Girls vs guys and the dancing-monkey reason to learn a language

There are many wholesome reasons to learn and use languages. Mine are cultural to enhance my travel and social experiences.

Some people learn to understand their heritage, to be able to better appreciate music and literature, and some are passionate simply about languages in themselves and what makes them up and how they work. Others are forced to for academic reasons, to find a job or because they had to move country quickly.

How you learn a language depends on how you plan on using it, but there is one end-use that really annoys the hell out of me: to show off.

Gather around and watch my performance!!

I like to call this the dancing-monkey reason to learn a language. Such a person doesn’t actually see any worth in the language itself; they just want attention from people.

And I can see where this concept may come from; if you’re a guy you imagine yourself as a James Bond figure at a party wooing all the ladies as you get off the phone in Japanese, yell your order to the host in Italian, whisper flirts into a girl’s ear in French etc. I mean that would be quite a show!

But it’s not a reality. Some people actually do tell me that they want to speak multiple languages “because it would be really cool!” and they end up picking broad variations of languages not because they want to communicate with Chinese people, but because Chinese is more “impressive” than say Spanish.

This terribly superficial reason for choosing means they simply don’t care enough and it’s unlikely they’ll have what it takes to get very far.

As I said, there are people who are genuinely interested in languages in themselves and like to study differences, so for them different family trees do hold a lot of value in themselves. But if you pick a language because it would prove yourself as smarter because it’s “harder“, then the lack of really caring about that language and its culture is going to show very quickly.

Today I’ve got a controversial explanation for what may motivate quite a lot of people to make such decisions to use their languages to impress people!

It’s a guy thing

I was talking to Susanna Zaraysky, a female polyglot, a while back before she wrote a guest post on this blog for me. We had a fascinating two hour long chat over Skype and near the end she asked me a question that had been on her mind and told me she found my controversial answer to be quite an interesting explanation.

She asked me Why do you see mostly male polyglots online? They’re making most of the videos, writing most of the blogs etc. I don’t get it! Women are generally more interested and talented in languages…

Other female language learners have asked the same question.

My answer to her was simple. It’s because guys feel the need to show-off more than girls do.

I don’t doubt that girls have equal if not better skills in languages (I’m not interested in comparing if the purpose is to discourage one as less skilled, as with the age discussion), but if you search youtube for “polyglot” or in general find some of the bigger names (definitely not necessarily the best names) in language learning, you’ll see it’s mostly male dominated.

This isn’t because sexism got us voted to the top, it’s because guys tend to have bigger mouths and need more public validation as the expert than girls do.

Demonstrating to the world how great you are by speaking a bunch of languages is the ultimate ego-inflation. It’s the best party trick ever; being multilingual can be as good as being a dancing monkey in terms of getting attention; at least to the person who thinks it will work.

The great pissing competition

And now comes the ugly side of language learning; something you would never expect from language learning; which is ultimately a way to communicate and bridge gaps between people: Verbal wars fuelled by testosterone.

I find it mind boggling when I look online in forums, and on some websites when I see how some polyglots treat one another, both towards me and towards others I’ve personally talked to and know are genuine. I’ve personally gotten so much abuse, insults and character attacks online that I’ve never discussed on this blog. I’m genuinely trying to encourage the world to learn languages, but endless arguments about irrelevant or misleading things will shadow this and attempt to portray me as an evil force.

It’s like a Western gone wrong: This Internet ain’t big enough for the two of us. In typical macho fashion, instead of working together, there will be a pissing competition of who is “better” at their languages and who is right, since there is only “one” way to learn a language and apparently one universal end goal.

And what gender do you think most of these trolls are? Most of the time, it’s guys fighting with one another. We may as well pull down our pants and take a measurement as far as the real point of the arguments go. They can be framed as discussions, but how often do you think a productive collaborative result is reached between guys fighting for alpha male status?

Susanna has told me she’d like to contribute to my blog again to try to encourage more female bloggers/writers/commenters to appear and contribute to language learning discussions. The language learning community definitely needs it.

There are better ways to impress people

If you are learning a language to impress people, then let me tell you right now that you are wasting your time! You simply won’t be getting the validation you seek, or if you do, it will be as superficial as your need to get it.

I usually prefer to simply not bring it up at all in most conversations, and answer the “what do you do” question with “writer” and attempt to change the subject (what do you do questions are boring) and not have the same conversation I’ve had many times before.

When people do find out I’m a polyglot, after the initial surprise where they may indeed be impressed, then I have to go back to relying on my personality and making the conversation interesting and of course talking about them too if I want to make a good friend. Using “I speak x languages” as an ice-breaker is as good as saying “Look at my fantastic Rolex/Porshe etc., aren’t I great!”

Sometimes they ask me to say something in some random language. If I do answer them in the language, what I’m usually actually doing is complaining about the unimaginative question! Then since they brought it up, I’d happily explain my passion for learning languages so they understand why showing them off really is not necessary. Languages are a means to communicate.

