The Cult of the Polyglot

Talking Bronze Statue Ladies
 

by Marta Krzeminska

Polyglot—when was the first time you heard this word? My first time was in 2013 when I was lucky to attend TEDx Warsaw, and see Benny Lewis’ talk on hacking language learning. That’s what I’d call being thrown into the deep waters of polyglottery!

The concept of a polyglot was new to many in the audience. While the word itself is easy to decode even if you hear it for the first time, the idea behind it isn’t easy to grasp. If you based your definition solely on the TEDx talk, you could conclude that being a polyglot means speaking multiple languages, and looking for the best methods to continuously learn more. A quest for efficient conquer of new linguistic landscapes.

Based on this skeletal definition a polyglot becomes a sub-type of a productivity guru, but one that’s focused on language learning. In the modern, time-scarce work culture, where we aim to accomplish our goals; smarter, faster, better. It seems to be the heyday of hackers and personal development gurus like Tony Robbins, Tim Ferriss, or David Allen: both their wealth, and number of followers are counted in millions.

Productivity worship

A popular website Lifehack, that covers topics from DIY mosquito repellants to exam preparation tips, gets over 23 million unique monthly readers. At the same time, blogs that focus on more specified aspects of life also receive an increasing amount of attention; be it a well-being focused Greatist, Sam Harris’ philosophy/ethics/neuroscience outlet, or finance related Get Rich Slowly. In the all-hacking era there has emerged a separate job position “growth hacker” — I wish it was related to the environment.

  

These blogs and personalities convince us that both the basic and the more complex of life’s questions have simple answers. That there is a path to hacking our happiness, business and looks, but by some world-wide conspiracy the tricks of doing so have been, until now, hidden from us. Luckily, the productivity elders opened a communication channel with the high life-designers. They can pass the truths down to us, unenlightened who drown in emails, can’t properly squat, and have not yet switched to Soylent.

Following a life design blog bears resemblance to religion: a modern cult for the secular. It can be a controversial comparison, but if you’ve ever seen a recording from one of Tony Robbins seminars, you’d see it’s not far from the truth.

For those of us who are invested in languages, we search for new tools, methods and most efficient practices related to learning. Where there is a demand there is a supply, and the internet world has supplied us with a few language hacking personalities. Speaking multiple languages is for them just a starting point. They are polyglots^10, polyglots 2.0, New Generation, who not only cracked the code to learning, but also to making money, success and popularity — all through languages.

For those of us who also like to learn foreign languages, these polyglots become role models. Is there already an emerging cult of the polyglot?

Who is a polyglot?

A polyglot, in the original sense of the word, is simply a person who speaks multiple languages. There are plenty of communities worldwide where speaking multiple languages on a daily basis is commonplace. In fact, globally, the so called ‘multilinguals’ outnumber monolinguals.

Think of a place like Mali where French may be the official language, but the most commonly heard tongue is Bambara, or Fula or Songhay. On top of that, there are 11 languages used in schools as a medium of instruction. It wouldn’t be uncommon in Mali to find people who use five languages on a daily basis!

While many dictionaries would list ‘multilingual’ as a synonym of ‘polyglot’, a difference seems to be emerging as it comes to precise definitions of the term. This is by no means official, but it looks like in the common online language discourse polyglots are those who have learned multiple languages deliberately, whereas multilinguals acquired them from their environment. With such a division, a polyglot naturally wins more right to be admired as one who has put effort and time into mastering a skill, rather than passively absorbing knowledge from the surroundings.

The birth of a polyglot

I didn’t realize the magnitude of this question until a friend of mine, an MA student of linguistics, decided to focus his dissertation on the definition of the polyglot. It turned out the number of languages known required to call someone a polyglot is a bone of contention in the language community. A separate question is the one of the extent of “knowing a language” — is the ability to read a newspaper article equivalent to holding a 10-minute conversation?

There have always been passionate learners, people who for various reasons enjoyed studying languages: be it grammar nerds, or super-extroverts whose aim was to talk to the whole world. The word polyglot has existed for a long time—according to the OED it originates in the mid 17th century — yet, it was only in the recent years that it gained visibility, and became a possible characterization for the learners and speakers of many languages. The term provided a way to identify with a group unified by a common interest, and as in many other cases, the internet and social media served as a platform facilitating this connection. People stopped being just “interested in languages”— they became polyglots.

