Fans and Professionals Discuss the Value of Language Learning

Fans and professionals discuss the value of language learning
 

By Dimitris Polychronopoulos

The first time I ever saw a ‘polyglot video’ was on the BBC website, where Alex Rawlings, age 20 at the time, speaks in eleven different languages. It would have been in 2014 when I saw the video for the first time. I found the video thoroughly enjoyable.

All of Alex’s eleven languages except Hebrew were also languages that I had studied to some degree or another. As the video was subtitled in English, I was able to fill in any gaps missing in my own ability in any of the languages Alex spoke in the video better than I do.

There were also languages not in Alex’s video that I too could speak to varying levels and I’m the kind of person who is always interested in learning more, especially when it comes to languages. It piqued my interest in learning more about others who share my passion for languages.

While the video may have impressed me, it didn’t impress everybody, as I could see from the reactions to the 19 July 2016 guest blog posted titled ‘Cult of the Polyglot’ where Marta Krzeminska  from LinguaLift introduced the term ‘celeglot’ to describe celebrity polyglots who earn a living by offering language- learning advice.

  

A lively discussion ensued on the Disqus comment system beneath Marta’s guest blog. Under the Disqus user name ‘Junius’ a Russian translator living in South Africa, Evgeny Artemov, expressed that he was unimpressed not only by polyglot videos, but by the very notion of people becoming polyglots.

Another discussion participant interested in languages, was Arkady Zilberman, who wrote that polyglots are very rare because they have special wiring. Arkady says that therefore polyglots’ advice about how to learn a language is not helpful to other kinds of language learners.

As the discussion on Disqus continued to grow, I decided that the subject would be worthy of a guest blog, so I checked with Brian and Marta and reached out to the others who participated in the Disqus discussions and also communicated with Richard Simcott about the subject.

Marta Krzeminska and Richard Simcott,  participated via written interview while Evgeny Artemov preferred a Skype interview. In addition to sharing their viewpoints, I’ll also share my own thoughts on the phenomenon of language learning, polyglots and ‘celeglots’.

The impact of a polyglot video – one thing leads to another

Alex Rawlings’ polyglot video on the BBC got me interested in learning about other polyglots and the activities of the polyglot community. I learned about the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin and had the chance to attend for the first time in May 2015 where I met Alex Rawlings in person. At the same event, Richard Simcott and I met for the first time. Richard Simcott has studied about 50 languages to some degree or other and is the co-founder of the Polyglot Conference, which I will be attending for the first time in Thessaloniki in October 2016.

The Polyglot Gathering was so much fun that I decided to go get involved as a sponsorship organiser the following year and I also presented a new website I created called yozzi.com, where I blog in my eight best languages and invite others to do blog in their target languages as well. The site also encourages people to provide feedback to help us improve our writing, as the site lang-8 also does, but at a more advanced level. That’s where I met Marta, just after I presented my new website to about 50 people at the Polyglot Berlin Gathering in 2016.

Values, Assumptions, Beliefs and Expectations

When it comes down to how we perceive polyglot videos, I like to point to a book by James E. Clawson that I read during my MBA. It’s called ‘Level Three Leadership, Getting Beneath the Surface’.  Clawson elaborates on Values, Assumptions, Beliefs and Expectations in his book and I feel that these four elements are key at explaining the reaction to polyglot videos.  Although the book’s purpose is to help leaders understand the people in the organisation that they work with, I would like to apply the concepts to look at how people react to the phenomenon of the ‘celeglot’ and polyglot videos.

Values: Not only do we all have different values, but each of us places a different value on certain aspects of life and certain learnings. For example some people value learning a specific language and others do not.

Assumptions: Each of us makes certain assumptions when we encounter something for the first time. Those assumptions will then impact our reactions to a new phenomenon.

Beliefs: Each of us has a unique background. Our belief systems also lead us to engage in or reject phenomena around us.

Expectations: Each of us has different expectations for ourselves and for those around us.

In my case, I place a high value on language learning. My assumptions are that language learning is useful, interesting and enjoyable and I especially like to engage with people in their own languages if possible. I have a belief system that emphasizes curiosity and openness and I create my own expectations that I will never stop learning.

Therefore, what was my reaction after seeing Alex Rawlings’ BBC video in 11 languages? As you can see, I wanted to learn more and began to investigate further. I learned about the Polyglot Berlin Gathering and began to become involved in what we call the Polyglot Community.