I’ve found that the best way by far to impress people, is to be nice and to be genuinely interested in them. Guys, listen up: You don’t need to speak several languages to do this. Being rich, or famous or whatever also doesn’t matter to people. These are just superficial status symbols.

When I speak to any individual I only ever need one language; the one they speak and that’s why I learned it in the first place. If I were to rattle off French or whatever at them just to show that I can (which you’ll be happy to hear that I don’t), rather than be impressed they’d realise that it’s just a weak male ego seeking validation. Sadly this is what I see online occasionally when people use their languages for no reason but status.

Being able to speak multiple languages is a wonderful thing that allows you more freedom to have such conversations when the time comes up, but the conversations can only be interesting if you genuinely love that language and communicating in it.

Try not to learn a language as a party trick; the world has enough dancing monkeys as it is! Learn it for genuine reasons of loving that language and culture.

Your thoughts on this controversial subject? Let me know in the comments below!



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  • WC

    When I tell people I’m learning Japanese, the most annoying response I get is “Why not Chinese? It’s a lot more useful.” … I’m not learning Japanese because I want to sell things to people or further my career. I’m learning it because I actively want to consume media in that language. (And more recently, because I want to converse with people in that language.) I have a series of goals that I want to get to for their own sake, not because they are the path to some end.

    I have other languages I want to learn, but no real motivations. Esperanto is an inspirational language, but other than chatting about Esperanto or politics, I haven’t found a use for it. Gaelic is really cool and all, but again, I don’t have a use for it. Spanish, French, German… Again, I’d love to learn them, but I don’t have any goals for them that I can’t do with English.

    Your dancing monkeys just reminded of people’s assumptions about language learning motivations. They don’t annoy me as much as they annoy you, but it does seem to me that some reasons are better than others, and will result in better motivation.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Motivations to learn languages can be varied, but public opinion of usefulness is definitely not a good one to go by…

      • Andogigi

        @Ekaterina – You hit the nail right on the head. The fact that you have a passion for Japanese is enough. If your passion was for Latvian, it would provide equally valid motivation for learning THAT language. Japanese is a find choice. Isshou kenmei ganbatte kudasai!

      • Andogigi

        @Ekaterina – You hit the nail right on the head. The fact that you have a passion for Japanese is enough. If your passion was for Latvian, it would provide equally valid motivation for learning THAT language. Japanese is a find choice. Isshou kenmei ganbatte kudasai!

    • Ekaterina

      Oh, when I told someone a couple of weeks ago that I started learning Japanese, she said something like ‘Why, it’s no longer useful with all that stuff going on there’… o_O

      As if my passion to Japan didn’t matter at all…

    • Terra Magnum Imperium

      Agree with you 100% percent about peoples attitudes in this regard.
      People would ask why would you learn French instead of Spanish?
      “Spanish is widely spoken in the USA and much more useful in many occupations.” they would say. I said I simply enjoy the sounds of French and being a History buff find French useful. Off course being the US, anything that does make you money quickly is perceived as useless…

  • Zane Claes

    Interesting point about men vs women. Now that you mention it I see that most women polyglots I know are very humble about their abilities and it often will not come up at all unless strictly relevant. Then again, I’d say anybody who is confident in him/herself does not feel the need to bring these things up (I know plenty of men who are the same way).

    I think the internet skews things a bit. It is hard to get a good picture. Take, for example, online gaming. Most people who are “griefers” (the equivalent of trolls) are men. Then again, most MMO gamers are men. There is so much to consider on this topic, it makes me want to do some research into culture/gender studies on the subject (eg, has it been demonstrated that men crave a certain _type_ of validation? Is there something to be said for the competitive element here? How about the type of person that the anonymity of the internet attracts?)

    While I do agree with your points and don’t like dancing monkeys, I think there is a fine line. The reason I learn languages (and most other things for that matter) is for “personal growth” — I really love the process of learning more than anything. Still, my male ego certainly enjoys the validation of other people saying “wow, that’s cool.” However I don’t think this is entirely a bad thing. I do not try to show off, but at the same time I am proud of my accomplishments and I consider such comments to be great motivators. I enjoy telling friends my plans and goals just as I hope they enjoy sharing theirs, but the “fine line” is knowing when to shut up and talk about sports ;)

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Well said!

  • Randy the Yearlyglot

    This is one of my own biggest “pet peeves”. Shortly after I started blogging last year, I got a taste of how much of this really goes on in the online community, and was quite turned off. I saw people choosing which language they learn just because “it makes you unique and awesome”, people beating their chests with claims that they speak 50 languages, and trolls claiming your opinion doesn’t count until you speak as many languages as they do. In fact, as much as we all love Moses, the first thing I ever saw from him was a video where he listed 40+ language on a chalkboard and then spend 10 minutes just telling us that he speaks them all… not a good first impression!

