Ask The Readers: Language Specialist or Jack-of-All-Languages?

Korea Hagwon

It was my birthday yesterday and some of my favourite Korean students made me a cake out of chocolate cookies. :)

They spent all their pocket money to buy the ingredients! 

As a late birthday request I was wondering if you guys could do me a huge favour and vote for this blog in the Top 100 Language Learning Blogs 2013 competition. All you have to do is click here, scroll down near the bottom of the page where it says ‘The Mezzofanti Guild’ and click ‘Vote’.

Takes only a few seconds and the great thing is you can vote for other blogs that you like as well. :)

Thanks muchly!


Today I’d like to get your opinion on something that I think might generate a bit of healthy discussion (I’m sure everyone will have different thoughts on this).

Would you prefer to reach a strong level in just one or a few languages, or would you rather be able to speak many of them at low levels?

And yeah, this is pretty much an either/or question.

The reason why I’m asking is that there are a lot of people who really want to speak as many languages as possible and I’ve received a few emails from people saying that simply being a polyglot is their ambition. Rather than saying I want to speak language X for a genuine need or specific interest, people seem to be chasing the romanticised idea of being able to speak a lot of languages.

It’s become a fad actually.

Even though most of the people on our planet are by definition polyglots (those who speak only one language are a minority group in the world), people from predominantly monolingual countries are still amazed by polyglots (multilingual people) as if it’s something remarkable (hence why the media creates sensationalized stories over YouTubers who record themselves speaking many languages).

In fact, the word polyglot gets thrown around so much these days that I now avoid using the term altogether like other words that get over or misused.

Being a language enthusiast is great (I’m definitely one of them) but the issues I have with the fad of pursuing “polyglottism” are these:

  • Languages take a long time to learn properly and there are no shortcuts. Anything beyond basic conversational fluency in a few months is nonsense. To learn even a few new languages really well for example, you’d be realistically looking at spending a big chunk of the next decade of your life to focus on them. This includes all the travel, sacrifices, hours of daily hard work, friendships (which take time to build) and then of course the rest of your life to maintain them.
  • Dividing your time between many languages means you’re never able to fully immerse yourself in or truly appreciate each culture. Things are just now starting to get really interesting for me here in Korea at my 8 month mark with my current level of fluency and if I had of left here 4 months ago or divided my focus with other languages, I would have missed out on so much. I’m sure that another year would yield even more amazing cultural rewards.
  • Ostentatiousness. Attention seekers who flaunt the number of languages they speak to impress people (or create an online illusion that their real lives are spectacular).

I started writing here nearly 2 years ago because of my love for foreign and endangered languages (I’ve invested countless hours here and 10’s of thousands of my own dollars in fact), and all I want to do is share my passion as well as learn from all of you.

What I’ve always done however is intentionally keep myself at arm’s length from what I consider to be circus polyglots who are more interested in popularity and virality than the languages and cultures themselves.


My opinion: specializing yields great rewards in the long run

Plenty of people can strum a few chords on a guitar but it’s the bloke who can improvise a beautiful piece of unrehearsed music who really knows his instrument.

It’s great to be able to barter and flirt your way around a continent with a few A-level languages under your belt but eventually it loses its thrill.

When you set yourself up mid to long-term in one foreign place and go through lots of hard struggles, gradually learning how to communicate to the point where both parties really understand and connect with each other (past the nods and smiles :)), that’s when your eyes really begin to open to a new culture.

I’m talking about making a connection with people that goes way beyond the superficialities of the circus polyglot.

For me personally, whether it’s languages or any other skill, I like to see each endeavour through to the very end.

Perhaps it’s the perfectionist in me that doesn’t like the feeling of having lots of unfinished projects! :)

Now of course everybody’s different (I’ve just shared my opinion) and I’m sure there are plenty of people who just love to backpack and move around, and being a jack-of-all-languages suits their lifestyle.

Share what you think about it in the comment section below.


This was written by .

