Have polyglots really got all those languages down?


It seems like a lot of language-related blogs and websites I come across are fed up with polyglots.  Not every polyglot, but those on YouTube or in clickbait ads, touting their ability to speak dozens of languages and offering to teach you how to do the same (for a price).

These showy polyglots’ appeal is easy to understand: It’s pretty amazing to see someone effortlessly switch from one language to another…to another.  And it’s awesome to think that you, too, could learn to be like that. But, blogger (and polyglot) Kerstin Hammes points out, they make language learning seem like a competition. Why not eject a little excitement into process requiring discipline and study?  Well, that’s just it: claiming that people can – and should – learn dozens of languages implies that someone who chooses to only focus on learning, say, one, isn’t living up to their full linguistic potential.

You might argue that this is true, but here’s my beef with polyglots: Are they actually fluent in all of the languages they claim to know?

It seems they can carry on basic conversations and get by wherever one of the languages they know is spoken (many famous internet polyglots are world travelers, often acquiring languages as they go).  But can they have complex intellectual discussions?  Can they understand the vendors at a local market, or a beloved comedian’s fast-paced standup routine?

Fluency is a concept that’s hard to define.  If someone is fluent in a language, you assume they know it inside-out, and can speak and write it flawlessly.  But examine most fluent non-native speakers, and you’ll probably find some holes.  It might be a lingering difficulty with fast talkers, or a lack of vocabulary in certain subject areas.  It could be small grammar mistakes when they talk or write.

Many countries, universities, and other organizations have set up scales to give an idea of just how proficient (not fluent, since that would be the highest level of proficiency) someone is.  While the tests seem to be logically thought out, they’re far from uniform.  For example, Ron Gullekson, a language enthusiast and blogger, explains that for the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) your overall abilities contribute to your final score.  On the other hand, Gullekson points out, the US government’s Interagency Language Roundtable scale grades speaking and writing separately, acknowledging that you could be at a different level with each. But there’s another aspect of fluency that these tests don’t seem to take into account.  You can speak the academic version of a language, but not necessarily the version people use in their everyday lives. The first involves grammar and vocabulary, and the second adds things like cultural references and wordplay. To me, someone fluent or close to fluency knows both.  But based on their rapid language acquisition and multiple focuses, I’m doubtful polyglots do.

If I’m skeptical of polyglots’ actual fluency levels, it’s because, like other language learners, I know the struggle is real. But I also know the struggle is worth it.  I guess that’s one thing we all can agree on: the learning process is valuable in its own way.  It will give your brain a workout, and teach you things about yourself, as well as the language you’re studying.

If you feel inspired to become bilingual, multilingual, or a downright polyglot, don’t be intimidated by lofty goals or expectations. As you start learning a language, you’ll see if you want to move on quickly to another one, or go more in-depth. The one thing you have to do, is get started (we can help you with that, by the way).

by Alysa Salzberg


One thought on “Have polyglots really got all those languages down?

  1. I think most types of ‘I did it so you can too’ marketing is pretty much unreliable, except maybe for rare cases where a person who really had no experience was able to purchase a product and learn something great. But even in those cases, that person might be only 1% of less of those who tried that product, so everything is hopelessly biased.

    Taking the case where a polyglot is not trying sell something, surely there are those people who have a great skill and can pick up languages faster than others.

    However, I agree with in that most/all of these people are likely not fluent in any of their secondary languages, and I have never seen any evidence of a person who was like this.

    I’ve been learning a second language longer than I’d care to admin, and being a perfectionist I am acutely aware of what I know and what I don’t, and the far gap I have from being fluent.

    For someone who only knows a single language, becoming ‘fluent’ may seem like you spend X hours studying and magically become fluent (and the government seems to advocate this with their statistics about how many hours are needed). But in most cases, like you say, there are gaps.

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