    One of my most (un)popular rants, which comes up from time to time on my site, is the statement that being a polyglot will not make you cool. And I just let the controversial responses build, never pointing out that everyone who comments in argument to that point is really just exposing himself as one of these dancing monkeys!

    Still, I can’t help noting the irony… I know it’s not the point, but… it does seem ironic to have the blog, and to cultivate the internet persona, and to take all these wacky photos of yourself, and then to call other people dancing monkeys. :) I think we who blog are, by necessity, also dancing monkeys to a degree. Hopefully, though, we’re able to avoid being peacocks.

    Great post.

    • Zane Claes

      Good point about bloggers, Randy. When I first started I asked friends to read my posts and their first repose was “why should someone trust what you’re saying?” It soon became apparent to me that “establishing myself as an authority” felt a lot like bragging.

      • Randy the Yearlyglot

        I’m finding over time that it’s possible to be a successful blogger (success meaning that you get your message out) without necessarily being an authority, if you do it in the realm of “I’m am the experiement, judge for yourself based on my results”… This is the angle from which I approach my 1-year missions, and I think it’s the same angle from which Benny approaches his 3-month missions. However, too much humility does dillute the message and we do find a need to speak in an authoritative tone… and that requires some evidence (easily seen as bragging)… and it all leads to the eventual reality that we bloggers are, indeed, dancing monkeys. :)

        • Benny the Irish polyglot

          Ah yes the catch-22! Provide no evidence and you’re a fake, provide the evidence and you’re a self-promoting bragger :P You can’t win!

          • Randy the Yearlyglot

            I knew from the start that I couldn’t win. That is, perhaps, one of the biggest reasons why I’m still around. :)

        • Zane Claes

          Right, I’m mostly referring to the use of definitive language. I have a tendency to write in a conciliatory fashion (“I think that…”) even when I am making a factual statement. I suppose it is a good habit for interpersonal relations, but a bad habit for both business and blogging. Funny you should choose the word “experimentation” given it is in part of the name of my blog ;) ps. thanks for reminding me of your blog; it is a great read and I haven’t dropped by in a while.

          • Randy the Yearlyglot

            I use strong verbage when I write for my blog, but my opinions are just as strong in my interpersonal relations. I don’t respect an opinion from someone who doesn’t have the courage to get behind it, and I assume that the same is true about others in relation to me. Then don’t have to agree with me (and people have not problem telling you the disagree!) but no one can ever say that it was unclear where I stand on an issue. :)

          • Zane Claes

            True, but you can make a strong point and have a clear opinion in other ways. Ex: “I agree with X, but I would say that Y was proven by Z, which contradicts you.” Maybe it is a passive way of saying “you’re wrong” but it seems to take a bit of the edge off ;) I already have an, ahem, “strong personality” so I try to mitigate that a bit.

          • Randy the Yearlyglot

            I’ve found that dilluting the “strength” of your personality rarely helps your argument… convincing people to hear you is an artform by itself.

          • Zane Claes

            I am amused by the fact that we have both clearly used our respective techniques in our attempts to make our points to the other.

          • Randy the Yearlyglot

            I’m not trying to make a point. I’m engaging in discussion as sport. If I were trying to make a point, your feeling would be hurt. :)

          • Zane Claes

            “That’s the beauty of argument, if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong” — Nick Naylor

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Well there’s a fine line between being humble and being plain old boring. I’ll continue to publish my photos as they give the site personality compared to blogs using stock images ;)

      But I suppose everyone is a dancing monkey to a degree. The very fact that I introduce myself confidently rather than hiding in the corner shows that I think I’d be interesting enough to get to know, but it’s important to cap it at a certain point ;)

      • Zane Claes

        haha exactly! My German friend, after taking a picture, called me a “poser” the other day. My first thought was “did she just call me an attention whore!?!?” I then decided to take it as a compliment. If smiling big in pictures and talking to random people at the fountain in the Plaza de Comedice means a “poser” then I am okay with it ;)

      • Randy the Yearlyglot

        Agreed. If we don’t have the confidence that we’re worth people, why should anyone else believe that?

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I also feel quite annoyed when my friends introduce me as “this guy speaks all these languages!!!”

    I also said that I should never blog, there are already so many of them! And I’m not a writer! But the thing is, you make the plunge and then you realise you have a unique message to share. Have a read of this:

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Me too ;) But you only get that surprise once from people :P It’s best to talk about something interesting so you can engage with them after that!

  • Anonymous

    Benny and Roxanna, funny that we share in common our distaste for being introduced at parties as “the multilingual one”. I would practically give my friends the evil eye when they introduced me as the walking Tower of Babel or however they would phrase it. For me, being a polyglot was usually more of a pain than an asset because as soon as people found out I was multilingual, they’d ask me to translate or interpret for them or I’d be barraged with questions about how to learn languages. Translating and interpreting are my incarnation of hell. The reason I opted to write my book, Language is Music, and create a website about learning languages is because I realized that I had something that other people wanted: the ability to capture languages and their accents with ease. Though I don’t intend to come from an egocentric place, quite a few of my examples and tips come from personal experience. But it’s precisely my personal experience and fluency in languages that people are attracted to.

