Why We Need to Stop Idolizing Polyglots Posted by meaghan on Sep 10, 2014 in Language Learning
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?