Modest quality vs. flashy quantity?

It has become increasingly clear to me that one could (quite literally) spend an entire lifetime focussing on one single foreign language without ever completely exhausting everything there is to know.

For me this does raise a few questions about the notion of “polyglottery” for its own sake: because the learner who obsessively collects new languages must of necessity massively limit his or her depth and scope in each individual language, right?

I’m not trying to denigrate anyone here - let me be clear about that. But I do wonder whether the so called “hyperglots” we see on Youtube really have much depth at all in most of their languages? To that extent I wonder whether what they are doing is really quite as impressive as it looks at first glance?

I know from my own past experiences in Italy that it is possible to communicate somewhat comfortably - albeit in a fairly simple spoken register and within a limited topical range - while knowing only a couple of thousand words! Fellow English natives sometimes regard this with a kind of awe: “wow, you speak ITALIAN?” This always makes me feel like a complete skunky fraud, because I know that I could never sit down with a book and read in Italian - not even pulp fiction. I don’t see myself as being anywhere at all in Italian, really.

(Even in my stronger foreign language, German, it took me a long time - including time living in Germany - to get to a point where I could smoothly read newspapers or popular fiction. And even in this language there is still a LOT left to learn.)

So which is better: to focus on just one foreign language but to learn it really seriously well? Or to flit around, Benny style, on the surface of dozens of languages?

It seems evident to me that the latter approach is the one which will attain glory in the eyes of unknowing monoglots in the Anglo-Saxon world. But isn’t modest quality ultimately far superior to flashy and superficial quantity where languages are concerned?

What do other folks think about this?

I think it depends what your goals are. There’s value in a surface understanding of a language - I only know a few hundred words of Dutch, but it’s still nice to be able to read Christmas cards or Twitter & Facebook updates from Dutch friends. If you can understand & speak simple sentences, so that you can ask for directions & buy things when overseas, that’s a useful skill too. Or imagine if you go the Olympics, and could have simple conversations with all the visitors… I’d love to be able to do that. So even if Benny only skims the top of languages, it’s still a skill that I’d love to have. I’m sure his German is still vastly better than mine though.

Of course, there’s value to true mastery of a language - it’s difficult to have deep philosophical conversations about the meaning of life when all you really know is how to ask the price of a cola. But don’t feel like a fraud if you only know a few hundred words of a language… I know zero Italian (except for “spaghetti”) so I’d still be impressed at your efforts :slight_smile:


“So which is better: to focus on just one foreign language but to learn it really seriously well? Or to flit around, Benny style, on the surface of dozens of languages?”

I don’t think either one is ‘better’. It is just a matter of what you want to do and what you need to do.

“But isn’t modest quality ultimately far superior to flashy and superficial quantity where languages are concerned?”

What do you mean by ‘superior’?

I think you make a good point in this post. I think people are way too impressed when somebody is able to speak a small amount in a difficult language. Getting to an A2 level is one thing, but learning the knowledge required to be really fluent in a language is completely different. If we were to sum up everything Benny knows about all of his languages, except English of course, would that be greater than Robert’s knowledge of English?

Here comes my short and judgemental comment:

I’d say: either learn to the level you need, or to the one that makes fun :slight_smile:

That was not judgemental at all.

@Colin: “…What do you mean by ‘superior’?..”

I mean that it is a greater actual accomplishment - one which is therefore worthier of respect and esteem.

In countries like Germany, Holland and Sweden there are, these days, quite a few people who speak excellent near-native English. But they don’t post Youtube videos inviting people to say “Wow, aren’t you totally amazing!” It is other guys (maybe it’s slightly unfair to pick on Benny, because he isn’t the only one) who are regarded as virtual geniuses on Youtube - and sometimes by gullible mainstream media too.

Of course, as Syneryder points out, there is some genuine value even to a little knowledge of a particular language - but just nowhere near as much value as there is to a really profound grasp, IMO.

So yeah, I agree with you that what Robert does in English or Spanish (say) would alone outweigh Benny-fluency in a whole score of languages.