    The globetrotting and language absorption lives that Randy and Benny are espousing at this juncture in their lives appeals to people and that’s why their social media sites are coveted and read. I am proud of both of them for getting so much attention to what they are doing and getting people to realize that they don’t have to sit in a classroom and memorize verb charts to learn a language. So I totally see Randy’s and Benny’s point of the fine line between showing one’s expertise and being labeled as a self-promoting _______. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one dealing with this issue.

    Now I am thinking of a contest online to get more female language learners to show their language prowess. My goal is not to do a male vs. female language competition. No, not at all. That would be a colossal waste of time and energy. There is a digital divide between the sexes as evidenced in other places on the Internet. I want to work with others, both men and women, to encourage more women to learn languages and show their polyglot creativity on the Internet with music videos and the like. If you have any ideas, send them my way please!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Wow, that’s a good memory there :D As a guy writing a post like this, I am of course seeing parts of myself I prefer to water down, so there will be some contradictions. Still a topic worth bringing up I believe.

    Yeah, I definitely make sure people know about my personality when they meet me ;) But I show confidence in being a person, rather than confidence relying entirely on something I own or can do (like speak a language). I use random accessories sometimes, but the object itself doesn’t matter as much as the engagement it leads to.

    As you say, competitiveness can be an asset. Absolutely! I just think that if you aren’t inherently passionate about the language itself, it’s quite a superficial quest.

    The Brazilian I was impressed with who was the first polyglot I met was actually very charming and pulled it off in a way that made you like him. This is hard to do for most people with a macho mindset. I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but he was gay! He definitely wasn’t showing off for competitiveness against other guys (Nor was he trying to impress us guys instead :P )

    I don’t think I’d ever use my smartphone as a status symbol, rubbing it in the face of people who can’t afford it. I’d point out something fun about it as a conversation starter, but I see what you mean about the Rolex analogy.

    Anyway, I’m glad to see someone has been paying attention to what I write on the blog to a deep enough level to point out contradictions with concrete examples! :D Thanks!

    • Keleis

      I do daydream about learning to be charming also ;P

      Key thing is that contradictions over time are not bad, they may just demonstrate change, or growth or a bad metaphor. Would you trust a politician that had consistent views over an entire 10 year period (personally I wouldn’t at some point he is either lying or he is a bone head).

      Cheers for the honest reply,
      As for the memory it isn’t that good at all, simply that my own personal solution to information overload has been to learn to read fast, but only take notice of anomalies, new things, or things I disagree with. I suspect that unlike most people I spend very little time and attention on anything I agree with (unless it has a new angle). I could write a pretty extensive summary of many language bloggers but prefer to spend most of my free time learning languages. For example Randy here recently used a metaphor of a golfer who doesn’t need to know the rules of physics whilst promoting a more natural approach, a long time ago he used an example of a baseball player knowing the rules of physics to his advantage whilst promoting understanding grammar (there is a chance I remembered that wrong of course ;)).

      On the whole reading a variety of language bloggers has been a boost, but I filter out the less useful ones, so you must be piquing my interest occasionally ;)

  • Edwin on Languages

    Just want to comment on the cultural aspect of languages, and to elaborate my previous comment on Esperanto.

    I personally have no interest in learning conLangs like Esperanto and Klington, because I cannot relate it to a culture or people. You gave an example of the Esperanto meetup you enjoyed, but those were only Esperanto speakers. They have their own cultures and identities. There is hardly a distinct culture related to the language. I don’t see the usefulness of the language either, due to obvious reasons.

    But there are people who like to learn conLangs, and I suspect the reason is that they think the languages are ‘cool’. If this is the case, there is nothing wrong with this right?

    You are here to encourage people learning languages right? So whatever reason that motivates a learner should be viewed as good, no?

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Edwin, in future please continue discussions where they started. I’m not interested in stretching the same conversation over several different posts. And to be frank even less so with you after the mischief you’ve been up to recently against me on LingQ forums.

    • Yaelibd

      Sorry if this is off topic (and Benny I won’t be upset if you delete my post therefore) but I find it ridiculous to compare Esperanto to Klingon? Esperanto has a fascinating culture and history, it’s actually pretty widely spoken and is about bridging gaps, fostering political neutrality and improving understanding (there’s a street named after Zamenhof here in Tel Aviv, so I researched him :))

      Klingon is a language of fictional aliens on a TV show.

      So the people who are drawn to these languages might think they are “cool” but probably for vastly different reasons. One group won’t be interested in cosplay, for example.

      So what’s the point you are making?

      I chose to learn Persian because it’s cool, but I don’t show off about it at parties or use it to score hot surfer dudes at the beach. Hey! Maybe I should try that.