Some are not impressed

Now that I’ve shared my reaction to polyglot videos and the polyglot community, let’s look at how Evgeny Artemov feels about it. Evgeny, is in his 60’s and is a translator for several languages. He told me he is not at all impressed. Although he added that had he been younger, he may have been impressed. Overall, he finds polyglot videos such as those by Alex Rawlings and Alexander Arguelles to be a lot of hype. He has personally met no polyglots and quotes the ‘jack of all trades is the master of none’. He noted, “it takes four or five years to reach a good level of English and it’s a lifetime investment. You have to maintain a language and use it for some purpose.”

Evgeny doesn’t find all polyglots to be hype and he points to an example in Kato Lomb, whose polyglot story is available online in a 215-page PDF file. Evgeny finds her different because of her selfless dedication to interpreting and translating.  Unlike Lomb, “most polyglots learn so many languages just for selfish reasons. It only promotes their egos.” Evgeny’s view is that it’s not much different than collecting stamps and serves no practical purpose.

When asked about the key to successful language learning, Evgeny says that it is comprised of three faculties:

1) Fast memorising without many repetitions.

2) Long retention and long storage even without use.

3) Ready recall.

After each language one learns, people can become better at these faculties. He highlights that motivation is the key to language learning and recommends the use of flashcards. Due to lack of motivation, for example, Evgeny has not been able to learn some of the languages that he has studied in the past, such as Chinese, Japanese and Spanish.

Founder of Bridge to English Arkady Zilberman, the founder of Bridge to English, was also very active on the Disqus discussion. Although he has a scientific background, he considers languages to be his real passion. His theory is that only one in a million is wired to be a polyglot, that a proper definition of a polyglot is somebody who speaks more than ten languages fluently, and that about five percent of the people on the planet can be considered ‘language-capable’, meaning they have a facility for learning languages. He considers himself to be one of the 5%.

Arkady says that polyglots are giving out language-learning recommendations that don’t work for most people because the advice is generally related to passive learning. Arkady designed an English-learning programme called Language Bridge which focuses on active learning and improves the visualisation and memory skills that are helpful for successful foreign language success.

Arkady finds one of the problems with language teaching is that it is usually just a subject in school rather than an active experience. There is too much emphasis on grammatical rules rather than experiencing the essence of the language. Arkady also highlights the importance of learning all the language skills simultaneously rather than separating them into grammar, listening, reading, pronunciation, speaking and writing. Arkady writes, “

After many years of experimenting during simultaneous interpretation, and reading research on how adults learn foreign languages, I made a few discoveries:

1. When adults learn a foreign language and speak it fluently, they form a new language speech centre in the brain that is separated from the native language centre.  

2. We don’t think in our native language. We think in a code language of images and associations (the language we use in our dreams), which is connected to the native language. This connection creates the illusion that we think in our mother tongue. People who speak fluently in a few languages have an ability to connect the code language of thoughts and feelings to different speech centres in the brain.”

Arkady aims to help anybody become fluent in English faster with his approach to language learning. To apply the technique of Language Bridge to other languages, Arkady recommends reading ‘Language Bridge Technology: Speak English Fluently’ and applying the techniques to your target language.

Perspectives by polyglot Richard Simcott

When asked about how to learn a language effectively, Richard says, first of all, we need to find our own strategy for whatever we learn, not just languages.  Richard does not recommend a particular method for people to learn a new language. Richard writes,

“Whatever works for you. Regular language study, thought and practice are probably the only things I can mention as advice for real success.”

Richard disagrees with Arkady and even as a polyglot believes that, “Both passive and active learning are necessary for success: reading, writing, speaking, listening.

” Are polyglot videos just a ‘publicity stunt’? I asked Richard, and he replied, ‘just ask what people’s motivations are if you want to know…I don’t like to second guess them’

What about Arkady’s statement that only five percent of the human population is ‘language capable’ and that polyglots are ‘wired’ differently?

Richard says the ratio of people who love languages is may correspond to Arkady’s percentages.  While Richard is not sure about the ‘wired’ theory that Arkady puts forward, Richard does agree that we are all different and that people have different interests and that there are many different fields that people dedicate their time to. “Polyglots tend to focus on learning languages even in down time. It is a natural interest they have.”

 

Thinking in pictures and emotions, not in a language

Richard’s experience would seem to match what Arkady says about the illusion that we think in our mother tongue. Richard says he thinks in pictures and feelings, not in language.