Yeah, it would be unfair to pick on Benny. He obviously does really well in his learning. Plus, it is massively unfair on any mere mortal to be compared to Robert!

Learning more than one language does not mean flitting around.

I have learned the following languages in the last 10 years, to varying degrees of proficiency, Portuguese, Russian, Czech, and more recently Romanian and now Korean. Each time I have learned a great deal about the country, literature, history and culture and derived immense enjoyment from being able to connect, understand, communicate with a new and language group. Using LingQ I have accessed the wonderful resources that are available on the web, audio and text.

I had to make the choice to do this rather than improve in the other languages I spoke, although I worked a bit on my Italian and German from to time, here at Ling.

Benny is not the best example. Luca and Richard Simcott are genuinely fluent in a large number of languages and have added to that number, I believe, in the last few years. I doubt if Benny has acquired fluency in anynew language since I first heard of him four years ago.

Here is a video answer to this question, in a way.

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I think the ability to communicate is always impressive but can be achieved with a small vocabulary. The ability to understand and communicate is a long road and is way more impressive. Most polyglots don’t even reach C level in a few languages. It’s so difficult to get there nevermind manage it when you are there. I think it’s fine to learn several languages at the same time (if you have experience of adding 1 and maintaining the others easily) but most would need a decent level before starting another new language. Steve, you have a string of languages at B1/B2-C2+ so I highly doubt that anybody is referring to you when talking about not having an impressive level in many languages. I think Luca and Richard practice daily and that is why they add languages so well. It really shouldn’t be much more complicated than that. Obviously like Steve, part of their talent is knowing what to do. I think they would all say that if you learn everyday then you will get better (regardless of extra talents innate or not). Method would also be important. Anyway, my vote would be to try to achieve close to B2 before starting on the next and I think Steve has pretty much followed that.


Thanks for the video response - that does indeed answer many of the points I raised.

As to your question, “was I thinking of you when I started this thread?”, the basic answer is “no”. It is obvious to me that you have a genuine and meaningful level in a number of languages. Having said this, I was wondering whether this new 90-day thing could represent a kind of “Bennyfication” to your approach? I watched a video where you mentioned a conversation with a Korean native speaker where you (as you yourself said) couldn’t understand almost anything he was saying; yet in the next breath you were already talking about soon starting to learn Vietnamese! So to be honest, I did kind of ask myself: “Is Steve turning into Benny here…!?”

More generally, I know that there are guys like Richard Simcott who (apparently at least) do have a high level in all of their languages. But even when it comes to these guys, I do wonder whether they would, for example, be able to do in Russian or German what a guy like Robert Biegler does every single day in his working languages? Maybe they could? I don’t know…

I wish I was cool enough to make video responses to posts on here.

I’m always wondering about this same thing. The difference between knowing a few hundred words with confidence enough to make conversation, and knowing several thousand, being able to read newspapers and fiction is huge.

Of course learning a language to any level is useful, but the proven abilities of a professional simultaneous interpreter in three or four languages surely a " grander " achievement than the ability to say " Language-X is a beautiful language-I like your city etc. " in 15.


Of course I cannot act as an official interpreter in the languages I speak. I could get close in a few.

I am planning to visit Vietnam next spring with some friends and would like to have some of the language when I go there. It is also a language with a lot Chinese based vocabulary and that intrigues me. I should add that I don’t seek your approval nor seek to impress anyone. I learn languages for myself, but am happy to share my experiences in the hope that it encourages others to learn languages.

The 90 day challenge is more about seeing what can be done with greater studying intensity, on my part and on the part of others who participate. I plan to do it again. It is not about “fluency in 3 months” let alone “talk from day 1.”

None of what I wrote was directed at you Steve : ) No doubt you could professionally translate in French and Japanese at the very least. I have no critique of your abilities, reasons or claims.

Of course. I do think that whatever our motives and whatever level we achieve, it is always a personal thing, and usually a satisfying activity.

As I said in my last post, inasmuch as I am criticizing Steve, that criticism only applies to the new 90-day approach. I have no doubt that Steve has a very high level in (for example) French, Japanese, and several other languages.