      • Benny the Irish polyglot

        This is precisely why I didn’t want to continue this discussion here. I’ve already defended my reasons for learning Esperanto to Edwin in a previous thread. Why he’s bringing it up here in a post about girls vs boys and showing off makes no sense to me. He should reply to our original thread.

        No more talk about Esperanto here please, it’s getting too off topic. I agree with Yael.

      • Edwin on Languages

        My point is that people learn languages because of different reasons. They might think that the languages are cool, or they just want to show off. What is wrong with this?

        Those who purely want to show off with no particular interest to use the languages will eventually fail anyway.

        Benny, just let me know if I am not welcome to comment in your blog, like you banned the other people. There is no need to start calling names.

        • Benny the Irish polyglot

          Edwin you have started several different threads on LingQ constantly quoting me out of context and saying I’m intentionally misleading people. I have plenty of names for you that you deserve for spreading lies about me.

          I would prefer it if you stopped commenting here as I have lost all respect for you. I’m not banning you, I’m asking you to leave. Please respect my request and leave me alone here and on LingQ.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    That story sounds like the green eyes of jealousy! :)

  • Zelda

    My whole life people have been telling me to learn Spanish instead of French (or German or Greek or whatever I happened to be focusing on at the time) because it was more useful. Finally I AM learning Spanish, but because I want to visit/live a while in South America, not for the practical purpose of being more appealing to employers.

  • Eri

    This is so true. Women have no need to try and impress people, because the men are supposed to come after us. We don’t need to try and impress THEM. It’s definitely a guy thing. xD Honestly, a guy would impress me more if he could play the violin than if he could speak ten languages. But that’s just me :D (I love me some violin)

    I would like to see more female opinions on language learning. A woman’s brain is much different than a man’s, and throughout our lives we’re forced to try and think like men to understand them. (High school Math and Sciences, almost ALWAYS taught by men. Not good for the poor girls). I think this is why men tend do better in Math and Sciences than in Language Arts, language classes are often taught by women, so the girls understand it better. Not quite sure how scientific this all is, it just seems to be this way from personal experience.

    But, also from experience, you will do well at something if you genuinely love it. Sometimes you’re just skilled at something, but if you love something you will be good at it in most cases. :)

  • Anonymous

    I’ve heard the same accent comparisons in the Soviet emigré community in the US. The ones who remark on the poor accents of others are people who have strong accents themselves!

    I agree languages are for communication, not showing off.

  • Denisa

    Again, you’re right. I wanted to learn Finnish to see how a non-indoeuropean language with an agglutinating structure works but I soon realized that this academic curiosity isn’t a sufficient motivation to make me do all the hard work involved when I’m not that passionate about the culture behind the language and don’t even like its sound! So I returned back to the Germanic languages – nothing new from the theoretical linguistics’ point of view but I simply love them :) And there are at least the historical/comparative linguistics’ aspects that keep my academic spirit satisfied. I don’t understand how showing off can be a sufficient motivation for anyone to cope with all the hard work…

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Following your passion is always going to be the better choice ;)

  • Mackalpha

    Benny, why do care about people wanting to impress others with their mastery of languages ? Why are people hating some much when others want to show their talent ? I do not agree with this post and find it quite insulting to call people “dancing monkeys” ! About the guy/girl thing, these are two different entities and I don’t think it’s appropriate to compare guys with girls on that matter. Should man embrace woman characteristics ??? I don’t think so (and what’s that thing about woman having better capabilities than man in learning languages o_O ). Guys fight, always have fought and will continue to fight (what’s wrong with that ??). I don’t like these discourses saying that girls are better than guys (nor do I care about the contrary) especially coming from guys ! What’s wrong with you ? Let’s learn languages and not care what others plan to do with them.
    (there are great chances that this will not be published but at least I have expressed my thoughts)

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      This post isn’t about turning guys into girls. You’ll see plenty of other posts where I promote blunt confidence in speaking to people. I’m just saying the end-goal of showing off is very superficial, while also saying that it’s much less likely for girls to do that.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    When their motivation changes, then whatever started it, even if it was superficial, becomes less important ;)

    John, please comment using your real name in future; I am clear in the comment rules that I don’t want impersonal brand names; this is a humans-only commenting system! Thanks ;)

    • John Fotheringham

      Yup, it’s like people who start exercising and eating right in an effort to “look good” but stick with it because it ends up feeling so damn good to be in shape regardless of what one looks like.

      And sorry about that; it only took one click to “post as” my Twitter handle. I will enter my “human” name from now on.

      • Benny the Irish polyglot

        Appreciated! Thanks ;)
        Good analogy!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks Polly :D Good luck to you and your brother!

  • Andogigi

    Well said, Benny. Becoming bilingual is a matter of personal enrichment and brings rewards which are far more satisfying than simply “showing off”. It is my second biggest pet peave in language learning.

    My biggest pet peave is people who use a foreign language in order to hide what they are saying from other people. I can’t think of a ruder use for a well-learned skill. I’m sure all the bilingual people on this board could tell stories about this topic, as well.

