Can anyone be a polyglot?

DavidMansaray gb United Kingdom

I had the pleasure of catching up with Richard Simcott a few days ago and we recorded a video discussing whether it's possible for anyone to be a polyglot. Of course, we both agree that anyone can learn a few languages. But to speak many languages *really well*, is that really possible for anyone?

I'd love to have a discussion with you all and hear your opinions.

Here's a link to the video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vE1L-q-9XPo&list=UUEeDgr8ZsPzzYRzxt5VOQFA&index=1&feature=plcp

Thanks in advance!

David

July 2012
  • TroisRoyaumes ca Canada

    I was totally distracted and excited by the rolling thunders in the background.

    July 2012
  • DavidMansaray gb United Kingdom

    lol so do you think anyone can be a polyglot?

    July 2012
  • [eugrus] aw Aruba

    I am quite sure about that. If we know how to do it twice, why can't we do it 20 times?

    July 2012
  • rodrigo_ br Brazil

    I think anyone can be a polyglot, but it would take a long time to speak many languages really well.

    July 2012
  • Moderator
    steve ca Canada

    One at a time, yes. The more you learn, the easier it becomes, for many reasons. Yes, anyone can who has the interest and the time, in my view.

    July 2012
  • [Jay_B] aw Aruba

    @eugrus: "...If we know how to do it twice, why can't we do it 20 times?"

    -----

    Time.

    Going from zero knowledge right up to full-blooded level C2 surely requires about 10 years of regular study? (Perhaps double this for "difficult" languages?) Even from zero to level B1/B2 in an "easy" language probably requires a whole year's worth of 2 hour daily study sessions, IMO.

    Most people can't do this 20 times over because, like the protagonist in "Der Tod in Venedig", they find that time is not on their side! :-0

    July 2012
  • Moderator
    steve ca Canada

    "Going from zero knowledge right up to full-blooded level C2 surely requires about 10 years of regular study? "

    No. Getting to where you can enjoy the language can take a few years, or a few months, depending on our goals, and the languages we already know. Let's not exaggerate.

    July 2012
  • Shigeharu jp Japan

    Maybe I am a terribly lazy learner, but I don't want to be a fluent speaker.

    I have been learning English since I was child but still have certain difficulties in listening to real contents. My TOEIC score is around 730-900. (Over 37 years of learning. When I was 13-15 years old, my English grades were the best in all classes.)

    I started learning French at the age of 19 and was staying in France for about three years but I'm not enough fluent. I can not develop my own idea fluently when talking about something interesting. I still hesitate in taking DALF C1. (Over 30 years of learning including three years of immersion)

    When I was thirteen years old, I was teaching myself Chinese for a while, and listening to radio programs without understanding them. About three years ago, I restarted learning it. I seem to be still at level A1 or A2 because of lack of fluency even though I got new HSK 5 last year. (Over three years of learning but I learned about 2000 Kanjis at school.)

    I would like to enjoy listening to real resources. And I would like to talk about my favorite subjects with native speakers at my own pace although my ability is not so high...

    July 2012
  • Makacenko cz Czech Republic

    Shigeharu

    I am lazy learner and I do not want to be polyglot as well. Thanks to learning English I enjoy Richard Dawkins' videos for example.

    July 2012
  • aybee77 us United States

    @127: I liked the answer you gave.

    To answer the question, I think that it is possible to learn multiple languages. As someone that is not at that point, I would think that maintaining multiple languages at a high level would be quite the challenge.

    July 2012
  • [Jay_B] aw Aruba

    @Steve

    It's difficult to put exact figures on these things, but I really don't think I was exaggerating so much, Steve.

    "Getting to where you can enjoy the language..." is not at all the same thing as getting to level C2. Depending on our exact goals, we might be able to enjoy a language at any level from A2 onwards. But level C2 - or full native level - is surely a different cup of tea?

    I think we sometimes forget just how high the bar for level C2 actually is! Even at the next level down, at level C1, I believe a person would already be good enough to hold down a pretty sophisticated job in a foreign country. Indeed, I can think of several foreign-born academics who taught me at university, whose level in written English probably wasn't any higher than C1.

    (Of course, if a person achieved B2 or C1 in ten or more languages, he/she would still be a very worthy of respect!)

    July 2012
  • Elric br Brazil

    Unless you think of this as cheating, you can become a high level polyglot by just sticking to your native language's family. As a native Portuguese speaker, I could learn French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian (or maybe Catalan, Sardinian, Galego or one of the other "smaller" languages in the group) to a high level (C1) in probably ten years or less. This could be applied to the Slavic and the Germanic family, for example.

    July 2012
  • [Jay_B] aw Aruba

    It's a fair point to say that a native speaker of Portuguese would get a 'discount' on learning Spanish, Italian, French, etc..

    (However, I think it is important to distinguish between active and passive ability. In the above context, being able to read/understand Spanish, etc might not imply that one were also able to produce it actively and fluently at a very high level...)

