Did you know that some of the most famous figures throughout history were also accomplished polyglots?
Audrey Hepburn remains an iconic goddess of the silver screen and is regularly touted as being the most beautiful woman to have ever existed.
She also spoke six languages.
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was not only fluent in numerous languages (some of which he taught himself)… he invented them.
Why were these particular people encouraged to learn multiple languages? Was it due to a necessity to survive or a need to communicate?
Most importantly, what can we as lovers of languages ourselves, learn from their words, lives and experiences?
Read on to find out!
Thomas Jefferson: The Language Lover Who Struggled to Learn Languages
The United States’ third president was a member of Virginia’s elite and spoke four languages. He learned to read Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish and French while being privately tutored – which was the norm for boys of his social class. He too had dictionaries from a number of languages in his library – including Arabic, Gaelic and Welsh, but no evidence exists that he ever gained any sort of fluency in these languages.
Although Jefferson could read the languages he had studied in his youth, he struggled with spoken fluency.
”I understand the French so imperfectly as to be incertain whether those to whom I speak and myself mean the same thing.” – Jefferson to William Temple Franklin, 1784.
It wasn’t until he had spent some time living in France as the American ambassador, that he was able to achieve fluency in the French language, falling hard for it along the way.
“The French language is unquestionably an important object of education. The habit of speaking it can only be acquired by conversation.” – Jefferson to Dugald Stewart, 1789.
Jefferson acknowledged quite early on the important relationship that the American people would share with the Spanish language and allegedly learned it while reading from a borrowed copy of Don Quixote and a book on Spanish grammar. We are allowed to be a teeny bit sceptical in taking this as fact, as former US President John Adams noted in his journal:
”As to Spanish, it was so easy that he had learned it, with the help of a Don Quixote lent him by Mr. Cabot, and a grammar, in the course of a passage to Europe, on which he was but nineteen days at sea. But Mr. Jefferson tells large stories…” –John Adams, 1804.
Whether or not Jefferson was blowing his own trumpet remains irrelevant to our cause. What we can learn from the ex-President is one very important detail – one that is regularly touted here on Fluent in 3 Months (Fi3M).
If you want to learn a language and achieve fluency in it, you need to start speaking it.
People often struggle with language in an academic setting. It’s not until after they leave the classroom and start living the language that true progress begins to be made.
Audrey Hepburn: “Nothing is Impossible”
Hepburn was the child of a Dutch Baroness and British businessman. Born in Belgium, she spent part of her youth attending private schools in the Netherlands and England, where she would have achieved fluency
in her native Dutch, English and probably French. In 1939, her mother moved the family back to Arnhem, Netherlands, believing they would be safe from World War II.
Unfortunately she was proved horribly wrong when the Germans invaded Holland in 1940. Hepburn, a young teenager at the time, began helping the Dutch resistance. She danced to raise money in secret productions and ran messages.
She later spoke of how she was forced to quickly learn Dutch upon the family’s move to Arnhem during WWII:
“My mother was worried about [my] speaking English in the streets with Germans all around.” – Audrey Hepburn
Malnutrition during the war dashed Hepburn’s aspirations of becoming a ballerina – so she turned to acting. She and her mother left Amsterdam, travelling to both England and finally the US, where Hepburn became the Hollywood icon she is remembered as today.
Her career took her all around the world. She shot films in France, Spain and Mexico, lived in Rome and travelled extensively during her time working as an Ambassador with the charity UNICEF. Looking back on her life and career, you can see that she had multiple chances to learn languages – opportunities that she obviously made the most of.
”Opportunities don’t often come along. So, when they do, you have to grab them.” – Audrey Hepburn
Hepburn was the type of person who didn’t let setbacks stop her from achieving her goals, actively pursuing what she wanted and believed in. What can we in turn learn from her?
”Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible’!” – Audrey Hepburn
It’s never too late to start learning.
To roll with the punches that life throws at you.
Most importantly, beyond all else – it’s your attitude that counts above all else, in regards to anything that you wish to achieve in this life.
There are many difficult aspects to learning a language. My opinion has always been that it’s best to ignore them. The road to fluency can seem long when you first look at it, but if you approach it with the right attitude, you will be able to take that first step and continue confidently along your way.
J.R.R. Tolkien: The Polyglot Who Invented New Languages
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of many novels including the Lord of the Rings trilogy was not only fluent in many languages – he invented them.
A scholar at heart, it was Tolkien’s mother who introduced him to languages, teaching him Latin, French and German in his youth. Over the course of his education, he learned many other languages such as Middle English, Finnish (which he reportedly taught himself), Old Norse, Spanish and Welsh. Languages he was familiar with included Danish, Dutch, Norwegian and Russian.
As if that wasn’t impressive enough, this early knowledge gave him the grounding he needed to create his own languages, such as Quenya and Sindarin (the Elvish languages, his most developed), Dwarvish, Entish and Black speech. Quenya, the High Elvish tongue is reported to have be inspired by Finnish.
“Elen sill ûmenn’ omentielvo” – “A star shines on the hour of our meeting.” – Lord of the Rings
Tolkien learned languages, simply because he loved and respected them.
”No language is justly studied merely as an aid to other purposes. It will in fact better serve other purposes, philological or historical, when it is studied for love, for itself.” – J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘English and Welsh’, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays
From Tolkien, we can learn that the biggest level of success in learning languages, comes quite simply, from a desire to learn. That being, that when you approach language learning, you are doing it for the right reasons.
Language learning should never be about bragging rights. Instead, you should have a solid motivation for wanting to learn either another, or multiple languages.
Why is this important?
Simply, because language learning takes time and commitment. You are going to have days when you feel lazy and unmotivated. Sometimes it may seem like an impossible task. Often, you’ll feel like you’re too busy to dedicate the time needed to achieve the level of fluency that you’ve set yourself.
As Tolkien suggests, if you can look back to that one core reason for learning a language – whether that be an interest in the culture of a particular country, or a love for languages themselves – then that motivation that you need on those odd days where you’d rather procrastinate will never be that far out of reach.
Eddie Izzard: “I don’t find languages easy, but I have a hunger to learn”
Eddie Izzard is an English stand-up comedian, actor and writer. He has long been an advocate for the importance of language learning.
To highlight this point, in 2013 he performed his show Force Majeure in four different languages – Arabic, German, Spanish and French. He also spoke in Russian and Italian during the international tour.
He is interestingly, the first stand-up comedian to perform in multiple languages. And for good reason, as he noted the difficulty in touring foreign countries, performing in English and expecting his jokes to transcend language and cultural barriers.
“You could do certain big cities but you wouldn't really get through. I want to be there, getting through.” – Eddie Izzard
Izzard doesn’t claim fluency in each of these languages. He measures himself on percentages and would only claim to be “65% fluent in French and 30% fluent in German”. However, it is his attitude towards learning languages that has led to his inclusion on this list.
“If I get stuck with a word or a phrase during a show I ask the audience, “How do you say such and such”, and they help out. I don't find languages easy but I have a hunger to learn.” – Eddie Izzard
Izzard hits the nail on the head. You don’t have to be some kind of genius to learn languages. You just have to be willing to get in there, make mistakes, have a laugh and above all, be doing it for the right reasons.
History Never Repeats – Or Does It?!
Although each of these people throughout history took about learning languages for very different reasons, they all have one thing in common.
They recognised the need and value in learning to communicate, no matter what the circumstances of their language acquisition.
Is there a polyglot from history that you find inspiring? Who was it and for what reasons? Let me know in the comments!