    Thanks for helping to spread the word about proper language etiquette.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks – another good example of using polyglot powers for evil!

  • Andogigi

    Oh, and I love what you said about the “Say something in language X” discussion. I used to purposefully translate the lyrics to “Play that Funky Music” in my target languages simply in order to answer this question. It quickly put a stop to it.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Haha, good one :P

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    You seem to miss the point of my videos. They aren’t to establish myself as having mastered that language, it’s to discuss the topic in the video. I get comments from natives on those videos on Youtube, always about the content of the video rather than my language skills, and one of them was showcased on National Geographic in Italy. This is a much more useful purpose than simply showing off that I can speak languages to people doubting it.

    Having said that, I’ll be interviewing people in each of my languages over the coming months, but only about something interesting. I have no interest in throwing a video out there just to prove myself ;) I have plenty of material online already.

    Your “half an hour” request doing nothing but answering questions from natives to prove myself is over the top though. That really would be precisely the kind of show-off video I’m talking about in this post!! I’ll interview one person spontaneously when I find something worth discussing and sharing, and upload other fun videos as situations present themselves.

  • hiroshi

    there seem to be two differences between real dancing monkeys and monkeys that enjoy being dancing monkeys.
    One is some internet polyglots who look totally intoxicated with themselves or languages, which makes me ( maybe some people) sick. They do look like drunken monkeys that only talk to themselves.
    the other is those who are dancing monkeys but are fully aware that they are actually so. To me, they are not really dancing monkeys, but monkeys who enjoy being dancing and who know how to laugh off a funny performance he/she does in public.

    in my view, no matter how well we justify ourselves, the very act of expressing ourselves in writing/speaking is more or less the act of ego. then, why not enjoy being dancing monkeys but know full well that we are;)
    In short, whether or not we are aware of it makes a difference, I think.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Yep. I’ll be the first to admit that the video I did indeed make of flicking between languages was indeed a show-off video. To sell a product, unfortunately I had to embrace being a dancing monkey to impress people. But it’s important to actually make things worth watching for other reasons and that’s what I attempt to focus on in most of my videos.

  • lyzazel – Linas

    I reckon it is not exactly beneficial to judge why somebody is learning a language. All reasons are eventually ego-based (“I want to learn about cultures.” – why? – “Because _I _want to know it. It’s all about me in the end.”). Also, I think the “I want to know cultures” thing is a justification rather than a real reason too. But whatever.

    Do you know why you want to be able to communicate with natives? Because you want to impress them and get them to speak to you, that’s why. And it is true that knowing languages can help you with your status in some cases – we all know it’s effective.

  • George Corley

    I suppose I am not in the polyglot circles, so I can’t fully appreciate the pissing contest, but I will say that even with my measly 3 languages (native English, professional Spanish, upper intermediate Mandarin Chinese), I do end up doing a little “dancing monkey” stuff — mostly with Chinese, since it’s such a good icebreaker when meeting Chinese people (Spanish speakers are not always so impressed with Spanish, at least not here in the States). And I do write weekly blogs in both my second languages* (Chinese: Spanish:, though I started it more to practice than to show off.

    That said, my reasons for learning are for communication and a great love of language. I hope it’s not too much of a brag that I started Chinese because I got good enough at Spanish that it became boring for me. However, I always try to keep in mind that however well I speak Spanish or Chinese, native speakers will always be above me, and that plenty of people speak more languages, all of them better than me. Chinese has always brought me enthusiastic compliments that were not always deserved (Especially ones like “Your Chinese is better than mine!” from a native speaker who is from southern China and Taiwan and have a low-prestige accent. Yes, my pronunciation is more standard, but I will never be better than native.)

    The expectation of excessive modesty in Chinese culture keeps that part of my language learning in perspective. I also try to point out the vast sea of languages I don’t know, half-jokingly asking people to teach me their native languages, or making other jokes. Every time I meet someone from Japan, I trot out the only useful Japanese phrase I know: Nihongo-o wakarimasen = “I don’t understand Japanese.” No, I can’t type it properly, and there is probably something terribly wrong with the way I say it. To me, speaking a few languages well is valuable enough. I might try to pick up one or two more in my lifetime, but I don’t know if I would be up to the stuff that you are doing.

    * Well, they’re supposed to be weekly. I have REALLY gotten behind on the Spanish blog.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    As I’ve said elsewhere, recording “everyday conversations” is the hardest of all because I can’t convince people to let me put them up on Youtube. As well as that, when you put someone under the microscope and stick a camera up their nose, it’s a lot harder for them to “go about learning the language”. People could also say these are scripted. I have little interest in working elaborately to prove myself to people who really feel everything I could do would be a hoax of some kind. I’d rather focus on videos that are worth watching in themselves because of the content of what we talk about.

    If I can record natural conversation (and get a better camera, since my current one would give terrible images at night when I do most of my socialising), I’ll be sure to upload it.