    July 2012
  • peter au Australia

    "I think we sometimes forget just how high the bar for level C2 actually is! Even at the next level down, at level C1, I believe a person would already be good enough to hold down a pretty sophisticated job in a foreign country."

    ------------------------

    For me it's the opposite, I think we sometimes exaggerate how high the bar for C2 actually is.

    Someone who has passed a C2 exam would be very proficient in a number of areas, but it's quite possible to pass the exam without being even close to that of a native.

    When you say things like this: "But level C2 - or full native level", you make it sound like it's the same thing.

    I have no doubt I could pass a French or Spanish C2 exam if I kept studying one of them actively for a few more years, and then one day I could get a job in France or Spain only to realise that the gap between C2 (exam passing ability) and "native level" is huge! The difference, however, becomes blurry if you get better at grammar, spelling and/or writing than many natives.

    ------------------------

    Returning to the topic at hand, I think:

    - anyone can become a polyglot

    - the first language is the hardest

    - it takes DAILY study and exposure (2 or 3 times a week won't take you very far, even in an "easy" language)

    July 2012
  • hrhenry us United States

    @JayB: " But level C2 - or full native level - is surely a different cup of tea?"

    Is C2 your definition of speaking a language? I know many people that are maybe at a B2 level that live their lives, at least public-facing, entirely in their second language. That to me, is "speaking the language". Of course, there's room for much improvement, but some people never get beyond that and yet live happy, productive lives in their second language.

    R.

    ==

    July 2012
  • [1892uDH] aw Aruba

    ...

    July 2012
  • Moderator
    steve ca Canada

    The first definition on Google:

    pol·y·glot/ˈpäliˌglät/

    Adjective:

    Knowing or using several languages.

    Noun:

    A person who knows several languages.

    Synonyms:

    multilingual

    No mention of C2, B2 or any other level, nor any particular number of languages . Let's not complicate things. Yes, anyone can become a polyglot.

    July 2012
  • djc463 us United States

    Yes, I honestly believe they can. The reason I believe this is that the brain is malleable, and so while it is very difficult to get started in language learning, once one becomes fluent in a language or two, Broca's area in the frontal lobe and Wernicke's area in the temporal lobe are now better attuned and can learn subsequent languages with more ease than the average person who doesn't have this experience. Motivation to go forth and do it also plays an enormous role.

    There is probably some genetic aspect that helps some more than others, for instance, people who know 15 or more languages may have extra help, but I don't believe that I am genetically gifted at languages, and it took me more than 6 years to learn French (my first foreign language) fluently. Now I am 23 and speak 5 languages. I think anyone can learn between 5-10 languages if they want, and become a polyglot.

    July 2012
  • danchan jp Japan

    @Shigeharu

    You have not asked for any advice, so it is somewhat presumptuous for me to offer some (my apologies if this is unwanted), but regarding listening have you considered it may be an issue of sheer volume (listening hours) as opposed to 'study'? I still have some gap between my English and Japanese listening comprehension, especially when things become very complex in lectures, or if young people are using a lot of slang, but otherwise I have absolutely no problem. The same goes for my ability to express myself. For many many years I found it extremely difficult, until I spent one year listening to normal speed discussions (radio and such) nearly full time with the help of an iPod and TV over the internet. I must have listened for some four thousand hours in that year as I have mentioned elsewhere around here. This kind of living probably isn't possibly for many people - and then there is also the question of enjoy-ability/motivation (I had a strong goal of entering post-graduate as well as a looming deadline). That said though, I do not think the issue is one of being lazy or not lazy. Most of the time during that year I was doing nothing but lazy things such as watching Japanese TV or listening to interesting discussions. The only condition was that the activity had to be in Japanese.

    One of my inspirations for attempting that project, which was ultimately successful, was the blog post below.

    http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/10000-hours-building-listening-comprehension

    July 2012
  • [Jay_B] aw Aruba

    @hrhenry: "...Is C2 your definition of speaking a language? I know many people that are maybe at a B2 level that live their lives, at least public-facing, entirely in their second language."

    -----

    In the opening post on this thread, David posed the question: "...to speak many languages *really well*, is that really possible for anyone?"

    So I suppose that level C2 would be my definition of speaking "really well" (yup, I set myself very high standards! :-D)

    There may be some folks out there who live their lives at B2 in a second language, but I'd bet that many of the people you are thinking of would actually make the grade for C1 if they were tested. (The gap B2-C1 is, in any case, very much smaller than the gap C1-C2, in my opinion.)

    July 2012
  • Moderator
    steve ca Canada

    I have never been motivated to take a test in any of the languages I speak. I only did so when I had to.

    I learn languages for my own reasons, to communicate, and to enjoy other cultures. Who needs a test? Who needs a level? These are arbitrary. The enjoyment I get from my languages is real.

    July 2012