Is wanting to be a polyglot a misdirected dream?

I recently wrote an article on my blog discussing this and I wonder what you all think.

I browse language forums and read a few language blogs and it’s clear that many people - although it’s a niche - want to be a polyglots. I think it’s easy to see the accomplishments of others and then want to do the same. However, it takes hard-work and dedication; something that polyglots have because of how much they love languages.

(I’m not saying that only polyglots work hard and have dedication, just that it comes easier to them because of their obsessive passion)

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a few polyglots and I’ve noticed that none of them planned to be polyglots. It just kinda happened.

Aiming to be a polyglot I think sets yourself up for failure; and can stop you from feeling proud of what you have accomplished.

What do you all think? Is wanting to be a polyglot a misdirected dream?

PS: you can read the article I wrote earlier here if you want.

I’m look forward to all your great responses!

I agree wholeheartedly. Polyglottery as a goal is ill-advised and I think it is fueled by people who too strongly correlate successful language learning with intelligence.

Hi David, I’ve read your post and your article with interest and it certainly gave me food for thought. “Becoming a polyglot” sounds like a lofty goal, but it’s blood, sweat, and tears most of the time. Surely most of LingQ members probably do enjoy learning their languages, but as far as “polyglottery” is concerned, I believe that you are bound to begin to spread thin when you try to learn many languages at the same time. Toying with a nice sounding idea is one thing, living a certain lifestyle (connected with many important life choices) is another thing. Are you ready to devote some time every day to polish your language skills? Not only this month but for the rest of your life? I believe that with languages one thing is certain: if you don’t make progress, you get worse. There’s no standing in one place. If you don’t want your language to ever get “rusty”, you should have some contact with it for the rest of your life.

Another thing that comes to my mind is that very often we don’t define our goals well enough. What does it mean to “be a polyglot”? Does it mean that I should achieve perfection in all of my languages or that I should just be able to get by? Maybe being able to introduce myself and count to 100 in Korean will satisfy me enough? Maybe I don’t necessarily need to speak it “like a native speaker”, as many of us strive to? These are only some of the questions every one of us should ask themselves and these are obviously only my thoughts. I’m curious to know other people’s opinion.

I think that the goal of learning to speak a number of languages well enough to communicate comfortably in them is a reasonable and even laudable goal. We can call people who achieve this goal polyglots or linguists or just say that they speak a number of languages. I find the word polyglottery a little grating and even unnecessary.

In my opinion, in order to become like Steve, Alexander Arguelles, etc one needs to have a burning passion for languages that goes well beyond the interest level of a normal hobby linguist. In effect, you have to sign up for a tough bootcamp lifestyle as a Polyglocian monk. You may not literally live alone in a cell and have a spartan life - but one way or another you gotta sweat and toil day after day, week after frickin week!

I can’t do it. Maybe I should own up to it with great shame, but I just can’t do it.

It was different when I was younger. In fact, my strong advice to guys like David would be this: make the most of being in your 20s guys! Later on you may just find (like me) that you no longer have the energy and motivation to do it…

Jay, I had always thought you were younger than I am…

I quite agree with Steve on this issue. I know I will most likely not reach the C2 level in all the European languages I will study in the future. My goal is to reach C1-2 in at least 5-10 languages, B1-2 in most of the other ones and A2-B1 in the remaining ones.

I feel I haven’t done enough in the latest couple of years. I would need to find a better discipline and to learn to manage my time better.

You do not need to be a monk. You put in an hour or so a day and strike up a relationship with a new language, putting in as much time as you want and getting out of the relationship whatever you put in. Right now I am having a fling with Czech after a 4 year steady relationship with Russian. My wife knows about these extra-marital relationships BTW. She does not mind since she plays piano and is a keen golfer.

“Aiming to be a polyglot I think sets yourself up for failure; and can stop you from feeling proud of what you have accomplished.”

you may have a point there, David. If, for some reason, one grows up with two languages, I think one has an advantage from the start.

I think there is a limit to the number of languages one can learn properly… I suppose it is somewhere between 4 and 10, depending which languages.
the maximum I know from conference interpreters (on interpreter level, passive language) is 7 in parallel. More is really, really tough… Could be achieved with a lot of similar passive languages…

If you want to keep a high level in all your languages, this requires quite some work, and at some point you cannot keep them on a high level at the same time…

Learning a language properly requires immersing oneself in the culture, reading books and newspapers, listening to radio, watching tv or movies, producing oral and written texts: it’s not that easy…

Mike: I don’t think you are lazy. there are only so many things you can do on a single day.
Perhaps you could have achieved more if you systematically moved from one country to the other every few months, but is this a life?

