Why We Need to Stop Idolizing Polyglots

Posted on 10. Sep, 2014 by in Language Learning

Image by -macjasp on Flickr.com

Image by -macjasp on Flickr.com

Think about the people we idolize—actors, musicians, models, authors, and, for some reason, the Kardashians. (I don’t understand it either, friends.) We put these celebrities up on a pedestal because we are in awe of what they do and perhaps want to be like them. But there’s also an element of idolatry that comes from believing our idols do something we simply cannot. They are achieving the impossible, and we love them for it. So, what happens when we begin to give polyglots this same treatment? When we put them up on a pedestal, are we giving people the impression that they themselves can’t become a polyglot, too?

That’s why I vote we stop looking at polyglots as fascinating, silver-tongued specimens, and start looking to them as our companions on this crazy journey called learning a language. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had a number of polyglots contribute to the Language News blog, and I respect and appreciate each one of them. But polyglots will be the first ones to tell you there’s nothing special about them. In fact, this post was inspired by the well-known polyglot Benny Lewis, who insists that learning a language is not impressive at all. According to Benny,

“Being impressed is a spectator sport. This is not something I care to promote. I’ll be happier when speaking a language is a run of the mill thing, like anything else many people learn such as driving a car that it only ‘impressive’ to those who have never tried.”

I say, preach, Benny, preach! What’s impressive about polyglots isn’t the fact that they have learned numerous languages, but that they’ve put in the time and effort required to do so. Just like any other activity that seems out of reach for us “normal folks”, be it running a marathon or writing a novel, learning a language is actually entirely within reach for everyone willing to put in the effort. There’s no special gene or super power involved, it’s called hard work, which is something we’re all capable of.

This train of thought is particularly relevant for language learning. To a monolingual just beginning their language journey, watching someone seamlessly slip from one language to another may seem like sorcery. But monolinguals are actually in the minority. A recent study (albeit an imperfect one) from Stockholm University estimated that 80% of the world’s population speaks 1.69 languages. In many parts of the world, bilingualism (or beyond) is the norm. In regions in West Africa, for example, switching amongst two or three local dialects is not only commonplace, but necessary for daily life. No magic, just reality.

Polyglots don’t want to be your magical idol, anyway. They want to be your inspiration! Sure, you should look to them for advice and motivation, but you should never have to look up to them. Every polyglot that I’ve met promotes their abilities not to shove in in your face like sucker, but to show you that you can do it, too. It’s time we shift our collective thinking from “I wish I could do that.” to “If they can do it, I can do it.” Ask questions, take their advice, and, well… do it! With some time and persistence, you may just find that you’ve impressed yourself more than any polyglot ever could.

What do you think: are polyglots valid idols? Does polyglot worship make multilingualism seem less achievable? Do you find polyglots inspiring or discouraging?

Romantic Languages: Not Necessarily Romance Languages

Posted on 08. Sep, 2014 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: Fearfully YoursToday I’m going to completely disagree with my own comic.

I made the above strip a while back and thought I could mine some easy chuckles from a common stereotype. But now that I’m older, wiser, and more proficient in all of the above languages, I’ve come change my tune. Not only that, I’m going to crusade on behalf of those languages which I believe have been wrongly maligned by simplistic labels and bad first impressions. Any language can be romantic—not just the so-called romance languages!

Of course, the “romance” in the term “romance language” doesn’t refer to how effective it is in attracting members of the opposite sex; rather, it just means it’s a language rooted in Latin, the language of the Romans (it’s embarrassing how recently it was that I found this out myself). Yet there’s this pervading opinion that French, Italian, and Spanish are the world’s prettiest-sounding languages—apart from my own unscientific questioning of friends and relatives, the Kings of Romance seem to dominate most of the top-10 lists I can find on the web as well. They’re cited as being “melodic,” “flowing,” “cheerful,” and “easy on the ears.”

At the bottom of most lists, grumbling and grouching, are usually German, Russian, and the other Slavic languages. (Strangely, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese tend to vacillate on people’s lists between ugliest and prettiest. Not sure what that’s about.) They’re cursed with being “guttural,” “harsh,” and “like someone is choking on potatoes.”

Now, apart from this being a completely subjective topic, I believe it’s unfair. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most of this is just the influence of popular culture. Paris, Barcelona, Venice: these are routinely cited as our planet’s most romantic cities. Italian and Spanish men are well-known for being aggressive pursuers of love, while the women are widely regarded as fiery and passionate. Thanks in no small part to Pepé Le Pew, the French are stereotyped as smooch-heavy seducers. All this, in my opinion, leads to romance tongues’ reputation for romance.

