Polyglot Paradox

Why do polyglots spend all their time talking English?

Maybe that’s a facetious question. After all, YouTube is full of videos entitled Polyglot Speaks 20 Languages, Two Polyglots With a Combined Number of 50 Languages Meet–You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next!, and The Polyglot Baby Who Learned 5 Languages in the Womb.

Except those videos are always pretty forced, frequently clandestinely scripted, and terribly clickbaity. If you go onto actual polyglot forums, you’ll find that 99% of the discussion is in English. There’s often a token gesture to speaking other languages, e.g. a thread where you write in a language you’re learning and then give a translation in English so that everyone can communicate and practise their languages. Maybe even a subforum for other popular languages like Spanish and German. But all serious discussion takes place in English.

I’ve never been to the Polyglot Gathering, but I imagine it’s the same. Although it’s a bit different, because a large number of the speakers there also speak Esperanto and it effectively acts as an alternative, edgier lingua franca.

I can’t blame them. Polyglots are put into a unique position where the very interest at unites them also seeks to divide them into misunderstanding. Not everyone can learn all the same languages and actually, for many the whole point is picking slightly obscure languages that reflect your unique identity while still having enough resources to be learnable.

Where it really starts to get weird, though, is minority languages. Esperantists and polyglots are often devout supporters of these often maligned tongues. International Mother Tongue Day is something I have only ever heard spoken about among these communities. Through Esperanto I have learnt about Occitan, about Sorbian, and my general knowledge and awareness and interest in minority languages the world over has increased.

And yet, the ideals that unite the polyglot community stand in stark contrast to those that promote minority languages. Minority language advocacy is by definition going to focus on preserving a unique cultural identity. The polyglot community, on the other hand, tirelessly espouses the gift of the Internet and globalisation to the modern lingaphile. It couldn’t exist without them.

So there it is, the Polyglot Paradox: polyglots spend so much time talking about how much they love languages, implying that the dominance of English is a threat to this, and yet it is a vital tool of education and information in a modern neoliberal world.

When I was a teenager there was no online polyglot community. During university I cut back on language study due to lack of time and motivation. When I got back into it I was very surprised to discover this whole community that had welled up out of nowhere.

I should have been ecstatic, right? But what I quickly saw was that for every one polyglot that spoke ten or so languages, there were dozens of aspiring, sycophantic forum-dwellers  whose main source of language study was placating Duo the owl for a few minutes a day. The cachet of being a Polyglot has lead many people to read about polyglottism, write about polyglottism, talk about polyglottism, but all in English.

Ironically, the best way for these would-be polyglots to get their foot in the water, so to speak, would be to shut themselves off from the polyglot community entirely and just immerse themselves in their target language(s). That is, assuming they’re using comprehensible input methods and not just doing blind immersion.

Is it comfortable or even possible to you have deep discussions in languages that we are still learning? Probably not, but then I’m not sure there’s a lot of the discussions on polyglot forums and it gatherings are really much deeper than that, anyway.

Part of the issue stems from the modern focus on speaking, speaking, speaking when learning a language. If we didn’t do that such a disservice to reading and listening we might be able to have more interesting discussions about sharing resources, as well as making them more accessible to lower levels of learners. That’s actually one of the reasons I made my podcast, Easy Stories in English, because even for the biggest language in the world there are woefully few interesting graded materials.

And now I’ve started plugging my own work, which is a sign I should stop for today.

Header image by Suyash Dwivedi, used under CC BY-SA 4.0

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