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.
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.
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.
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.
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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