But this thread isn’t about Steve specifically - it’s about the Youtube polyglot community more generally. I think there is an element of vulgar exhibitionism about the thing in many quarters. (In Steve’s case, however, the videos are probably more about marketing and promoting this site - which is fair enough.)

First of all, as you know Jay, I have no trouble with being criticized, in fact I kind of enjoy the odd argument.

However, why criticize the 90 day challenge. I think that pushing oneself, and others, to a period of intense activity is great, it pushes us to better results, new habits, and perhaps a greater degree of confidence in our language learning abilities. How we study, which language we study, what we achieve, etc, will vary from person to person. Whatsa problem?

I guess there is nothing intrinsically wrong with working hard for 90 days then pausing and seeing what one has achieved. The potential for “Bennyfication” could creep in if people get the idea that you can be “fluent” after 90 days, at which point you just make a notch on your bedpost and then move on to a new language!

However, I also think that you made a very good point in your video: this whole issue does depend heavily on the relationship of the given target language with a learner’s native tongue (and other known languages.) So if a Dutch guy, for example, wanted to learn Afrikaans, he probably really could be fluent in a genuine and meaningful sense after only 90 days.

ad Jay and Colin: Thank you very much for your kind words. It is very flattering to read comments like yours, but I’d like to emphasize that despite the fact that I’ve been working as a simultaneous interpreter for many years, I still make mistakes in all my working languages. I’m very much mortal and certainly far from being perfect :slight_smile:

As for the original question, I think I actually enjoy both. I’ve reached a level in 4 (foreign) working languages that allows me to interpret at UN conferences. I sometimes also work between two foreign languages (especially between English - French and English - Spanish) and I truly love my job.

This is not to say, however, that I don’t like studying languages where I know right from the outset that I won’t even get close to the level I hope to maintain in my working languages.

The driving force behind my language studies is a general curiosity for life and the fact that I love talking to people. If I can do so in their native tongue, so much the better.

I can have a decent conversation in 6 more languages (apart from my working languages) and I read magazines, books etc. in all of these languages. I make mistakes, I speak with an accent, I misunderstand things and I would not be able to simultaneously interpret in these languages (at least not into them), but I enjoy studying and practising them every bit as much as my work in an interpreter’s booth.

I have come to accept the fact that the longer the list of my languages, the more difficult it will become to strike a balance between them. I know I have to keep my working languages at a certain level and this requires a lot of time and active practice.

This means that I can’t dedicate as much energy and time to the other languages I am studying as I’d like to. A year ago or so, I tried to limit myself to a specific number of languages. I tried to tell myself that 11 is more than enough and that it would be “better” to stick to these languages instead of trying to add new ones.

The problem with that plan was (and still is) that you can’t reason with an addict :wink:

The question I asked myself then was: Do I enjoy what I am doing? And the answer was a clear yes. I enjoy studying languages because I’m passionate about them and if you love something as much as most of us love languages, you’ll be grateful for any kind of return on your investment. Every smile of a person I address in their native tongue, every sentence or word that I manage to “decipher”, every small article in a newspaper, a short story in a book, all these things are like a little miracle to me.

As long as I don’t turn my passion for languages into an obsession that stresses me out instead of giving me pleasure, I guess I’ll be fine.

I’ve just come back from an international conference and I enjoyed my work there. On my way home I met a Croatian guy on the train. My Croatian is not that good, but I managed to talk to him and we had a nice chat for about an hour - all in Croatian. I loved it. I was not nearly as “proficient” as I am in my working languages, but the satisfaction I got from talking to that young man was no less than the satisfaction I get from my work for the UN or the EU.

I know that the time I have available for my language studies is limited. This simple fact also limits the number of languages I’ll be able to study. However, I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to say to myself: that’s it, no more new languages.

Of course, I try to keep my level of proficiency in my working languages (including my native tongue) as high as possible. Whatever time I have left, I will dedicate to studying additional languages and to other pastimes (after all, languages are not the only thing I’m interested in).

We need to do what we enjoy, that’s all. There is no “wrong” or “right” here.