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Of Polyglots and Multilinguals Posted by on Jun 29, 2016 in Archived Posts

You’ve heard this word “polyglot,” no doubt, being thrown around a lot. What the heck does it mean? And what’s the difference between polyglots and multilinguals? And is a “dodecalingual” really a thing?

Itchy Feet: Polyprefixation

“Polyglot” is kind of a funny word. It sounds more like some kind of insect larva (“after metamorphosis, the squirming polyglot will transform into the majestic glotted spiderfly!“) or a forensic term for blood splatter (“we’ve got a body in the living room, detective, and polyglot all over the curtains“). But it’s nothing quite so entertaining. If you don’t already know, being the language learner that you are, a polyglot is simply the word for someone who speaks several languages. “Poly” of course being the Greek for “many” and “glot” being Greek for “insect larva.” Sorry, I mean “speaking, reading or writing a language.”

Now, “someone who speaks multiple languages” is a pretty vague definition. Wikipedia defines a polyglot as someone who has “mastered” multiple languages, then goes on to ruminate without citation on what “speaking” a language might actually mean. The dictionary offers nothing more concrete with “knowing or using several languages.” What if I have one mother language that I’m fluent in, and I’m a beginner in ten other languages? What if I’m fluent in two languages, but one of them is a dialect? What if I’m fluent in C++ and BASIC? Am I a polyglot?

All the polyglots I’ve ever spoken with, at the Polyglot Gathering or on my Itchy Feet site, maintain a very loose definition of what “speaking a language” means. As a group, polyglots are extremely inclusive. After all, their hobby is learning new languages to gain new cultural perspectives and speak to new groups of people – they’re by definition a very open-minded bunch. Being a “polyglot” is not a rank or mark of status. It just means you enjoy learning new languages. So if you want to call yourself a polyglot or not, that’s fine by the polyglot community. The more the merrier!

But if a polyglot is someone who speaks multiple languages, what on earth is a multilingual person then? Both Wikipedia and the dictionary consider polyglot and multilingual as interchangeable. And why not? After all “multi” is the Latin for “poly”, and “lingual” is the Latin for “glot.” So multilingual is literally the exact same word as polyglot, just in a different old language.

What a shame! Here are two perfectly good words that sound completely different, and yet they’re used interchangeably. I think this is a waste, and I want to propose that we language learning enthusiasts popularize a distinction between the two. What distinction? Well, I’m glad you asked! I have just the one (I can’t take credit for it, as I heard it from someone else, but since I can’t remember who that is, we’ll just pretend we are all inventing this right now):

I propose that a polyglot is someone who has actively, consciously learned more than one language, where a multilingual person is someone who grew up speaking more than one language. Get it? So if you grew up in northern Morocco and since childhood speak Moroccan Arabic, French, Spanish and Tamazight, you’re multilingual. If as an adult you then moved to Asia and picked up Chinese, Korean and Thai, you’d also be a polyglot. Obviously, there’s a lot of wiggle room here as well (what if you learned a language in school as a teenager?), but I think the distinction between those that were raised with multiple languages and those that learned them on their own is an important and interesting one. We have two words, let’s use ’em!

What do you think?

P.S. – a “dodecalingual” is apparently someone who speaks twelve languages. They do exist!

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. Cliona:

    I’m with you…until you take someone who grew up speaking two or more mother tongues and then consciously learned more languages. Are they a multilingual polyglot or a polyglot multilinguist? And will they need their own bathrooms?

  2. Rob:

    Swiss people are quadrilingual.


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