In fact, while these languages certainly can be romantic, they can just as easily not. French talk radio (like talk radio anywhere) reminds me of someone trying to swallow marbles. The pitter-patter of Italian can quickly become a nagging, fiery rat-tat-tat. And Spanish has so many accents across the world that I’m sure each one occupies a space on someone else’s “ugly” list.

German and Russian, on the other hand, can be mightily sexy. This all depends on what game you’re playing, of course, but there’s something to be said for those commanding tones, don’t you think? And I’m sure if we could find Looney Tunes cartoons in Serbian, Pepé Le Pew would sound just the same.

Any beautiful person with a winning smile and a killer line can seduce you, it doesn’t matter which language they’re speaking. Confidence, assertiveness, charisma, and humor play a much bigger role in attracting the opposite sex than whether your tones are nasal or guttural.

Likewise, if a large, nasty person with a bad attitude and a bone to pick is verbally assaulting you in a so-called “romance” language, you’re not going to place it very high on your list.

Okay, fine, let’s hear it: what do you think are the most and least beautiful languages around? But more interesting, perhaps – have you been seduced by German? Have you been turned off by Italian? Where have you seen the stereotypes inverted?

An American in Iceland: the Benefits of Learning the Language Before a Vacation

Posted on 03. Sep, 2014 by in Language Learning

Me, my mom, and my son on an Iceland adventure

Me, my mom, and my son on an Iceland adventure

Starting in late fall of last year, I found myself planning for a summer trip to Iceland, a place I’d wanted to visit for a very long time. Shortly after the tickets were booked and the dates circled on the calendar, it suddenly hit me that this little island in the middle of the Atlantic was unique for more than just its stunning volcanic landscapes – it was the first time in a long while that I was going somewhere they don’t speak either English or Spanish, the two languages I know well.  If I wanted to talk to people, I was going to have to learn something of the Icelandic language.

Of course, travel agents and fellow travelers all assured me that “everyone” in Iceland – or at least, everyone who has anything to do with tourists – speaks English, often quite fluently.  No language learning would be necessary, they said.  Needed or not, though, I knew I wanted to try.  I work for Transparent Language, a language company, in part because I love languages, and this was a golden opportunity to experiment with a new one.

Þríhnúkagígur - a typical Icelandic word

Þríhnúkagígur – a typical Icelandic word

And what a language Icelandic is!  My first impression was just how different it is  – three grammatical genders, noun cases, unfamiliar sounds, a couple new letters, words that seem to stretch across half the page (like “hádegismaturinn”,  a mouthful of a word that just means “lunch”)…  It’s not at all like Spanish or the other Romance languages I have the most contact with at work, or the Japanese I’ve dabbled with.  And while it is a member of the Germanic language family, like English, it has fewer cognates and a lot fewer loanwords than you might expect – Icelanders would rather coin their own terms, like “sjónvarpið” and “leigubíllinn”, than borrow our “TV” and “taxi”.

To me, though, that added to the experience.  I wasn’t aiming for fluency – just the ability to be understood in common situations, and maybe have a little fun with things.  To that end, I cherry-picked the words and phrases I most wanted to know – it says something about me that “bookstore” (“bókabúðin”) and “ice-cream” (“ísinn”) both made my list before “Where’s the bathroom?” (“Hvar er klósettið?”), though I did eventually learn that along with all the tourist survival classics.

An Icelandic bookstore

An Icelandic bookstore

I mostly worked with a variety of Transparent Language programs, relying heavily on the flash-card style learning activities and especially the Refresh feature to help me commit things to memory. Little by little, with regular practice, things came together – by the time my trip rolled around, I had 786 words and phrases in my learned items list, and I was ready to use them.

At last, the big day arrived, and I found myself on Icelandair for the easiest and fastest international flight I’ve ever had.  There was a surprising thrill to seeing the word “Útgangur” (“Exit”) on the plane’s emergency door – the first of my known words that I spotted in the wild, so to speak.  They also had little language lessons written on the seat covers – mine was about the word for “Thanks” (“Takk”), my mom’s had words for “air” and “sky” (“loft” and “himinn”), and my son was thrilled that his had the word for “lava” (“hraun”), which became the first new Icelandic word I learned on the trip.  My son declared “I like Iceland already!” even before we broke through the clouds and caught our first sight of the famous fields of old lava around the airport.