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Guest Post: The Road to Albania Is Paved With Plantains

Ashley Woods - Albania

G’day all. :)

Today’s guest post is by Ashley Wood of Atlanta ,Georgia who holds an MA in Hispanic Linguistics and speaks Spanish, German and Russian.

Ashley spoke to me recently about a project she’s planning which I think is fantastic – something that will be particularly interesting for those of you passionate about the Albanian language and culture (or the Balkans generally).

She’s currently running a unique Kickstarter campaign called Project Albanian Voices which you can check out here (scroll down to see the video). I really encourage you to get behind her and support this awesome project.

Also make sure to visit Ashley’s blog here: MusiCulture and Language.



When I was nine, my parents took me to Venezuela where my grandfather was working. They taught me how to say “no hablo español” and to say it to everyone I met. I did. It felt like I had a magic power because I could say it and make the “weird-sounding adult” stop talking. I didn’t understand what another language was and I really didn’t care. I did like the “cooked sweet bananas” though. My grandma kept correcting me, saying they were “plátanos”, but I really didn’t care. I had a new doll.

Four years later I had been introduced to Spanish in a one week course in 6 grade. I tried to communicate with some workers who were fixing our driveway. I just wanted to give them lemonade, but they didn’t understand me, and for some reason, I felt like it was my fault. It wasn’t a surprise that I decided to pick Spanish as my required language in high school. Not long afterwards, learning Spanish was my favorite thing to do. It was really more of an addiction, as fellow language learners can relate to. I liked the mechanical, almost mathematical aspects of it: If you want to show femininity in a noun, make sure your adjective ends in [a]. If you want to show that the action is in first person present tense, end the verb with an [o], and so on.

Some of my friends studied French and German, so I took an interest in those languages just because I was missing out on some inside jokes in math class. I added Russian and Latin later on in school and rounded it all out with a master’s in linguistics. I learned all of my languages academically and without study abroad, save the Spanish which I studied briefly in Mexico City and Madrid one summer. The Spanish was also easier to master because I married a Puerto Rican. Nothing like love and impressing the in-laws to motivate your language learning!

I was definitely a nerd. I liked languages, research and even writing papers. I should be a professor, right? I loved analyzing sentence structures, meaning, sounds and I thought nit-picking silly grammar rules was fun. I would be the perfect linguist; except for this one thing: people. I really liked to talk to them.

Now, you’d think linguists do a lot of that, but they don’t; or at least, not in the sense that I had thought. For every hour spent “in the field”, a.k.a. “a staged version of real life”, you must spend anywhere from 2 to 24+ hours analyzing the “data you collected”, a.k.a. “things you observed without trying to affect them, which is impossible anyway”. You become out of touch with reality this way. I realized I got way better “data” when I wasn’t officially researching, but all my notes and observations were scientifically irrelevant because of the way the data had been collected. Class and research to me were more fun than the lonely analysis that I had to perform on the data I collected. Doing that annoying bibliography and meticulously checking to make sure the period was in the right place was making me feel like I was going insane.

Fast forward to summer 2012. I was doing research in the Dominican Republic. I believe I was quite literally researching the most boring topic in the world. I was studying the way Dominicans ask questions but only in the sense of their tone of voice or “intonation” as linguists call it. As if Dominican intonation wasn’t specific enough, I was focusing on H+L* final utterances only.

Huh? Oh, excuse me; I feel asleep, what were you saying again?

Yeaaahhh. In fact, the topic is so boring that I think no one else even believed I was a Ph.D. student. One night, I was doing research in a bar and was talking to some men, who I thought had no problem with my research. It turned out that they thought I was DEA, CIA or undercover cop and were just letting me talk. They weren’t buying my story about the recording equipment research on intonation. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were part of the trafficking scene. Like so many other non-Dominicans I met there, they were using the Dominican Republic as a place to hide and conduct “business”, moving product from South America to Puerto Rico (where things are easily smuggled to the U.S. mainland). They began to whisper and look my way, clearly planning to do something bad. As they started questioning me, I realized something was very wrong. A group of Albanians who I had met the day before happened to be at the same bar and stepped in to help.They worked in a coordinated way to diffuse the situation. One took me away from the men, two more negotiated with them and the fourth blocked the door so the men who had been told to watch for us outside couldn’t get in. After about five very tense minutes, my new friends said I was free to go. They left with me and escorted me home. These people barely knew me and had vouched for my student status with their lives.