The rise of the celeglot

Social media is now full of polyglot profiles, but over time a few definite leaders have emerged in this space. How many polyglots would you be able to mention by name?

The leaders of the polyglot community are those who translated their language ability into a source of popularity. If the language learning community is like the business industry, polyglots are those whose talent and grit lead them to become celebrities. Their success is measured not only in the number of languages spoken, but more in the number of newsletter subscribers, podcast listeners, Twitter followers, and books sold. Their names are not only recognized, but also carry an aura of authority in the language learning world.

On the wave of their popularity more and more accounts spring up. Some bloggers want to share their personal language journeys, others who visibly aim at monetizing their sites, the term polyglot entered the popular language as one of the adjectives to include in your social media profile; Real Estate Advisor, alt J fan, vegetarian, Christian, polyglot.

There are of course, non-media-present polyglots, like… well, I don’t know since without promotion they aren’t widely recognized! If you attend one of many polyglot events springing up around the world, you will meet plenty them in the audience.

An admired polyglot is the one who translated the passion for language learning into a source of income. Thus, while there are many people who speak multiple languages and enjoy the act of learning, only a few have managed to generate money from it. It is perhaps precisely this business acumen, and a form of fame and authority which result from it, that characterize the new species of a polyglot: the celebrity polyglot, or the *celeglot*.

The confidence and determination required to turn one’s passion into a business, and the multitude of skills that it requires to build even a basic one, are achievements held in high regard not only in the language learning community. This, I think, ties in with the idea mentioned above, that polyglots are a subgroup of the self-improvement gurus, simply focused on the languages.

Perilous polyglot

It’s an expected development that once there is a growing interest in a discipline, best performers will emerge and take leading positions, serving as examples to their followers. However, just like popularity in any other sphere it carries with itself certain consequences, both for the polyglots, and for the language community.

Achieving a celebrity status can build an artificial wall between the polyglots and the common learner. For the regular learner, the celeglot has it all: not only the knowledge of multiple languages, but also fame, success and money. Some, less experienced language learners, may be inclined to abandon their preferred learning method in favor of the latest one advocated by the celeglot. Celeglots’ online presence also generate a certain amount of envy, and negative sentiments along the lines of “who are they to tell me what to do, they aren’t so much better than I am”.

Not all professional language learners want to be put on a pedestal. Becoming a public figure creates a large amount of responsibility towards the audience, some of which can treat their words as gold. Regardless of their celebrity statuses, all the polyglots remain language explorers, albeit with a longer track record than a regular learner.

Poly-exclusivity

There may be an official “academic definition” of a polyglot, but does the learner community abide by it?

If they did then many keen language learners and bloggers out there would lose their membership in the polyglot club. Reading some discussion in various polyglot facebook groups, it seems that some people do hold a belief that a failure to speak more than X number of languages prevents one from gaining the same status as other, official polyglots. This is not to say there is widespread discrimination of certain language speakers, but there is definitely an aura of exclusivity surrounding the term polyglot.

The sometimes exclusionary nature of some polyglot communities can have a negative effect on students. Comparing themselves to big polyglot personalities, some students may think they can’t belong to the “polyglot club”. Despite their passion, linguistic knowledge, and the number of languages they have flirted with, they feel inadequate. The widespread popularity of the celeglots has skewed their definition of a perfect learner.

With the main characterisation of a polyglot relying largely on numbers, a desire to belong to the “club” can erase the initial passion for language learning. Studying can then become a race in “language collecting” rather that a pleasurable activity of discovery and exploration.

There is an additional danger of early discouragement. Just looking at the required language threshold can prevent some from even trying.  

Following a narrow definition of a polyglot can also create a conviction that must have an end goal to learning many languages. Apart from belonging to the polyglot club, speaking multiple languages comes with an implicit promise of status, potential media visibility and business success. The goals of learning just out of curiosity, or to explore different study methods are obscured with more materialistic aims.

Do people who have learned “only” four languages for pleasure, and don’t *even* have a blog documenting it count as real, passionate learners? It seems to be a variation of the thought experiment about a tree falling the forest: if no one has hear it did it make a sound? Documenting one’s language learning pursuits on a blog, became for some a measure of learner’s dedication level.

Pointing out all the negatives in the space of a few paragraphs paints a bleak picture. While a huge part of the learners community is welcoming and offers a space for a free thought exchange, we should be aware of the potential implications of the picture of the polyglot that’s being created alongside that.