Lava field in Iceland

Lava field in Iceland

We got in just after 11:00 PM, in time for a spectacular late-night sunset. I didn’t get to use the little Icelandic spiel I’d prepared for customs – the officer checking passports for the late planes that evening was clearly too busy to chat, and stamped everyone’s documents without a word in any language.  I did, however, take a deep breath and say “Takk fyrir” (“Thank you”) to the Flybus driver as he unloaded our luggage at the hotel.  He muttered a distracted response, then did a double-take and said, “Takk fyrir? Why do you know that?”  Not “how”, but “why” – apparently, Icelanders don’t expect much from tourists.  He smiled, though, when I said I’d learned a little Icelandic, and wished me a good trip in that language.

Late-night sunset at the airport

Late-night sunset at the airport

That boosted my confidence enough to walk into the hotel and complete my check in, which I actually managed entirely in Icelandic.  It helped that hotel check-ins follow a predictable pattern, but still… the reception clerk clearly understood me, and while I didn’t catch every word he said, I followed enough to sign the form when asked, show him my credit card, tell him how many people we had, etc.  I’m sure, of course, that the clerk could have handled the whole thing easily in English, but I’m glad he let me have my little triumph – I was extraordinarily proud, and it started the trip on a high note.

In fact, as I quickly learned over the next few days, Icelanders themselves are proud to follow the European tradition of impressive multilingual abilities:  An ordinary waitress might take orders in three languages before 8:00 AM, and I met tour guides who could converse extensively in more tongues than that.  Most people would somehow instantly spot me as an American (My shoes?  My clothes?  The English-speaking child at my side?) and automatically address me in English so fluent that it seemed embarrassing to trot out my awkward beginner Icelandic in response.  I made efforts, though, and soon discovered that if I could get an Icelandic word in edgewise, I was usually rewarded with a complete switch of languages – if they thought I knew any Icelandic at all, they assumed I was fluent, and wouldn’t hesitate to rattle off long sentences that far outstripped my fledgling comprehension.  It was fun to try, though, and people would fall back on English if they realized I was lost.

Sign in many languages

Sign in many languages

Most of what I ended up saying were expressions of appreciation – “Takk fyrir” was probably my most used phrase, along with various compliments.  I was able to tell a woman who sang for our group that her song was beautiful, and tell a museum guide that her tour was “useful”. (I wish I’d learned the word for “interesting”, but I hadn’t.)  Actually, the word “fallegur” (“beautiful”) came in handy for a lot things – Iceland is an amazingly beautiful country, and Icelandic is a beautiful language, as I was able to tell several people.  I managed to move beyond memorized phrases for a few very short conversations:  commiserating with a hotel clerk about a slow computer, telling a helicopter pilot I work for a language software company, introducing my mother and son to an older man in traditional fisherman’s garb by a restoration of an old boat – the one Icelander we met who seemed not to speak English. (I don’t know if he was serious or just acting his part, but he grinned to hear my greeting in his language.)  Oh, and I had a long chat in Spanish with a couple from Barcelona at a restaurant near Lake Mývatn – never assume that any language is useless, no matter where in the world you are.

Lake Mývatn

Lake Mývatn

I passed on a few more Icelandic compliments and comments in writing in the guest books at various tourist sites – a low-pressure way to use a bit of the language, and I like to think someone had fun reading them later.  I did a lot of reading myself – I may not be up to serious literature yet (which didn’t stop me from buying an Icelandic copy of The Hobbit – I’m fluent in Tolkien, in any language), but signs, menus, place names on maps…  it was fascinating to see what I could pick out.  In fact, one of Icelandic’s most characteristic quirks – the tendency to stick words together to make other words – meant that by finding the roots I knew, I could actually read a lot more than I thought.  For example, Eyjafjallajökull – that volcano that played so much havoc with air travel and the tongues of news reporters back in 2010 – is literally the “island mountain glacier”… and yes, I can actually pronounce its name now.  (“AY-uh-fyat-luh-YO-kut-luh”, if you’re interested.)

Eyjafjallajökull with island, seabirds, and rainbow

Eyjafjallajökull with island, seabirds, and rainbow

I confirmed that pronunciation (and many others) by listening to the guides and native speakers.  Not surprisingly, they spoke faster and less predictably than the teaching materials I was used to, but I could catch certain things. Numbers – you’d be surprised how often those come up.  Weather words – everyone uses those.  Once I heard a local ask the bus driver where to find an ATM.  They were all little things, nothing critical, but it still felt like a small victory to hear and understand them.

It’s that sense of “something extra” that learning a little bit of the language really added to my experience.  Maybe it wasn’t strictly necessary for this trip, given how friendly Iceland has made itself for foreign tourists, but my efforts were by no means wasted.  I thoroughly enjoyed the learning process, the insights I picked up by reading and listening, and the smiles of the people I spoke to.  Like being drenched by a geyser, photographing puffins in the Arctic Circle, and visiting the inside of a volcano, the language will be part of my Iceland memories.