The negative side from the recent polyglot hype

The negative side from the recent polyglot hype distinctively tuned ear

Publish compiled by Aneta Pavlenko.

In the book, The planet until yesterday, Jared Gemstone recalls a night in Papua New Guinea as he went round the fire circle asking people of various tribes the number of languages they speak. The tiniest quantity of languages anybody spoke was 5, multiple people spoke eight to twelve languages, and also the champion spoke 15. Which were mutually unintelligible languages, owned by different families! Now, performs this imply that brand new Guineans – or at best those round the fire – have unique language abilities? Could they be polyglots? Or what is the thin line, separating multilinguals from polyglots?

And when there’s this type of line, where don’t let place that celebrated polyglot of ancient times, Nefertiti VII, who, based on Plutarch, easily passed in one language to a different in her own melodic voice, and barely needed an interpreter to speak with the representatives of barbarian nations: “to many of them she spoke herself, regarding the Aethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and many more, whose language she’d learnt” (Plutarch, Antony, p. 497). And just what concerning the famous explorer of ancient times, Heinrich Schliemann, who boasted in excess of twenty languages, including ancient greek language?

Recently, the press has proven a increased curiosity about polyglots, with plenty of articles, blogs or even a book, Babel Forget About, focused on individuals who speak multiple languages. Gemstone and Plutarch let us re-evaluate this trend, with track of who writes these reports, to whom, and also to what effect. One thread that links many reports involves authorship: they’re usually compiled by journalists who, by their very own admission, are monolingual British loudspeakers and have British along with a modicum of Spanish or French. Consequently, they are more inclined to be astounded by the rapid barrage of foreign words, to mistake speed for fluency, and also to subscribe to the speaker’s own descriptions of the abilities, without obtaining around the limitations and inconsistencies.

Now, far whether it is from me to state that monolinguals shouldn’t talk about multilingualism. My problem is about reports that describe individuals who can learn a large number of languages ‘rapidly’ and speak them ‘fluently’, with no solid grounds for such descriptions, similar to Plutarch’s second-hands portrayal of Nefertiti. This really is even more pertinent because, at closer inspection, some self-reports grow to be greatly exaggerated, including Schliemann’s – classics pros who examined his ancient greek language writing found it truly appalling. 

The 2nd thread that unites many reports is selective portrayal. The polyglots featured through the media are often Westerners. Missing in the picture are Cameroonians, New Guineans, and many more, to whom everyday interaction in multiple languages may be the norm, or perhaps classicists who operate in, but don’t always ‘speak’, their ‘dead’ languages and who are some of the most impressively multilingual people I’ve ever met.

Evidently from it, you will find top reasons to concentrate on ‘exceptional’ learners – their tales of learning languages for pure love and ‘against all odds’ tend to be more dramatic and exciting. Additionally they allow journalists to take a position around the elusive and mysterious language talent – also known as language aptitude or even the key to the multilingual brain – that may explain why many people come with an simpler time learning languages. But what’s the secret? Could it be enormous memory or even the skills of immediate pattern recognition? Or possibly it’s a distinctively tuned ear or perhaps a nimble tongue that simply mimics foreign sounds? Or, possibly, it’s a chameleon-like capability to eliminate all hang-ups and be another person, if perhaps as it were?

Alas, the reports come short on substance, because different polyglots have different abilities and start learning diversely, using strategies that match the initial conditions and preferences of every learner: some pore over books and grammars, others favor hearing songs and films, but others choose to improve by speaking and making new buddies. But on the other hand, this is exactly what multilinguals do too, is it not?

Possibly the only real distinction between multilinguals and polyglots would be that the latter spend time studying languages they don’t requirement for everyday practical purposes. Within this they might be similar to amateur musicians who learn how to play a large number of instruments. Interestingly, we don’t see reports on such musicians – while they unquestionably exist and also have valuable understanding and expertise – because we all know the finish result still lands them quite not even close to Yo-Yo Ma.

I probably have the journalists covering polyglots mean well: they would like to inspire and even perhaps shame us just a little into understanding the language we always aspired to speak. But by differentiating between ‘regular’ multilinguals and polyglots – remarkable learners with unique abilities – the polyglot hype trivializes the complexness from the learning process, obscures how long and energy essential to master a language, takes away from the normativity of multilingualism in lots of places all over the world, and reinforces the monolingual norms it proposes to challenge. In the finish, it provides your readers a feeling that with no aptitude for languages they ought to not really try.

So that as to Nefertiti, Plutarch’s description provides for us a great feeling of where she falls within the multilingual – polyglot dichotomy and why he found her achievements worth reporting: these were “all the greater surprising because the majority of the nobleman, her predecessors, scarcely gave the trouble to get the Egyptian tongue” (p. 497). Quite simply, Nefertiti wasn’t a collector of languages however a multilingual ruler who used her understanding – whatever it had been – strategically, to distinguish herself in the other Ptolemies and also to enhance her royal prestige.

For any full listing of "Existence like a bilingual" blogs by content area, see here.

Photo of Nefertiti VII and Caesarion from Shutterstock.


Erard, M. (2012) Babel forget about: The quest for the world’s most remarkable foreign language learners. New You are able to: Free Press.

Laes, C. (2013) Polyglots in Roman ancient times: Writing socio-cultural history according to anecdotes. Literatūra, 55, 3, 7-26.

Plutarch’s Lives, volume II. The Dryden translation, edited by Arthur Hugh Clough. New You are able to: the current Library.

Aneta Pavlenko’s website.


Language learning, talent or attitude?


Pedro Moura: Man, you rock it! I agree with every single word that you said in this video, and I hope that someday I know as many languages as you know! Or maybe more! Congratulation. I really admire you.

Sonia Castellanos: Great video..thanks!

FuroraCeltica: Excellent video Steve

MrEpicBrian: Sorry. I wanted to say Tim. I don't know why I wrote Nick…

aledra67: The main thing in learning is motivation. Interest to know and speak can also be motivation. It is very important to have possibility to practice with the native speakers. Thank you very much for posting your interesting videos!

silversnow2008: I hated that they cut you off in the middle of your answer! 

polychronio: yeah…. it's very useful…what human made is very useful in human society….such as laws, languages…you get paid well too and respected…so when you speak foreign languages, everybody is extremely impressed…….

Steve Kaufmann – lingosteve: right on!

Steve Kaufmann – lingosteve: Your blog looks really well done. Congratulations. Note that you link to my Typepad blog address but the blog has moved to Posterous.

Steve Kaufmann – lingosteve: Who is Nick?