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When Online Polyglots Disagree – Much Ado About Something


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Benny Lewis, is, I think, the most successful polyglot blogger on the Internet; the one with the greatest reach. With this website, Fluent in 3 Months, he was one of the earliest language learners to use the Internet to encourage others to learn languages, and to talk about it.

I too am what you would call an online polyglot. A little over 10 years ago I made my first video on YouTube about language learning. I have now reached over 100,000 subscribers. During these ten years, I have made almost 1,000 videos with over 12 million views.

Benny and I are not alone, but part of a community of people doing this. The Internet and modern technology bring people with like interests together in a way that was not possible before.

Linguist or Polyglot – What’s the Difference?

When I started making these videos, I had already learned nine languages over the course of my professional career as a diplomat and businessman. I was only vaguely familiar with the term polyglot. To me, at that time, and probably still for most English-speaking people, someone who speaks a number of languages was a linguist. I have on occasion pointed this out in my videos, which usually created consternation within the community of people who study linguistics, those other linguists. In fact I don’t really think that linguistics is all that relevant to language learning.

I have become more accustomed to the term polyglot in recent years. In fact, since I started making these videos I have learned another eight languages, to varying degrees of proficiency. I am happy to be counted as a polyglot. Certainly the term has become more widely recognized, in part as a result of the activities of Benny and other online polyglots. There is even a new word, polyglottery, which for sure I had never heard before. Polyglottery is a thing!

Certainly, an increasing number of people want to talk about language learning on the Internet, to offer opinions and describe their experiences learning languages. These Internet polyglots write blogs, create YouTube videos, have podcasts, and attend conferences. The number of such real and aspiring polyglots may number in the hundreds, but their follower numbers in the tens or even hundreds of thousands, all over the world.

Much to the amusement of some, these polyglots, myself included, often disagree with each other. Some are in favour of speaking from day one, such as Benny, the host of this blog. Some, like yours truly, favour waiting to speak. Some encourage the use of translation as an important language learning activity. Some think music is important to language learning.

Polyglots have varying degrees of tolerance for or interest in grammar, attending language schools, and using various language learning techniques. In fact, the polyglots are all over the map on a number of issues, and their positions probably evolve over time.

Why does anything they have to say matter if they all disagree? Why listen to them?

Here’s Why Our Disagreement is a Good News Story

Each of these polyglots has a following, people who are interested in what they have to say. These followers may be learning their first language, or they may already be a polyglot with a few languages under their belts, seeking to add more.

One has only to visit the blogs or YouTube channels of these polyglots to see the comments of appreciation from their followers. People credit their favourite polyglot with having stimulated them to start learning a language, or with encouraging them to continue when their enthusiasm lagged.

This is not an insignificant phenomenon.

This spontaneous community of Internet polyglots has great influence, encouraging learners all over the world, whether they attend language schools or learn on their own. Make no mistake, learning another language is one of the most rewarding things people can do. Each language opens a door to another part of our common human experience.

These polyglots, even if they disagree with each other on aspects of learning methodology, or maybe because of it, are positively impacting many people. In a world with lots of bad news stories, this is a good news story.

How the Online World is Influencing Established Language Teaching

Benny Lewis recently developed a series of language hacking books with Teach Yourself that teach a language hacker’s approach to Spanish, French, Italian, and German. It is quite remarkable that one of the leading established publishers of language learning books should reach out to Benny, a member of the online polyglot community, and ask him to craft a learning approach that combines his own personal language experiences with more established techniques.

This is not the only example. Olly Richards, another online polyglot, is doing a similar thing with his Short Stories for Beginners in various languages. While Benny shows learners how to start engaging in conversations in various languages, Olly focuses on graded reading materials that help learners build up vocabulary and get used to new languages.

I suspect that in a few years, the language learning sections of bookstores will no longer just display the well known brands of language learning books, but more and more products that reflect the attitudes and experiences of online polyglots. These approaches may very well differ from each other, but offer a range of possibilities to language learners.

Not only established language learning publishers, but also language schools are taking notice of these people. LingQ, the web and app language learning platform I developed 10 years ago, has contacts with schools and universities, and I am sure the same is true of other polyglots in their various activities. Many of the people who follow their favourite online polyglots are themselves students or even teachers at such institutions. Online polyglots are increasingly a mainstream language learning influence.

“Fighting Polyglots”: A New TV Series?

The fact that these polyglots have areas of disagreement is a form of stimulating entertainment to the people who follow them, many of whom follow more than one of these polyglots. Their fans are sometimes more engaged in the controversies, and more scathing in their criticism of their favourite’s adversary, than the polyglots themselves. But this just increases the interest that surrounds the online polyglot community. “Fighting polyglots” sounds almost like the title of a TV series.

In reality, online polyglots have respect for each others’ achievements, however much they disagree on method. They know how difficult it is to learn a new language and how much work is involved. They believe strongly in the effectiveness of their own language learning method, yet listening to the experience of others forces them to constantly evaluate their own approach.

This doesn’t mean that they convert to the views of others. It does mean that they consider these different approaches and test the validity of their own approaches with each successive language that they learn. Necessarily their views evolve. All of this takes place in full view of their followers. This exposure to contrasting approaches to language learning is a great stimulus to language learners.

Polyglottery: A Growing Movement

Polyglot conferences and gatherings are sprouting with increasing frequency in a number of locations. These are occasions where people meet to speak in different languages and compare language learning methods. The frequency of these get togethers is increasing, and the number of participants is growing. Most Polyglot gatherings have been in Europe; Berlin, Thessaloniki, Reykjavik, Bratislava. But there have been two in North America; New York and Montreal. In fact, the next opportunity for polyglot and language learners to get together is the Montreal language festival. A number of online polyglots will speak at this year’s festival, myself included, and entering the first name of one of them in the promo code box when you buy your ticket will get you a discount!

There are also increasing examples of local polyglot gatherings, where people get together to converse in different languages and exchange notes on language learning. Meetup is a great way to find one near you.

Here are some sources of information on polyglot conferences and get togethers around the world:

We are Global Social Butterflies, Flapping Our Wings to Share the Joy of Language Learning

Online polyglots like to think of themselves as serious students of languages and language learning who want to share their own experiences and insights with others. Most of them expend a great deal of energy in this endeavour. Some critics, however, may see them as butterflies just flapping their wings to gain attention.

As an online polyglot, and therefore perhaps a butterfly myself, I offer Zhuangzi’s parable of the butterfly as a possible insight into our state of mind.

“Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction.”

I think all online polyglots enjoy what they do, flapping their wings, sharing the joy of language learning, sometimes unaware of who they are. The effect can be quite significant, though, as is exemplified by the butterfly effect.

Small causes can have large effects. I will continue to flap my wings.

author headshot

Steve Kaufmann

LingQ Co-Founder

Steve Kaufmann is an award-winning language blogger, YouTuber, author and co-founder of language learning web and app platform LingQ.

Speaks: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Swedish, Italian, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Romanian, Japanese, Korean, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

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