As I reflect on Richard’s explanation of thinking, I also feel that it is my experience as well. First I think in the picture and the feeling, then I have to express that in a language to somebody to try to be understood. That’s the most amazing part of communication, to convey the picture or emotion from my mind to another human, despite a vast difference in language and culture. That’s also why sometimes misunderstandings occur, because it isn’t always easy to find the right words. Additionally, the other person might have a different understanding of what those words mean. More importantly the other person has to be listening. Successful communication is like a miracle.

 

Celeglots, Language, and Culture

So now to come full circle and getting back to Marta, who coined the term ‘celeglot’ to describe the celebrity polyglot who wants to receive attention and earn a living by sharing language learning advice with others: Marta first became interested in the phenomenon by seeing Benny Lewis speak at TEDx Warsaw in 2013 and began to learn about the existence of a wider polyglot business. Richard Simcott didn’t come across to me as the ‘celeglot’ type because his advice is simply to become successful through regular language study, thought and practice.

Marta says; “There is an almost endless number of language learning methods out there and I think each of them has its place. Each is suitable for a specific type of learner. The key is to identify for ourselves what type of a learner we are and what works for us.” “

“As it is the case with the whole idea of blogging and vlogging, it does require a certain level of self-confidence or even audacity to put one’s opinion or method out there. A part of me admires the boldness and courage it requires. Having worked in the language learning industry and having so much exposure to different blogs and vlogs I probably have a skewed view and am a more demanding viewer/reader: it’s hard to surprise me. Therefore, often just reading the title of the blog or vlog I feel I can predict what will be said and skip the piece altogether or skim read it with in my head going “yea, yea. Blah, blah blah.”

“It seems that knowledge of a foreign language (or even an attempt to gain it) has become one of the popular skills one must attain in order to appear cultured. Somewhat like in Victorian England a “well rounded” woman was required to crochet and play an instrument, these days a CV without a foreign language can give out an aura of ignorance of the global society. Therefore many people who at heart are ignorant of other cultures would pick up a foreign language just to create an appearance of an engaged and self-improving individual.”

 

Marta makes an interesting point. Part of my enthusiasm for languages is also tied to my curiosity in cultural differences. That’s why I’ve joined the Society of Intercultural Education Training and Research and become their congress coordinator for the Dublin congress in 2017. As I learn about different languages, I learn about different cultures. To me, it seems nearly pointless to learn a language without learning about the culture of its speakers. The cultural awareness aspect sometimes transmits itself to the people who pick up a foreign language, regardless of motivation, but that’s not always the case.

 

Who wants to be a polyglot?

In conclusion, our values, assumptions, beliefs and expectations have a huge impact on how we relate to the world and how the world relates to us. In the field of language learning, how we spend our time, the languages we learn, the languages we value, our assumptions behind language learning, our beliefs in what we can and can’t accomplish, and in the expectations we place on ourselves and those of others all come into play. Some of us want to be polyglots and some of us don’t. Some of us admire polyglots and some of us don’t.

Motivation, more than method is the key to successful language learning. It takes time to learn a language and time to maintain a language. Once you’ve attained a high level in a language, there’s a lot you can do with it: volunteer, work, play, travel, study, write, read, socialise, listen to broadcasts and music, watch film and drama, and enter into a world of a different cultural perspective. Each time you reach a high level in a language, you increase your access to all of the cultural richness available on the planet.

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Dimitris is the founder of yozzi.com where he writes in his eight strongest languages and encourages others to write in their target languages too. He is the congress coordinator for the Society of Intercultural Education Training and Research (SIETAR Europa), has lived in seven countries, sojourned in eight, visited every continent and more than 100 countries.

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  • Dimitris and Marta raise an interesting point that I seem to fully agree. Many people in the polyglot community take their language learning as bragging, without fully understanding a culture or keeping their prejudices alive. Some of them brag about being open minded but they are the first ones to label and demonize “others”, who in many situations are monoglots (like if it was an insult). We can learn plenty of things from monoglots and many of them probably didn’t have access to learn a foreign language or never had the need, but they can be open minded towards others and be extremely respectful of other cultures. I think those people want to be special so badly that they need to convince themselves of that.

    I’m also kind of wary of the whole post-polyglot labels (Hyperglot, celebglot, etc.), but that’s another story.

    Excellent article from Dimitris 🙂

    • That’s a good point, Cristóbal. That brings us back to the issue of values. It’s about compassion and openness for all the differences that are out there.

  • Today I came across this post: http://www.broadimaginationllc.com/2015/12/01/language-is-culture/ that also emphasises the importance of learning the culture when learning a language.