Cheesy message

There is an emerging character of a polyglot celebrity, a celeglot. One who apart from mastering more than the required number of languages, has turned their knowledge into a source of income. As such, a celeglot becomes an admired figure — following a lifestyle many would aspire to. This development has reshaped the traditional definition of a polyglot, and there is a danger in merging a standard picture of a dedicated learner with that of a celeglot. A celeglot should be seen as a separate “species”, a linguistically focused iteration of a self-improvement media personality. With the growing number of members of the polyglot community, there seems to have emerged different “polyglot types”*, a celeglot being one of them.

There shouldn’t be a need to define who is in and who is out of the “polyglot club”. In its goal of sharing the passion for languages, the learner’s community should remain inclusive. The simple and cheesy message that I want to leave you with is don’t be intimidated by the success of other learners. Stay true to your own goals in language study. As long as we keep exploring there is a safe place for everyone in the online language learning community.

Let’s end with a quote from David Mansaray, creator of the Life-Long Learning podcast and of the known names in the language learning community:

“I’ve let go of wanting to be a polyglot; It’s a nice idea, but whatever will be will be. For now, I’m just a guy who enjoys learning languages.”

Let’s all keep enjoying.

___

*Ellen Jovin did a wonderful, humouristc attempt at outlining a typology of polyglots at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in 2016 — when the video comes out, we’ll link to it.

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Marta is a language coach at LinguaLift.com and a language explorer. She spends too much time on Quora and, in her non-language related pursuits, experiments with vegan cooking.

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  • Thank you for this post! I needed to hear this. I am feeling frustrated at demotivated at the moment because I feel I lack progress and I am not learning fast enough.

    • I’m glad it helped you Cat! 😀

    • Don’t let the frustration get you down! What are you working on currently?

      • Hungarian. I set a target for myself because I want to move to Budapest. I have patient friends and language partners, but sometimes, I think I am too hard on myself. But thank you! This blog has been a huge source of inspiration!

        • I hear Hungarian can be pretty rough. It’s also pretty difficult to find resources for – though they are increasing.

          I do believe Glossika has a Hungarian program though, and I stand by them as a solid resource. Not the cheapest though, but still worth considering.

          https://glossika.com/courses/fluency123/hungarian?a_id=latg&c_id=gs2016

          Otherwise I wrote an article a while back about some resources for harder-to-find languages. You may consider some of those.

          Here’s the link:http://www.latg.org/2016/04/6-resources-for-learning-less-common-languages.html/

          As always your comments are much appreciated!

          • I love Glossika! In fact, I have it for 3 languages now, including Hungarian. It is indeed a solid resource. In fact, I’ve been mistaken as a B1 or B2 in Hungarian sometimes because I can already say things that are no longer A2. I will keep using this forever for whatever language I will be learning. 🙂

            Have a good weekend!

  • ConnieHinesDorothyProvine

    There’s a scene in the movie Captain Newman, M.D. where they bring some Italian POWs and Tony Curtis’s character gives them orders in Italian. He then explains that in the neighborhood where he grew up, you had to speak five or six languages to communicate.

    I also recommend The Cuckoo, in which a Soviet soldier and a Finnish sniper end up on the farm of a Saami woman. Throughout the movie, each characters speaks his/her own language as they try to communicate with each other.

  • Junius Lamema

    Lot’s of good points, man! As a matter of fact, I have always suspected, well, had a faint gut feeling , that behind their friendliness, guys like Alexander Arguelles or, say, Alex Rawlings have something faintly fake about them. Come to think of it, they are just humbuggers.
    (I wonder why no one gets round to questioning and testing their lang proficiencies. It could be quite spectacular. What we usually see is rehearsed propaganda, ain’t it? What ’bout some reality check?)

    • I haven’t met Alexander Arguelles yet, but will at the Polyglot Conference in Thessaloniki October 2016, as he is one of the speakers. I’ve met Alex Rawlings at the Polyglot Berlin gatherings and I find no humbugger or fake in him.

