What is a polyglot?
One of the most frequent questions I get asked is How can I become a polyglot like you? A polyglot is someone who can speak several languages. You can see me demonstrate the ones that I know in the compilation video above. You can see the full version of all of those videos in several different languages on my videoblog. [Edit: Here's a much cooler video I made in 8 languages]
While it may seem impressive in the Anglophone world, multilingualism is quite normal in many cultures. Out of the places that I’ve been to, the west of Ireland has several bilingual individuals (Irish and English), Quebec has plenty who speak both French and English perfectly, Catalonia has Spanish and Catalan natives, a lot of Europeans speak 3 or more languages quite fluently, and many Indians I met spoke an impressive 5 or more Indian languages (as well as English), which can be extremely different compared to one another.
In my attempt to expand my horizons and try my best to get to know a country’s culture, learning its language it’s just a natural step to take, which I’ve repeated several times. Today I’ll give you some points on how to do that if you are trying it yourself!
Motivation to be a polyglot
If you are learning several languages for the wrong reasons and go for quantity rather than quality, without appreciating each one, then all you will really get is a basic staggering command over an “impressive” number of languages. This is hardly worthy of praise (which in itself is horrible motivation), and is just an excuse to have bragging rights. My priority has always been quality over quantity and this is why I keep coming back to languages that I already know, to bring my level up a bit more, and especially to make sure that it doesn’t slip down.
The start of my interest in languages started in Spain. I met this fascinating Brazilian guy who had a perfect American accent on his English, lovely Spanish, flowing French and, of course, Portuguese. We were part of an international exchange program for engineers and architects and we would all socialise together, and he would turn his head between several of us and flick between each of his languages with perfect ease, and converse with people in their native language.
This was the coolest thing that I had ever seen! My plans to go back to Ireland to study for a Masters were thrown out the window, and my life appreciating languages began. Even though the only language that I spoke was English, I wanted to become a polyglot and I have been committed to that mission ever since! I had plenty of work ahead of me and spent months trying to speak Spanish without making any progress until I figured out the obvious problem that most people don’t seem to get, but after years of work with several other languages, I feel like I can now safely call myself a polyglot too.
As I keep saying on this blog, this is not down to any kind of natural talents, genetic heritage, lucky horseshoes or alien experimentation. It’s just from treating the problem scientifically and using the right study methods and applying the right attitude, which anyone else can do too.
So here are a few of my pointers if you would ultimately like to become a polyglot too some day!
- Your first foreign language (if you don’t already speak one) should be as straightforward to learn as possible. The priority is to learn how to think in a foreign language. After your first one, the next one can be dramatically easier if your learning approach was efficient enough the first time; getting over the mental barrier of accepting that you can communicate in a foreign language is the most important step you may ever make in terms of language learning, and is a harder realization to make than you may think. Western European languages are pretty good candidates to start with because of certain similarities with English (however, see the third point below). If you have any language you are particularly passionate about, then go for it.
- If you are just generally interested in being a polyglot, and aren’t sure which language to go for first, then I highly recommend ESPERANTO, the most widely spoken constructed language and definitely among the easiest languages in the world. There are lots of meetings in each country entirely in this language and you can learn it very quickly without needing to worry about complicated grammar and vocabulary, while meeting some excellent open minded people, both in person and online. Every other language has irregularities that may be frustrating to get your head around, especially as your first language; so it’s great not to have to worry about this and focus on pure communication. The Lernu site is an excellent place to start learning Esperanto. Studies have shown that time invested in learning Esperanto can actually speed up your overall language learning progress, so even if you aren’t that interested in Esperanto itself, in the long-term learning this will speed you along to the path to becoming a polyglot!
- I’ve already said it, but this deserves repetition: You should be passionate about each language. Don’t just add a language to your list because it would be cool. Apart from Esperanto, most languages involve a huge amount of studies and work and this can be disheartening and you may very simply give up unless you have several reasons to continue trying. I only learned this lesson this summer myself, since every other language I tried before Czech were for a huge number of personal reasons.
- Only learn one language at a time. I have come across very few people who have been able to learn two (or more) languages simultaneously. I personally could never do this; the danger of confusing them would be too great. Spreading yourself thin is another way of not giving each language the attention it deserves.