  • Jennie Wagner

    I guess my main question is: why do people make videos of themselves speaking other languages in the first place? What purpose does it serve other than to show off?

    There are no videos of me speaking French online and there never will be because I absolutely do not see the point of it. The only reason I started my website years ago was to help others learn French, not to brag about myself. I value helping others learn languages but it seems like most internet polyglots are only here to show off and they don’t actually contribute anything useful. Don’t just ramble on about how awesome you think you are – teach us words and phrases, show us the people and culture firsthand, help us understand another way of life.

    I agree that men like to show off more, which is why I don’t read many language blogs or spend time on forums anymore. I get too annoyed by all the assholes on the internet who are just there to inflate their own egos. Unless a blogger is genuinely trying to help others learn languages and cultures, rather than merely drawing attention to his so-called abilities, I have no interest in what he has to say.

    Personally I never talk about my linguistic abilities because I hate when people try to force me to show off and ask me to say something in another language. I’m not a dog. I don’t do tricks. Being bilingual or multilingual is nothing to brag about because it’s the norm in the world; it’s just that most Anglophones (especially Americans) don’t know or care about it.

    I feel like women aren’t as active online showing off their language abilities because we don’t care so much about gaining attention, or perhaps because we don’t want the attention and all the negative comments it can bring from anonymous men online. We’re more likely to get comments on how we look from some sexist pigs rather than helpful comments from actual language enthusiasts.

    Plus, if you’re spending all this time creating videos of yourself speaking languages and writing anecdotal blog posts about how you learn them, that means you’re spending less time actually learning and using the languages in a meaningful way to communicate with other people. Maybe women just know how to use their time more wisely than men, or maybe most men really do learn languages just to show off or flirt with girls.

    The internet definitely gives us a skewed view of why men and women learn languages, and research so far has mostly been confined to classroom stereotypes (women outnumber men; many male students are gay) so it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of motivations for learning and reasons for gender differences.

  • Anonymous

    I taught high school before coming to Turkey. You never ever saw girls stand around in the parking lot picking up rocks to see who could hit the tree on the other side. Nor did you see them gather around the basketball goal to see who could jump up and touch the rim. Just the boys. I was one of those once (still am I suppose). I am no polyglot though.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Boys will be boys. Of course, I’m as prone as anyone else to such feats, but I’m hoping this post reminds us not to do it AS much with languages ;)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I’ve initiated no fights with the LingQers, but they attack me a lot based on pretty much nothing but my site URL. Recently it even looked like we’d have another chat, but Steve has declined to do so based on a very quick emotional reaction. He is more interested in maintaining the conflict than working together to encourage language learners. This is indeed a pity.

    Luckily my relationship with other language learners has been much better and lead to entirely positive conversations and collaborations.

  • Anonymous

    I couldn’t agree more. This weekend I had a piano performance, and there was a reception afterwards. The host of the reception was introducing me to someone and she said, “And he’s learning Japanese!” I answered one or two questions concerning this quickly and then changed the subject back to music. It wasn’t that I am not interested in talking about Japanese, but no one at this party knew anything about it or showed any real interest in it. For me to start rattling off about it would have just felt inappropriate to me.

    I would much rather discuss music in this setting as it was something we had in common and it would be much more likely that other people in the conversation would have something to contribute.

  • Cynthia

    I think the dancing monkey is why I don’t read many blogs about learning languages. I’m interested in improving my Spanish, not about the linguistics or why one language is better, etc. I’m interested in the culture, my heritage, and communication. Yours is one of the few that has really good ideas for learning languages. Thanks.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thank you!! Seeing those language blogs just about technical things and nitpicking methods frustrated me enough to start this one actually ;) Glad you are enjoying it!

  • Carl Gene Fordham

    Whilst the anecdotal points you raised here are valid and interesting I would love to see some research to back them up, especially in terms of evolutionary traits. Generalisations are all very well and good but in my experience there are so many variables in real life that you find many of them totally unhelpful.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      I’m but a humble language learner sharing my experiences and opinions. :-) Nothing I say should be taken as fact, but you are welcome to research it or seek research about it.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    As you look around the site you’ll see me discuss my work as a translator. I don’t do that any more though.
    Glad to have a new reader!

  • Crno Srce

    Way to miss the point of a post!

  • Aidan

    I really liked this post and your analysis of the languages social media environment. I don’t think that you should learn a languages just to impress people. In fact, if that were your goal you might just end up giving up on your target language very quickly. There has to be something more.
    For me I want to be able to read about countries I am interested in in their national language. I want to be able to read texts in the original language. Many of the kind of books I have read in foreign languages do not have English translations available (yet) and when you read translations you are already reading an interpretation of the original work, there is an unavoidable interference with what the writer originally intended.
    I do think that people are impressed when you can speak some words of their language especially if it is a minority language. For example, any Welsh speaker I have met has been happy to hear that I know a few words. Normally though people are happy if you know something about their culture. If you have read all of Murakami’s novels then most Japanese people will be pleased. The thing is though you would hardly go out of your way to read works from a certain country just to impress people. Normally you would be interested in the country/culture to start with.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Great point!! You do get a lot of praise in the early stages; why even bother to improve then? If you get your ego boost, you have no need to actually be able to use the language properly :-P

    If the ego trip encourages people to start that’s fine, but they’ll need something more profound if they want to be able to keep it up!