      • Junius Lamema

        Fine, fine. Perhaps. Probably. Perhaps he has a ready set of well-rehearsed Greek phrases one could reasonably expect to be used in such a check (I would, if I were him).
        But the question is — as Marta rightly noted — Exactly what’s the USE of speaking fluently as many languages? Or even half as many? Do they translate from and into them? Do they interpret from and into them? No. The only two things they do are demonstrate how readily fluent they are, and lecture folks on how bright they are.
        I speak only one language fluently. My own. I can make myself understood in another. But I write in three and translate from and into FIVE — for a living and for the benefit of others. Never trying to impress people with my brightness.
        As for teaching — believe it or not, I used to teach a language I did not speak at all, only read and wrote it (it was Afrikaans; I was the only “speaker” within 1000 miles; the fee was high and my student was very motivated).

        • Alex is Greek on his mother’s side and is also a Greek citizen and has been interviewed by the Greek media and has worked in translation for the Greek embassy.

  • Marta,
    Let me to elaborate your phrase – polyglot should be seen as a separate “species.” It is true indeed! The number of polyglots in the world is much lower than the number of Nobel Prize winners! Many polyglots have published books describing their way of learning foreign languages. What the polyglots don’t realize that their advice is valid only for the lucky members of separate species. Their advice may be rather frustrating for an average adult learner.

    Read the Cat comment: “I am feeling frustrated and demotivated at the moment because I feel I lack progress, and I am not learning fast enough.”

    Average language learners often are frustrated with their progress since they use conventional methods that belong to Passive Learning. Active Learning applications which use all senses simultaneously for training language skills are unknown to language learners. That is why for adults learning a foreign language we have a very high failure rate. Although children have 100% success rate since they use Active Learning system. Unfortunately adults can’t learn a language as children do.

    • It’s interesting to contrast the stories of the polyglots who began young, such as Alex Rawlings, Vladimir Skultety and I to those who started as adults such as Benny Lewis, Olly Richards and Conor Clyne. The last three felt frustration but managed to overcome that via a breakthrough of one sort or other. I found many people in the Add One Challenge making breakthroughs in language learning for the very first time (I’ve done two of them and it really gave my Dutch and Norwegian boosts).

      • Dimitris,
        Without knowing you I will guess one of your characteristics: when you learn a foreign language your visualization is so strong that you don’t need to translate in your head to the native language to be able to comprehend the new language. You never suffer from cross-translation problem, right?

        95% of adults can’t do it. That is why I referred to polyglots as special species. That is why their advice how to learn a foreign language is true for polyglots and may be frustrating for an average learner without capability to become a polyglot.

        • Yes Arkady, you’re right. I think in pictures mostly. It’s only when I come across a word I don’t know (or a word I do know but wasn’t aware of a particular usage for for it) that I fail to understand something. When reading or listening I never translate it, I just absorb the material and understand it. So it comes down to neuroscience is what you’re saying. I wonder what percentage of people are wired to become polyglots.

          • Dimitris,
            Polyglot wiring happens in less than one in a million! The next category is simply language-capable. The probability to belong to this group is between three and four per cent. People in this category can become fluent in a foreign language even with the conventional methods of learning, which belong to Passive Learning.

            The majority of population (about 95%) to become fluent in a foreign language needs to use Active Learning!
            To understand why google “Active learning of English Skills.”

          • Thanks Arkady. What is Language Bridge doing to develop its system for learning languages other than English?

          • Junius Lamema

            Fine, fine. Polyglots are rare. What of it?
            Shall the awed majority (about 95%) to say ‘Wow’ at the drop of a hat, or what?

          • Junius I think your ‘so what’ refers to my point of reaching an intermediate level of Dutch and Norwegian beyond just a very basic level? Each person participating in an Add One Challenge has particular reason to improve in a target language. For example I live in Norway and it makes me more comfortable to have the highest level of understanding possible in the language where I am officially a resident. I also have family in the Netherlands and once again, it makes me more comfortable to be able to follow conversations and not be left out during family visits. If you look at Add One Challenge, you’ll see each participant has a story behind why they want to learn a particular language. As a language teacher yourself, I can imagine the first question you ask your students is why they want to learn whatever language you are teaching them.

          • Social media and the interconnectivity of today’s world are creating this new phenomenon. How each person perceives this phenomenon and reacts to it is another story. So if Arkady says that one in a million are wired with a special way to easily become polyglots then there are about 7000 such individuals on the planet. Add to this that The Telegraph recently published an articled called ‘The Wanderlust Gene’ which some claim is in about 20% of the population. I wonder how much correlation there is between the two, because I seem to have both. I’ve lived in seven different countries and sojourned in eight. So in my case language learning goes hand in hand with curiosity. Dr. Gianfranco Conti mentions that two personality traits also are key to successful language learning: Openness and Conscientiousness. During my MBA studies, we all took the Big Five personality test and indeed I scored high in both. If you score high in openness you have an interest in other cultures and languages. If you score high in conscientiousness, you have the dedication to study the grammar and vocabulary of a language.