Obviously I got to know my new protectors; we had a beer and became friends. I had never heard Albanian in person before and I loved the way it sounded. I recognized some of the words that were of Latin influence, but most were totally unknown to me. They kept reminding each other to speak English to me when possible, but I insisted they not worry. I loved being completely surrounded by a language I couldn’t understand a single word of. I had spent my entire life studying languages, linguistics, and preparing properly for trips to foreign lands by learning at least the basics of every language I would need. I had never actually been in a situation like this before. It was calming. I didn’t have to talk as much. I could disengage from the conversation a little bit and focus on body language, eye movement, pitch, intonation and rhythm. I couldn’t worry about analyzing grammar or sentence structure because I couldn’t even tell where one word ended and the other began. I noticed they whistled a lot to make a point.

I have no idea how, but the less I worried about it I became, the more I understood. I asked questions, repeated words, forgot them, asked again, listened, got lost and never wrote a thing down. For the nerd that I am, this was remarkable. I went from researching Dominican intonation, bogged down with recording equipment, to sitting around with Albanian men, playing dominoes and drinking whiskey; learning completely from context. It made me feel alive to learn and not study. Since they didn’t speak Spanish, I taught them about the D.R. My biggest triumph was getting them to love plantains, both ripe (maduros) and unripe (tostones). It didn’t stop them from complaining about the lack of goat cheese and good bread in the town, but I could empathize with that myself.

I felt foolish for having been in school all those years, hiding behind the books, workbooks and audio mp3s. I honestly hadn’t noticed that I had not lived the experience of language learning but rather studied it.

The Albanian language is pretty cool and in my opinion, quite logical. It’s got a unique feature of placing an [i] or an [e] between the noun and adjective to show masculinity or femininity. For example you can see the difference in these sentences: “një pemë e lartë”, “a high tree” and “një libër i vjetër”, “an old book”. Albanian is not spoken in the same way as English and very few phrases translate literally so it makes for learning some very interesting proverbs. I have become completely obsessed with the people, culture and history.

What I found in my search uncovered the tip of a huge iceberg. Albania is the most mysterious land I have ever studied. Its people embrace foreigners with the warmth that was reserved for travelers in medieval times, yet they quarrel violently among themselves. They tolerate more than three major religions in the country, but feuds between neighbors in the same town are not uncommon. Albanians are secretive by nature, for their own protection and survival, but they are open and loving friends. It is only by the sheer stubbornness and ferocity of the Albanian people that they even have a country to call their own today. The country they have does not even encompass all ethnic Albanians, as many live in Kosovo, Montenegro, Greece, and Macedonia. The Albanian language is one of the oldest and closest surviving relatives to Proto-Indo European. Most importantly, the Albanian experience has been traditionally passed on orally. A standard script using Latin letters (as opposed to Greek or Cyrillic) has been in use since 1908, so any writings before that time are not standardized and therefore difficult to read.

The stories of the Albanian people need to be preserved and little is being done in the way of story-collection. Since a lot of Albania and the Albanian language are so unknown to most English speakers, I have started a project that aims to express immigration stories of Albanians through the lens of music and language, from the perspective of an American. It is called Project Albanian Voices and I am currently running Kickstarter fundraising campaign.

Maybe some people like isolating themselves when learning a language. Maybe it’s a private process for that person, but it is not that way for me. It is a community process. I realized that fact in the Dominican Republic about the Albanian language (probably one of the most random things that has ever happened to me). Now I have the courage express the voices of the people who changed my life. The important thing is that I learned which part of the language learning process fuels my soul.

Ashley Wood AlbaniaIn order to make myself happy, I had stop studying languages and start living them.

If you want to read more about Project Albanian Voices, click here.



This was written by Ashley Wood.

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Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

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