Meet the Polyglots: the Linguistic Geniuses Out to Change the Way You Think

I set out to feature the best and youngest polyglots the internet had to offer. The more videos of kids speaking more languages than they had candles on their birthday cake, the better. What I found instead was a thoughtful community of linguists chastising the media for sensationalizing genius (oops) and obscuring what’s important: language learning.

meet-the-polyglots

This talented group of polyglots of all ages democratically leads language-loving legions. They use their popularity to promote humanitarian multilingual agendas, lifting the practice of language learning out of academic exercise and harnessing the power of the global internet to get the largest and most diverse group of people doing what they all agree matters most: connecting.

“Adventures of a Teenage Polyglot”

In the spring of 2012, a host of media outlets hailed Tim Doner as the world’s youngest polyglot. Then 16, inspired by studying Hebrew for his bar mitzvah, he had spent three years teaching himself over 20 languages. The New York Times story honed in on how the internet “changed the metabolism of his language study…Suddenly, Timothy had people to talk to in all his languages — not just native speakers, but also people like himself, who were interested in language for its own sake, a small but vibrant subculture of language geeks.”

As society greases the YouTube channels, this subculture has gotten larger and even more vibrant, and it’s no surprise that two years later polyglots like Doner influence the online language learning community.  Along with the ability to improve language skills and make friends based on shared interest, the internet presents polyglots with a platform for global networking.  Speakers of multiple upon multiple languages enter a space where proficiency translates to authority and traffic.  Lucky for the community, members of this talented group tend to share a humanitarian philosophy.

“Breaking the Language Barrier”

Early this spring, Doner gave a talk at TEDxTeen 2014, which he starts by reflecting on a somewhat negative experience with the media back in 2012. Though glad to see language learning get more attention, he was disappointed when instead of inquiring how and why he learned so many languages reporters and talk-show hosts called upon him to perform, to introduce himself in Russian or come out with a Chinese tongue twister.   “Up next a skateboarding bulldog in a bathing suit,” he quipped reenacting an exaggerated version of his interviews, not so much offended by being treated as a trick pony as disturbed by an approach to the issue that portrays learning language as a task.  Engaging Doner as someone trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records cheapens what it means to speak a language, which he identifies as “a lot more than knowing words out of the dictionary.”

Doner’s approach to language is soulful and political.  A New Yorker, he’s blown away by the number of languages he hears on the street, but for all that linguistic diversity he observes how mainstream American culture remains monolingual.  He nods to the controversy surrounding Coke’s Super Bowl 2014 commercial, a multilingual rendition of “America the Beautiful.”  Donor points to the connection between language and thought and advocates cultural immersion to expand the mind; you have to understand the culture to understand the phrase, or, as Doner says, “you can translate words easily, but you can’t quite translate meaning.”

Polyglots vs. Hyperglots

In “Breaking the Language Barrier,” Doner invites his audience to change the way they think about language and language learning, and ultimately makes a practical pitch for trying a new language.  Part of his talk even consists of sharing fun language-learning tips.  Truth is, it’s not unreasonable to expect audience members to pick up a language or even a few.  A polyglot is simply defined as a multilingual person.  Scientists agree that to be a polyglot requires a threshold of natural talent, but beyond that the learner needs only desire and discipline.  Doner doesn’t want to be the exception; that’s precisely what it’s not about.

That said, while many can learn multiple languages, you don’t often see people familiarizing themselves with the Arabic alphabet in a matter of days: a talent like Doner’s is special.  (His TED talk touches on how he was a child actor with a knack for accents and impressions — linguistic talent flag numero uno.) For linguists of a certain caliber, professor Richard Hudson at the University College London coined the term “hyperglot” to refer to someone who can speak six or more languages fluently.  Some only apply “hyperglot” to extreme cases, linguists who speak anywhere from 12 to 50 languages.

When it comes to these most extreme cases, there are recognized leaders around the world, 17 Notable Living Polyglots listed on Wikipedia and a handful of others who repeatedly come out on top in forums for rating the “World’s Best Polyglots.”  Richard Simcott, fluent in 16 languages and versed in over 30, was identified as Britain’s most multilingual adult by Harper Collins UK; his YouTube videos were early inspiration for Doner.  Former Canadian diplomat Steven Kaufmann speaks 11 languages and counting.  Luca Lampariello of Rome speaks 12.

It’s Not a Competition, It’s a Calling

Those seriously in contention for the title of “World’s Greatest Polyglot” will be the first to point out that in this category the criteria for “best” is hard to define.  Should poly- and hyper-glots be judged on the number of languages they speak or on their level of fluency?  Are certain languages more inherently “difficult” than others?  No uncontroversial definition for mastery of language exists.  Moreover, individuals who’ve invested their lives in learning languages will also be first to tell you it’s not a competition.  Ranking polyglots engages in the same kind of small-mindedness of which Doner accused the media.

These high-profile polyglots are more concerned with missions to promote multilingualism than they are with competing.  There is a long tradition of polyglots as scholars and authors, and in this digital age many turn to the web to galvanize the global community. Kaufmann co-founded The Linguist Institute Learning Company and actively runs his blog, The Linguist.  Simcott and Lampariello were both singled out by the Mezzofanti Guild, an Online Community of Serious Language Learners, as prolific language learning bloggers to follow. A self-proclaimed Multilingual Ambassador, Simcott wants his blog, Speaking Fluently, to be the most useful possible tool for language learners and in that spirit invites visitors to shape the content.  Lampariello dedicates his blog to his “greatest passion, languages,” and professes that “If anyone tells you that just knowing English is enough tell him ‘he who learns another language acquires another soul.'”

Together, Simcott and Lampariello founded the international Polyglot Conference, held for the first time in Budapest, Hungary in 2013, and scheduled this year for October 10-12 in Novi Sad, Serbia.  They aimed to bring together in real life the world’s polyglots alongside those with true passion for language.  They acknowledge how over the course of five years engaging language learners online the community has “grown from strength to strength,” and hope the conference will “take this to the next level.”

Unless It Is a Competition

While the heavyweights insist language learning isn’t a competition, they’ve discovered that friendly competition is a great way to inspire newcomers, motivate the existing community, and gain exposure for language learning in general.  On Speaking Fluently, Simcott references MehrsprachICH, a video competition launched by Germany’s Goethe Institute. They challenge speakers of multiple languages in the hopes that they publicize the “positive impact that knowledge of different languages can have on your own development and on your co-existence with others.”  The Goethe Institute collaborates with the European Union National Institutes for Culture in Brussels and the Poliglotti4.eu to promote multilingualism on the continent, underscoring how learning language “opens doors and broadens horizons.”  The Poliglotti4.eu project came out of the Civil Society Platform on Multilingualism, working on behalf of the European Commission.  Their goals include developing and implementing multilingual policy “at grassroots level everywhere in Europe.”

On the heels of his TED Talk, Doner came out with his own competition, the “Teen Polyglot Challenge.”  On March 1, 2014, he released a video on his YouTube Channel, Polyglot Pal, inviting young adults ages 13-19 to spend 30 days teaching themselves the basics of a language using the internet, books, and music.  He asked participants to submit videos of themselves at the end of this month practicing pronunciation, intonation, vocabulary, and knowledge of the culture — “to prove to themselves and everybody watching that you can teach yourself language to a reasonable degree in the course of just a month.”  He received submissions from impressive teens around the world learning languages from French to Tetun Dili, and gave out four awards, two in the Non-European Language category and two in European.  As inspiration, he uploaded all the video submissions, including one of a teen who learned sign language.

Why Polyglots Make Good Leaders

Doner makes use of time spent in the media spotlight, drawing on his youth and talent to inspire other members of his generation. These polyglots have the power to lead because they have authority in the language learning space, the kind of authority enabled by the democratizing agent that is the internet, authority derived from intellectual merit.  But this ability, what separates the individual who learns 20 languages from the one who knows four, may coincide with other leadership qualities.

In recent years scholarship has zeroed in on the benefits of being bilingual: the NYT explains why bilinguals as smarter; academic research shows why bilinguals are more empathic.  Bilinguals are said to appreciate a more nuanced relationship between words and meaning; they understand language as a means to an end (communicating), and that understanding leads to a greater capacity for empathy for other humans, especially those who are different. If bilingual individuals see the world in this expanded way, then how empathic are they who know not two but 20 languages?

Universal Language

Polyglots are quick to quote Nelson Mandela, a famous hyperglot, leader, and humanitarian.  At the first annual Polyglot Conference and in Doner’s TED Talk, projected onto the screen was Mandela’s famous line: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head; if you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart.”  Exploration of the nature of language betrays the relationship between true cultural understanding and world peace, between language and thought technology. Polyglots have had their minds blown by their learning experience; they see the world differently and they want to inspire others to see the world similarly.

The internet enables new practical methods for learning language (recording oneself on YouTube, engaging native speakers and language enthusiasts to refine skills) but more profoundly invites connection. “Meeting other language learners today has never been easier,” Simcott proclaims on Speaking Fluently, appreciating what amazing resources are forums and social media.

Connectivity promotes understanding between cultures that proves necessary to move forward as a global community, but we run the risk of coming together by flattening experience rather than embracing our differences.  The Goethe Institute cites how the number of foreign language learners within Europe declines. In his recent speech, Doner points out how every two weeks on earth another language dies because of assimilation, war, or death. These polyglots and policy-makers want to preserve the integrity of language for the good of future generations, and how exciting to watch natural-born humanitarian leaders employ the resources of today’s technology to change the future of the way we communicate.

Ready to Learn?

If polyglots inspire you to try a totally new language, Doner suggests you make use of available resources like books, music, and movies to discover your new culture–by way of acknowledging that true learning happens in real time, cultural exchange. In other words, when you’re ready to dive deeply into your new language and culture, it’s time to find a conversation partner. The internet connects you to a large pool of native speakers but it’s most important to find someone with whom you can have extended, meaningful dialogue. Consider the online buddy system or enlisting the help of native speaker in the form of a qualified language tutor.

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