          • Junius Lamema

            > How each person perceives this phenomenon and reacts to it is another story.

            I want precisely to know this other story. At least that part of it where I am concerned. To be more precise still, I want to know exactly how I am expected to perceive and react, and if don’t feel like paying awed kudos, what’s the matter with me.

          • This is where values, assumptions, beliefs and expectations play a role and this is why there is no right answer to your question. We are all different; we are all unique. There’s nothing ‘the matter with’ you and there aren’t necessarily any expectations of you either. There are different levels of how you can express yourself on the subject….starting from ignoring it all to following it with interest, to engaging in a dialogue about it via Disqus comment system on this blog…to participating in an interview with a blogger such as me where you get to voice your side of the story to sending in a guest blog to starting your own blog to starting your own YouTube channel and so forth.

      • Junius Lamema

        So what?

        • Junius I think your ‘so what’ refers to my point of reaching an intermediate level of Dutch and Norwegian beyond just a very basic level? Each person participating in an Add One Challenge has particular reason to improve in a target language. For example I live in Norway and it makes me more comfortable to have the highest level of understanding possible in the language where I am officially a resident. I also have family in the Netherlands and once again, it makes me more comfortable to be able to follow conversations and not be left out during family visits. If you look at Add One Challenge, you’ll see each participant has a story behind why they want to learn a particular language. As a language teacher yourself, I can imagine the first question you ask your students is why they want to learn whatever language you are teaching them.

    • Junius Lamema

      That’s precisely what Marta says, CELEglot. They WANT to be seen as a separate species. They want to be seen. To be admired.
      But somehow they fail to impress me, a humble language practitioner with a 46 years’ record. I must be too dumb, I think.

      • With the Internet, there are new ‘celebrities’ for just about any interest or hobby, from how to put on makeup, to how to build a birdhouse, how to bake a soufflé, and of course how to learn a language. Junius could add to the community by sharing his insights by starting a YouTube channel, a blog, or submitting a guest blog on a site such as this one.

    • I wish all articles sparked discussions like these. Thanks everyone for your thoughts! Kinda what I’m going for here. (Even though this isn’t my article).

      • Junius Lamema

        Brian, is it an invitation? 😉
        I have a couple of points to voice on your 5 stupid things etc. Will do it later. 😉

        Re polyglossy. As a lang practitioner, I share Marta’s view: It’s a (now hyped) publicity stunt of limited practical use (apart from lecturing on “How I learn so damned many languages”), next to circus-show knife-throwing, sharp-shooting, motorcycle jumping, sky-diving (all of limited military use), superfast touch-typing, Morse code sending at 160 wpm (who needs it these days and who needed it ever?) etc.
        Luke Aikinses somewhat fail to impress me.

        • Yes, of course it’s an invitation : P

          Increased engagement is good for LATG and the language learning community in general. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have personal motivation too.

          The amount of content on a page (which includes comments – as long as they’re high quality and meaningful) boost its rankings. This in turn attracts more readers. So comments are a win win.

          They also make you feel good about what you write. Unless they’re all negative, in which case you feel horrible, but meh, what’s life without risk?

  • Thanks Arkady! I’ll check it out!

  • Junius Lamema

    I have just found the phrase that precisely summarises (unfortunately in Russian) what Marta wrote: Полиглоты торгуют лицом. Сan’t be truer.

  • Junius Lamema

    Hi Dimitris. Sorry I missed your post. If you are still interested, write me at yandex.ru, to (username) sjoe

  • Hi Junius. I couldn’t find the contact form, but I see that there are some email addresses depending on the city, such as… https://yandex.ru/company/contacts/moscow/ … please let know more details about which part of the site to use to send the interview questions.

    • Junius Lamema

      Dimitris, you got me wrong. I actually gave you my e-mail address. My e-mail provider is уаndех,ru and my username is sjoe. You need only to change their places and insert the “at” in between.
      I did not gave it here to to protect it against spammers. Do not copy them. Retype them.