The more I write the more it becomes painfully and abundantly clear that outside of language circles, the general population does not really understand much about the practical aspects of language or the differences between many of the titles bestowed upon various roles within the language community.
Many people have done no more with language than master (hopefully!) their own native tongue and perhaps taken a course in a secondary language while in school. But whether you’re a diehard language enthusiast or a newcomer to the language learning community there are certain terminologies that are important to bear in mind when discussing the multifaceted landscape of language and linguistic individuals.
I’ve written this piece to better explain to you the differences between translators, interpreters, linguists and polyglots – titles often used incorrectly to describe members of our community.
Translator vs Interpreter
A common misconception is that people only learn languages to convert one language to another.
This is because normally, the only time someone sees a need for a multilingual person is when something needs to be translated or interpreted into their own language. They may not even understand the distinction between these terms, which is not entirely their fault. Even the media frequently seems to confuse “translator” with “interpreter” when dealing with a person that does not speak their language.
An interpreter is used when people are speaking in real-time, while a translator is used when someone needs text to be read or converted to another language. The skill sets required for each are very different and should not be confused with one another; a person that acts as one may not be suited for the other and vice versa.
Believe it or not, it matters a lot, especially to the translation and interpreting communities who -surprise, surprise – take this stuff very seriously.
An interpreter needs to have a huge knowledge of vocabulary in their language of choice and the ability to make an immediate translation. A translator should also have a great vocabulary for translating written text, but he or she also has the opportunity to rely upon other sources and, while still often on a tight schedule, is able to take more time to acquire the optimal terminology for a specific website, advertisement, article or any number of other publications.
The translator has the time to think about how to structure sentences properly as well as the ability to make corrections later before a final submission to their client. An interpreter needs to have the ability to construct sentences that make sense to their clients immediately. They must also have a working knowledge of recent changes to the language, like idioms and slang, so as not to misunderstand what the persons they’re interpreting for might actually be implying .
As an example: if the phrase “This course is a piece of cake” was to be interpreted literally into many languages other than English, it would make no sense. What does learning have to do with dessert? Idioms like that are also more common in spoken language, whereas written language is usually quite a bit more formal and thus less likely to employ such informal phrases or slang.
For whatever reason, most people outside the field of linguistics don’t seen to have a clue as to what linguistics is actually about.
Many people seem to be under the delusion that a “linguist” is someone who simply knows many languages. If you’re a linguist you’ve probably heard this assertion before, rolled your eyes, and launched into a tirade about the degree to which that’s not what you do!
In fact a linguist can be monolingual! It’s somewhat uncommon due to the nature of the field, but being a language scientist does not always require multilingualism in its participants.
The best way I have seen this term explained is that a linguist is one who studies the science of language, which includes the physical aspects of languages, such as their sound structures, syntax, relation to other languages and culture, and their evolution. Various linguistic terminology can be tossed in, such as “morphology”, “semiotics” and “phonology” to further confuse the outsider.
It could be explained that linguists sometimes do learn multiple languages, and are occasionally polyglots or language learners themselves, but are normally more interested in the components, not the entire entity, much the way a nutritionist is more interested in the value of individual foods and how they can come together to promote better health while a chef is of an artist, creating the meal as an experience. The chef might be interested in the health value of the ingredients and the nutritionist might cook some meals, but they are not to be confused, they simply work with the same medium: food.
I have examined some of the more famous linguists and their lives. One of them was the Swiss born Ferdinand de Saussure who is widely recognized as the creator of the modern theory of structuralism as well as the father of modern linguistics of the 20th century. He laid the foundation for many developments in linguistics, and his ideas of linguistics as part of a general science of signs, which he called “semiology” or “semiotics” influenced many generations of contemporary linguists.
Many language enthusiasts could probably say they have heard of de Saussure, and some might even be able to say what he did. Most would likely not understand references, however, because it’s most definitely not relevant to learning a language in most cases. Saussure could certainly be considered to be a polyglot, for he did learn Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, English, German and French as a youth, then later added more to his lingual collection.
Another major player in the field of linguistics was Edward Sapir, most famously known for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which outlined his observations on how linguistic differences have consequences in human cognition and behavior. That is, our language affects our views and actions. Many language learners have at least heard of the hypothesis, even if they know nothing of the men – Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf – behind it.
Sapir also contributed greatly to the classification of Native American Indian languages, so his name also might be known by anyone who studies those.
My point is; that while linguists have certainly made many contributions to language learning, the effects of which might even influence some of what a language learner might deal with, but linguists and multilinguals or polyglots are not interchangeable.
The terms bilingual and trilingual are probably understood – meaning a person speaks two or three languages, respectively. However, I find personally that those terms are usually reserved for people that learned their languages naturally, like second generation immigrants to a country in which they learn the native language of their new country while also speaking their own native tongue within the family. In some parts of the world, like parts of Canada, where the population often speaks both English and French, with both of those being official languages, bilingualism is a fact of daily life.
Multilingual can also be used as a simple basket term for anyone who speaks multiple languages – usually more than two.
So what is someone that learns several languages? People adopt a variety of terms. Some simply say they are multilingual while others describe themselves as language enthusiasts (a phrase I am fond of!)
The most widely used term I have encountered is polyglot. The word comes from the Greek “poly” (many) and glotta (language). While this should represent someone who speaks several languages, it has come to mean anyone speaking more than two or three. Not everyone who knows a few languages feels comfortable with calling themselves polyglots – I certainly don’t consider myself to be a polyglot -, however, feeling that term should be reserved for someone that speaks more languages than they do.
There is a related term sometimes used – hyperpolyglot – meaning a person that speaks more than twelve languages. The term omniglot means “all languages”, but I have never heard anyone refer to themselves in that manner, since it is impossible for anyone to know all 7000+ languages.
They are the rock stars of the language world: hyperpolyglots are a very rare animal – the unicorns of the language enthusiast community.
While polyglots are often inspired by other polyglots, the true hyperpolyglot is the pinnacle of language greatness, a title that often gives way to great envy, skepticism and criticism. Just as celebrities in society are fawned, so are the hyperpolyglots discussed, tested, and often dismissed as unrealistic.
Why such a critical look at these individuals? I think it is a mixture of jealousy that someone could exhibit such super human qualities as well as the general feeling of mistrust at such bold claims. One might accept that a person could be a chef in a restaurant, but not a master chef, renowned throughout the world.
It’s important, within the language community, to know the difference between these categories. Many linguists are polyglots, many polyglots are interpreters, and some linguists have been known to interpret, but in general it behooves the average Joe to know the difference.
Which category do you belong to? Which of these do you most closely identify as? Leave a comment and let me know!
This piece was co-authored by Brian Powers of LATG and Erik Zidowecki of Parleremo, which you should check out here! If you’re a fan of Erik’s writing you can find more of it at his own blog View from the Town.
Languages Around the Globe will always be free. However there are expenses with keeping a website up and running and devoting time and energy to provide you with more, high quality content. LATG is supported by Patreon. Click below to become a patron and earn some cool stuff for your generosity. We’re currently working to make the website advertisement free for your convenience!