  • Anonymous

     My reason for learning Spanish at first is really simple. I’m a huge Real Madrid fan (a football club in Spain), and I always have to watch their matches in Spanish. So I got tired of that and decided to learn the language instead. 3 and half months later, I can now read daily football news in Spanish (,, etc)!

    It’s interesting that you brought this point up, because most people who are learning languages seem to be females (judging by the people on About 7 out of 10 people that friend request me or message me about exchanging language practices are from females. But now I think about it, all those really famous polyglots are male.  I think that females ARE in general more interested in learning languages, but unlike male they’re prone to learning a language because they like it.

    You do bring up a very interesting point.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      I also noticed that most people I talked to on Livemocha and Busuu were girls! This demonstrates further that the balance of learners vs those showing that they know it publicly is definitely off ;)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Definitely. Grammar nazis are sad people.

  • Arvin Rāj Māthūr

    I totally agree man.  The most annoying thing I get is when I mention my interest in learning some indigenous languages, people think “but nobody speaks those…”

    In high school, I had a few people say “Why are you learning German?  Spanish is more useful!  Learn Chinese!”

    1.) I have no interest in Chinese right now.
    2.) I’m procrastinating spanish for when I go to a Spanish speaking country and I feel like its a language that I’ll learn quickly due to its ease and my exposure to it already (I don’t want to sound arrogant, but from what I understand, Spanish grammar is very regular, everything is spelled the way its pronounced, ect.)

    Also, has anyone else noticed, how if someone knows multiple languages that are restricted to a non-European region, their status as a polyglot almost doesn’t count in the Anglophone world?  Like, if someone knows “Hindi, Marathi, Gujrati, Kanada, and Telugu”, nobody cares (north and south Indian languages are VERY different and all have different writing systems, but they sound the same to Americans).  If someone knows Spanish, French, Italian and German, then “Woa!  That’s so impressive!”

    I think this whole “I’m awesome because I can speak languages” goes back to a time in history when the upper class were the ones who did most of the travelling and therefore, acquired more languages than the peasantry that mostly stayed in one country (unless they were fleeing something).   Not to mention, back in the day, the upper class in England would speak Norman French/Vulgar Latin, which probably contributes to the whole “it’s so awesome to learn Romance languages”, effect in the anglophone world.

    To be honest though, people shit bricks when I tell them that I’m conversational in 3 languages, but I don’t really think getting there is really that hard, it merely requires changing the way you view a language in itself…

  • Tarzan


  • Tarzan


  • Ketutar J

    1) It’s pure bull that females would be more TALENTED in learning languages than males. Sow chauvinism. Just as chauvinist as the idea of that men were more talented in anything than women. Talents are purely personal. I am more talented in certain things than you are, and vice versa, but that has nothing to do with gender.
    2) I know nothing about interest. That there are more girls studying languages in schools than boys, has not much to do with interest.
    3) As far as I know, most people having blogs and vlogs about their adventures in studying languages are self-taught. Libraries, bookstores and internet are just as open for females as they are for males. Females are just as capable of learning a language/languages as males are, so there isn’t really any feminist reason to why there seem to be more male polyglots than females
    4) I put up my blog because I thought that someone might benefit from my experience, and someone might be interested in the blogs and other internet resources I am interested in.
    You didn’t put up “fluent in 3 months” to show off, but to share the language hacks with people, encourage people to study languages, to go out there and speak, communicate, make friends all over the world, and not let such obstacles as language stop them.
    In the end, there’s always someone who speaks more languages with greater fluency, who knows more, who has done more, who’s better…

  • Bart_at_EB

    Whoops, I guess I’m about 2 years late – but I do want to say that I agree with you completely, Benny. I’ve learned a lot from the polyglots, but it is not a group I really want to hang out with because of the competitiveness and chest-beating.
    I think you’ve got the right attitude about learning languages. It is so much fun, such a great way to make connection with people… that’s what I want my experience to be.
    BTW, it’s not just languages where this male clashing of antlers takes place. I think it’s been in all the comments and discussion forums I’ve run across. It takes a firm moderation policy to keep the guys in line!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    That’s why my usual reply to that is to tell them in the requested language that they have no imagination at all and how sick I am of the request. This way I get frustration off my chest, AND they get to hear the language, even though they are none the wiser of what I actually said…

    But yeah, a typical “be my dancing monkey” request… annoying isn’t it!

  • Carl Gene Fordham

    Haha, I get this too from time to time. My reply is invariably 你他妈的要我说什么?- “What the hell you want me to say?”). Smiles.