What is a polyglot?

Most of those attending this year's Polyglot Conference in Budapest

This year’s Polyglot Conference in Budapest

I took a little break over the summer, so I haven’t been updating this site regularly. Although I have been posting to the RawLangs Blog Facebook page and Twitter, I thought it was time to start blogging again. I’m going to start off by addressing a question that has been on my mind for a while. What is a polyglot?

If you read my blog regularly you will know that I avoid the word ‘polyglot’ like the plague. This is the first time you will have seen it used in the title of any post on here. As I have mentioned before, something about the word suggests that those are better than others, or that they have studied enough and are now “fluent” in all their languages. I have never felt secure enough with any language to claim either of those things. I don’t think I’m better than my peers at German or Russian by a long way, and I often suffer for my undisciplined approach to learning vocabulary. Equally I have never experienced the level of “fluency” described by people who have dedicated 10 to 15 years of their lives to studying a language. I have to work hard at maintaining my languages, and I’m already starting to notice some of them slipping over the past three years that I’ve had to specialise at university. As a result I always felt slightly uncomfortable with being handed the “polyglot crown” in February last year (or even the “hyperpolyglot” one) because as a language learner, you are always more aware of what you don’t know than what you do.

When can somebody start calling themselves a “polyglot”? Language knowledge is impossible to truly quantify or qualify, so the polyglot/polynot divide has always puzzled me. Why do some people write blogs calling themselves polyglots, while others make do with just saying they want to be one?  In many ways those people have an equally impressive knowledge of a wide range of languages. I receive messages from people who introduce themselves along this divide as well. The definition of a polyglot started to seem totally arbitrary. To me, polyglots were just people that spoke a lot of languages. I could never say how many, but as a third generation Greek speaker I always defined it quite literally: if you spoke more than one language, for me you were in the club. Some people spent years teaching themselves languages, while others picked them up quite quickly. Some people didn’t even realise they might be polyglots, or at least that there was anything special about it. I really couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. But when I came back from my most recent trip to New York, I started to change my mind.

Last weekend I met two very prominent figures from the polyglot world at a linguistics conference at the City University of New York: Tim Doner and Dr. Alexander Arguelles. The subject of this year’s American Society of Geolinguistics‘ conference was “Polyglottery and Polyglossia”, and unsuprisingly, we found ourselves faced with the question of what a polyglot was fairly quickly. But surprisingly, Dr. Arguelles suggested a way to define this fairly controversial term that everybody agreed to unanimously. It turned out that there was a threshold you had to cross, and a magic number that changed everything: six languages.

Six might seem like a fairly arbitrary place to draw the line, but Dr. Arguelles could explain. Multilingual communities are not uncommon around the world, but the most languages ever spoken across a substantial part of society was about five. People who also spoke a sixth were those that had studied them, and possibly developed a particular skill for languages considered extraordinary within the context of their societies.

But there was something about the sixth language. It seemed to be a kind of barrier that once broken through made learning further languages much easier, and more likely. People who spoke six or more languages approached learning them differently. Dr. Arguelles argued that it was easier for these people to retain what they had learnt, and therefore that they learnt more efficiently. He cited his own experiences with Russian, an infamously difficult language. Dr. Arguelles had learnt Russian by simply fitting it into his schedule, studying for no more than 15 minutes a day, while pursuing other languages as well. After six months he felt ready for full immersion, and went to St. Petersburg to live with a family for a futher three months, but had then barely spoken it since. That was nearly twelve years ago. Last weekend I had several long conversations with Dr. Arguelles in Russian and despite occasional small grammar slips, I was amazed at the broad range of topics he felt comfortable discussing and the enormous vocabulary he had at his disposal. Dr. Arguelles claims he remembers so much of his Russian because he has developed the memory skills of someone who speaks six or more languages. That’s to say, he has developed the skills of a polyglot.

I listened fascinated to his explanation and took it all in. I tried to relate what I was hearing to my own experiences. Had there been a ‘sixth language breakthrough’ for me? Did I really retain language so much better than usual?

When I think about it there was something about the sixth language, and I’ve actually said so countless times in interviews and videos without even realising its significance. My sixth language was Dutch, which launched my passion for languages. I’d grown up with English and Greek at home, French then later German at school, and taught myself some Italian when I was 10. But after Dutch I almost felt like I’d cracked the code. I started developing techniques more suited to me without realising it. When people would say my passion for languages was “extraordinary” or “weird” (or even “impossible”), I’d simply ask them whether they had tried learning multiple languages themselves. I couldn’t believe that someone who had really made the effort to learn a language hadn’t found some way of making it all stick.

As for retaining languages, I think what lets me down is that I don’t always work hard enough. Languages were just a hobby while I was at school, and since I’ve had to focus on only two since coming to university, my others have all taken a hit. Apart from Yiddish, I haven’t had time to for anything more than dabble in a few languages without really learning them properly. But strangely, I do remember all of what I have dabbled in. I studied some Hungarian before Budapest, and I used it as an example for this video about learning vocabulary in May. Sadly, I didn’t progress any further, as I had to give it up after a few weeks for the sake of my university work. But to this day I still remember almost every Hungarian word that I learnt, and a fair amount of grammar too. When (not if!) I return to it, I know the inroads I have made will be a great help. So maybe I have developed the kind of memory that Dr. Arguelles described as well.

So in New York it turned out that polyglots might really exist. But if it weren’t for YouTube they might be hard to find. Polyglots are often under fire, from academics who insist that studying multiple languages is futile compared to fully concentrating on one or two, from perfectionists who expect polyglots to speak all of their languages to the same level as someone who has just focused on one or two, and even amongst themselves things can get competitive and personal. But I left New York convinced that polyglottery – the simultaneous study of multiple languages – is a valuable academic pursuit, although uncatered for by the education system. I’ve enjoyed my degree, and I would never have achieved such a high level of Russian without it, but I could never get passionate about 18th Century German playwrights or the revolutionary writing style of Modernist literature that I have to study as well. But a traditional language degree is almost the only option for people like me. After all, I couldn’t imagine not studying languages.

But things might be starting to change. Dr. Arguelles used his paper at the conference to call again for the establishment of a Polyglot Institute. He envisions an academic department offering full time undergraduate and graduate degree programmes for people interested in pursuing the simultaneous study of multiple languages, and researching and developing new techniques and methods to help others join their multilingual ranks. Should such an institute ever be founded, the mind boggles at the kinds of things about language learning that we could find out. Dr. Arguelles also wants to offer summer programmes and short courses for non-academics who want to “learn from the masters” of polyglottery, just like how an apprentice visits a carpenter to learn his trade. This was the first time I’d heard academics speak about polyglottery without scorning it, and there were plenty of people in the room in agreement with him. If all goes well, the future could hold some very promising things for the next generation of polyglots. I certainly hope it does.

Meeting Dr. Arguelles and Tim Doner reignited my passion for learning languages. I’m in my final year at Oxford now, but I need something to counteract the sheer horror of Aufklärung drama. So I’m taking on the challenge of learning a new language again, one completely unrelated to any I’ve studied before: Japanese. But more about that will follow shortly…

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