- Practise all languages as often as possible. Although you should only learn one language at a time, once you reach intermediate stage, the risk of confusing it is greatly reduced, so now you can switch between languages as often as you like! In my summer in Prague, even though I was learning Czech, I already spoke French so it wasn’t harming my Czech studies so much (other than less time devoted to Czech) to host Couchsurfers from France and casually chat to them in French in the evenings to make sure my conversational level was being maintained. There is obviously no point in working so hard to learn a language if you will just forget it as you learn the next one. As much practise as possible is needed!
- Staying in the same language family greatly reduces your workload. I don’t want to suggest that you don’t expand your horizons to Asian and other languages, but the order in which I learned languages made it so much easier to continue to the next one with much less work. After Spanish (first language), I learned Italian, which is very understandable to Spanish speakers despite being quite different. After Italian, I went on to French, which is surprisingly similar to Italian (especially written), despite sounding completely different. After French I tried Portuguese. The amount of work required to become fluent was reduced each time. Out of all of these languages, although the French would love for me to say theirs was the hardest, Spanish was by far the hardest for me, simply because it was the first one. Each one after that also involved a huge amount of work, but that work was reduced each time as I learned how to learn. All of these languages are of course part of the Latin family. I am slowly getting into the Slavic family now that I have some Czech, and will be looking at the family itself as a long-term project including individual languages that I particularly want to speak. The same language family means that you will have a huge amount of grammar and vocabulary already learned if you go to another language in the same family. Languages within a family are very different and unique, but it is “easier” to learn several of them and this is a “shortcut” that polyglots like me have used, although be under no illusion that you will always have a huge amount of work to do!!
- Study each language the right way. There are good methods to learn a language quickly and efficiently. I’ve written about some of my suggestions; if your study methods and attitude aren’t good enough to learn one language, there’s no way you can learn several!
- Be clear about why you want to be a polyglot. If it’s just for bragging rights you will be very unlikely to succeed, as I mentioned above. I personally like to get to know cultures in my travels almost entirely by speaking with regular people who don’t necessarily have to speak English (which is not so common outside of touristy zones in many places), so speaking several languages is a natural part of this since I travel a lot.
- Know when it’s time to start the next language. Once you reach intermediate or higher in one language, if your ultimate goal is to speak several languages. You need to know when it’s time to move on (while making sure you will be able to maintain that language). This is a tough decision to make because you will have to learn to…
- Be ready to feel very stupid! Yes, you will have to be open to feeling like an idiot… several times over! When you learn any language for the first time, you have to feel like a child who can’t communicate fully in the early stages and this can be very frustrating. Now imagine finally reaching fluency and being so proud of yourself after all your hard work… and then suddenly being right back at square one again when you start the next language! I wouldn’t suggest becoming a polyglot if you want to feel smart! This can be an extremely frustrating experience, and even after doing it 8 times over I will never stop feeling frustrated at times in the learning stages. I have had to embrace the learning stage and fully appreciate it (why I blog about it so passionately), because no matter how “good” I get in one or even several languages, I’m still a complete idiot when I start the next one. I get a few comments on this blog calling me a “genius”, but polyglots are a dime a dozen in this world; it is just less common for native English speakers to speak several languages. Break the trend, but don’t expect people to be giving you any medals! Even if you were to speak dozens of languages, it isn’t that impressive to listeners as you stumble your way through the latest one ;). This challenge is what makes it all the more fun!
- Bring your entire focus back to languages you’ve already learned. This is what I’m currently doing with my Portuguese. It’s also a good excuse for me to return to my favourite country! Although I mentioned above that you could move on after reaching intermediate stage (however a higher level is more desirable before stopping), you should never consider your studies in a single language complete. There will always be more to learn!
I’ve got several other tips for how to become a polyglot, and on how not to confuse languages. But they deserve a post in themselves, so I’ll be coming back to this topic later ;). If you have any of your own suggestions on how to become multilingual, do share them! I hope you liked my multilingual video! Don’t forget to share this post with your friends on facebook, twitter or stumbleupon if you found it interesting, and to drop me a comment to let me know you are out there!!
Enter your email in the top right of the site to subscribe to the Language Hacking League e-mail list for way more tips sent directly to your inbox!
If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
Comments: If you liked this post or have anything to say, please leave a comment! I love reading them
Just keep in mind that I’ll delete any rude, trolling, spammy, irrelevant or way off-topic comments. Also, use your REAL name, not a brand or business one, and don’t link to your site in the comments unless it’s relevant to this post.
If you have a general language learning question, please ask it in the forums. Otherwise please use the search tool on the right for any other question not related to this post.