How many languages do we need to know and how well, in order to be considered a polyglot or linguist? The ability to be comfortable in two is enough in my view. I don’t see any “setting oneself up for failure” unless we pursue perfection, which is very unwise in my view.

Of course there’s no established number on how many languages it takes to be a polyglot and probably never will be. There are hundreds of threads concerning this one topic on various forums. To me, it’s ‘a handful’ - somewhere around 5+ - and of course it’s just my take on it.

I feel proud of what I’ve achieved but also, I am finished with that because I’ve got a burning desire to learn more. If only more people had this feeling in life! Basically, I don’t worry too much about the psychology of what I want to do with languages. There’s a deep appreciation for them which doesn’t need to be explained or rationalised. A ‘reasons list’ have never been necessary for me. I just learn languages because I couldn’t imagine not learning. That would be rather odd for me.

Being obsessed as I am with languages, and seeing the progress that I make, I’ve got no doubt that I can become fluent in at least a dozen, while having good passive skills in at least that many again. I can’t see failure any more. It’s just not realistic.

Steve…you and your unnecessary words… haha

FYI - polygon: “a plane figure with at least three straight sides and angles, and typically five or more.”

Perhaps the same can be applied to the term “polyglot”?

Ah, very well done, Alex. :smiley:

Well how many wives do we need to be a polygamist?

At least three and typically five or more, I guess. :wink:

I don’t know Steve, but I’d imagine that polyglottery is less work! :slight_smile:

Becoming proficient in a foreign language (say B2/C1) is a completely realistic goal for most people. After all, life is long, and even just 5 hours a week will go a long way if you have a few years and are learning a language not too dissimilar from your own.

If you mean polyglottery as demonstrated by Steve and others like him, then this is a different story.

But then again, let’s look at Steve. He’s in his 60s, so he’s been at this a while. His best languages are Chinese, Japanese and French. Well, he went to university in France and lived in Japan for almost a decade while not working as an English teacher. And he had a year where he didn’t have to work and was able to study Mandarin full-time.

After you learn one Latin language well, the others are a lot less work. So he has learned the other Romance languages. And, if I recall his story correctly, he spoke Swedish as a child, so that must have played a factor in relearning it. He also does business in Sweden, so has regular opportunities to use it. I don’t know how he came to learn German, but if it was after learning Swedish, then that’s an advantage too.

Plus, as native English speakers, we have a relatively easy road into both Latin and Germanic languages.

And we all know, I think, Steve’s experience with Russian on LingQ.

So if you look at how long Steve’s been at it, and the list of languages he’s learned, and the places he’s lived and done business in, his accomplishments become a lot more realistic, although of course still impressive.

Besides, being a polyglot is hard to define. If an English speaker is B2/C1 in all 4 major Latin languages, are they a polyglot? What if someone else has learned Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Hungarian? Surely there’s a difference.

There’s no need to justify the things you want to do. If someone is inspired by the idea of speaking many languages, then that’s great. Being a polyglot in and of itself doesn’t inspire me. I like the feeling of getting better at something. I like turning everyday activities like watching TV and talking about the weather into more cognitively demanding activities.

And I work in the language education business, so there is a practical benefit to being functional in a number of foreign languages. To each his own.

Many people will start learning a language and then give up when they realize it takes time and requires effort. Most people fail at most things they try. Learning languages is no different.

@Imyirtseshem: “…I don’t know Steve, but I’d imagine that polyglottery is less work! :)”

Well, there comes a point where duty ceases to be a chore, wouldn’t ye say? :smiley:


(I forgot this is a family show - sorry!)

“Many people will start learning a language and then give up when they realize it takes time and requires effort.” – I completely agree with this. The more people I talk to, the more I experience this. It can take years to get somewhere in a language, unless you’re doing it ‘full-time’ and you know what you’re doing. But even then it takes TIME.

All 4 major Romance* languages? There are 5! French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Romanian! Although, that’s counting by standard languages…

Thanks Rank. I wish I’d seen the more explicit message. :slight_smile: