Why You Should Stop Playing The Polyglot Game

So, yes, what you are reading today might be a little controversial and first of all I want to thank you for engaging with it! What I'm about to put out here is as much a reflection of what I see on the internet as it is a declaration of who I am. The word I'm going to focus on is "polyglot". It's used to describe "a person who speaks many languages".

But here's the thing. I don't like that word. I speak 4 languages and I am not a polyglot. In today's article, I want to examine a bit more about why I have such a problem with the word and what it stands for.

The Exclusive Club Problem

Okay, first of all let's just take a look at this word. Polyglot. It's a foreign word (Greek! fancy!). It's the kind of word that you have to explain to most people because it's not in the normal vocabulary. And that makes it something that only people 'in the know' are going to be entitled to. An exclusive club of polyglots, a community of those who have taken it upon themselves to declare that they are the language speakers.

This is not how I connect to language learning. The exclusive club of enlightened people, that's a classic concept that's mostly not very interesting and has a risk of becoming very elitist. To me, language learning is exactly the opposite. I don't want the "polyglot" to be special. I want them to be everyone.

The "Mine's Bigger" Problem

I could have chosen lots of other lines for this subheading, but let me tell you where I'm coming from. I feel that women are a rarity in the space of online polyglot-ism (with a few impressive exceptions of course). You could name all sorts of reasons.

First of all, being online and identifying yourself as a part of this polyglot community requires a certain amount of self-confidence. You're proudly proclaiming your skills to the world, and all too often I find that this can go all over to the corner of one-upmanship.

Dudes, I don't care how many languages you speak. I particularly do not care about how many words of vocabulary you know or how many hours you spend studying.

When you treat language learning like a competition at the gym, you turn me off and you put fear and insecurity into other people. What we should be doing is celebrating every little step. Like a recent participant in my 50 Calls Project said:

"Even if I learn one little thing, it's more precious than 1000 things that you have to repeat over and over again."

Several Languages - That Is Not The Point

Similarly to point one, the definition of "poly" is that you speak many languages. It gets worse, even - some people go for "hyperpolyglot" or "superpolyglot". What are you trying to achieve there? What does this communicate except saying that you're a "hyper person" for having acquired these skills?

Languages are an integral part of human nature, and as such learning a foreign language does not require any skills except for the human ones that we already have. I am all for celebrating the amazing talent and dedication of those out there who spend time learning many, many languages. But what I don't agree with is putting this type of skillset on a pedestal.

So, what now?

Wow, writing this post has taken me weeks. I've been pretty scared of posting it, so please work with me here and don't burn down the Fluent blog. My main points are:

  • I want everyone to commit to language learning and talk about it online, to start a blog about it or find like-minded people on Facebook.

  • You can call yourself whatever you want, but if it's "polyglot" then be aware that "non-polyglots" won't know what you're talking about. This builds exclusivity, which sucks.

  • Someone who is learning a single language, taking a single step and focusing on small steps should be celebrated just as much as a "hyperpolyglot".

  • You are learning languages because you want to connect with people, not show off how many words of vocabulary you can remember.

That is all for now - language learners, I'll persist in calling myself and you guys that. And I love each and every one of you for your commitment to languages. Let's keep it accessible to everyone.

Hi there, Fluent reader!

This is a short note from Kerstin in 2016 and I want you to know I appreciate your visit. The subject of the next article was pretty controversial at one time, but I'm very pleased to say the internet has moved on and become a friendlier place. And with that, my attitude to "polyglot" has softened. I even use it to describe myself sometimes!

If you want to find out more about how this happened, check out the awesome podcast episode "Collect Your Polyglot Club Membership Now". 

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