “studying”. When I started learning Spanish, a few years back, I didn’t even knew this whole language learning community existed. With Russian, well… I simply can’t get traction. I stop and go, stop and go, stop and go.
          Anyway, I was taking a look at your blog and found it very interesting. I subscribed so I hope to receive your new posts. Maybe this could help me getting back to Russian? : – )

          • Katherine Anderson

            Надеюсь, что да! :) See you there!

  • Carol Todd

    A couple of the really helpful sites I visit are run by true polyglots who admit that, although they have attained real fluency in a language, once their situation changes, they don’t always maintain their level of fluency. So although they may have been fluent in that language at one point, they are no longer as fluent now. What they do say, however, is that when they return to the country or need to speak the language, the return to fluency is quite rapid, because they do retain a good bit of what they had once known. This makes sense to me. From my personal experience, I find that language I have learned in the past returns quite rapidly once you begin to practice it. The point I was making is that even polyglots have their fluency limits, but it shouldn’t deter us from learning whichever languages we have an interest in.

  • Hitrizie

    Great Post, Natalie and Ron :-) couldn’t agree more :-)

  • dandiprat

    Great post. I think learning one language well is an awesome goal. I don’t see how one could possibly learn all four skills well in a short time and then maintain them. However, I wouldn’t swear off learning other languages for forever just yet (not that you did so in your post). Forever is a long time. Circumstances may change and you need to learn another language. I spent 10 years learning Mandarin and then I met my wife and had to learn two more languages to talk to her family. There’s no reason to set an arbitrary deadline like a year after which one starts learning a new language (I certainly don’t feel like I ever have anything to brag about after a year or two). Spending 10 years learning a language is not really that long in my opinion. But at some point life might lead you in a new direction.