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Why We Need to Stop Idolizing Polyglots Posted by 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?

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About the Author: meaghan

Meaghan is the Social Media Coordinator for Transparent Language, aka the messenger of language news to twitterverse. She once had a love/hate relationship with French, but the two are now very happy together, although one time she was a little unfaithful with a semester of Hausa lessons. @meagmcgon


Comments:

  1. Chris Broholm:

    I agree to an extent. It’s dangerous to look at the hyperpolyglots and assume that they had some special talent or even super power to learn languages, when in fact they just worked harder than the average to get where they are.

    But on the other hand, I find it incredibly motivational to look at the hyperpolyglots and, yes, idolise them. Not as unrealistic destinations, but with a feeling of “I can do that too!”

    Either way it’s a good topic to put focus on once a while, so people don’t get discouraged.

  2. Don Balya:

    I speak French, German, Italian, Spanish and Bahasa Malaysia, and a good bit of Portuguese. Big deal.

  3. anne:

    How many languages do you have tot speak tot be concidered a polyglot?

  4. Erik Zidowecki:

    If someone works hard to become really good at something, and it is something that I would want for myself, why should I not idolize that person? We create idols so that we have something to aspire to.. a proof that it can be achieved. This is also why we seldom looks at what we have achieved as great because we are focusing on something more.

  5. Polyglot:

    “When we put them up on a pedestal, are we giving people the impression that they themselves can’t become a polyglot, too?”

    What does that even mean? People should be admired for accomplishments and we should try and emulate them. You’re confusing reality characters with people who have become famous because they have actually achieved something remarkable and admirable. That is true celebrity.

  6. Constanze:

    I’ve had loads of people say to me, “Wowwwww it’s amazing that you can speak two languages!” and it always makes me feel like a bit of a con because I was raised with two languages, and therefore I don’t know what it is to NOT know two languages. I never had to put any effort into learning either of them – they have always been a part of who I am. So I admire people who learn a second language as an adult. That takes skill and determination! I’m just lucky. 😉

  7. Omar:

    I totally agree! In a country like Tunisia, where Arabic and French are taught simultaneously and where English is a must, being a Polyglot is a common thing and calling one’s self so becomes a total aberration, like the West African example mentioned.
    And despite the number of languages spoken, Polyglots and all the other “celebrities” should be a source of inspiration for all of us, to change our habits, work harder, and find the suitable method for us to improve in our field.

  8. Ella:

    Is it better to become a master of one language (think of people like Stephen Fry who uses words like an artist uses paint on a canvas) or is it better to be able to just ‘get by’ in 7, 8, 9, etc languages?

    I’m really not sure.

    • Transparent Language:

      @Ella It probably depends on your lifestyle and your goals. If you’re a long-term expat or married to someone whose first language differs from yours, mastering one language and truly “living” in that language makes more sense. But if you’re simply interested in languages in general, travel often, live in a diverse community, etc. maybe having lower proficiency in more languages better suits your needs. Either way, it’s important to be exposed to at least one new language and culture, to see things from other perspectives, put yourself in the shoes of those trying to learn your language, etc. You can’t go wrong either way!

  9. Gustavo:

    I do not worship the polyglots. But I do not want to be inspired by the polyglots. I find them discouraging.

    Nowadays, the polyglots are not anymore friendly. When the smart and advanced polyglots discover that another polyglot is smarter than them, they’ll attack him, saying his French isn’t advanced because he still makes a lot of mistakes and won’t accept him in the group of advanced, will forbide him of using the complicated things on the group of beginners and will force him to modify his personality trait. I had this bad experience with the polyglots.

    Polyglots are generally arrogant, hypocritical, narcissistic, psychopathic, selfish and sociopathic. They look like Palpatine.

    I reject the label of “polyglot”. I prefer label myself and being labelled as a “languages lover”.

    If I know many languages, I prefer lying to the people that I speak only two languages for protecting myself of intelligent and smart people, advanced learners and of advanced polyglots. I prefer learning and talking with bilingual and trilingual beginners since they are not advanced.


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