The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

Knowing More Than One Language Is Not That Extraordinary


Did you know that people who only speak one language are a small minority group in the world?

Consider this:

There are roughly 7 billion people on Earth right now.

Most of those people are speakers of at least 2 – 3 languages.

This is a difficult concept for a lot of monolingual speakers (people who only speak one language) to grasp.

That means that it’s actually more unusual and remarkable to not know a foreign language.

Think of all those who complain and say that they weren’t ‘born good at languages’ and then consider the fact that most other people around the world speak more than one.

I first had my eyes opened to this truth back in college when I was studying history and reading about average men and women living in the Middle East between 200 BC and 200 AD who would commonly know 4 or more languages.

In the case of a Palestinian Jewish person living at that time they’d know:

Aramaic (colloquial language)

Greek (for trade)

Latin (for dealings with the ruling authorities)

Hebrew (for religion)

and various other languages of people in the wider region that they may have come in contact with.

The situation today is still pretty much the same in many parts of the world.

In most countries people usually have a local/tribal language or dialect, a standard or regional dialect, a religious/liturgical language and an international language like English or French. I’ve got good friends from South Africa for instance who know a family language (e.g. Xhosa), Afrikaans, English and then a working proficiency in other neighbouring, local languages.

And of course it’s becoming increasingly vital for people everywhere to know English in order to use the Internet and engage with the rest of the world which guarantees that most non-English speakers will have at least some proficiency in English – at least enough to use the Internet.

 

So why do we get so impressed by Western polyglots?

In my experience living and travelling around the world I’ve met some really impressive polyglots from all walks of life.

I remember chatting to this young guy called Ahmed (probably no older than 15) who was working around a tourist area in Egypt.

He was fluent in Arabic, English, Italian, French, German, Spanish and Russian (possibly more but these were the languages I witnessed him using).

This kid was so poor there’s no way he could have learned these languages using the Internet – he simply picked them up by being around people in the street. We’re talking about a guy here dressed in rags, living in what most of us would regard as squalor without learning resources and yet he was able to achieve a very good level of fluency in at least 7 languages.

Sounds incredible and yet there are so many adults and children just like him.

It makes you wonder why when a privileged rich American kid makes a couple of YouTube videos speaking foreign languages he becomes an overnight celebrity and the Western media swoons like mad over him as if he’s done something remarkable (not to mention self-praise).

It’s important we continue to acknowledge the ‘forgotten polyglots’ of the world who are in fact the world’s majority.

 

If billions of other people can learn to speak a foreign language so can you

So how does knowing that monolinguals are a minority help you?

If being a polyglot is such a normal, common thing in the world then there shouldn’t be any reason why it’s out of your reach to achieve.

When you realize just how ordinary it is to know multiple languages it makes it feel less extraordinary and therefore more attainable by anybody.

If a homeless person can pick up 7 languages without a computer or even books then how much more can you, with everything you have access to, do it too.

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  1. THANK YOU!

    "It makes you wonder why when a privileged rich American kid makes a couple of YouTube videos speaking foreign languages he becomes an overnight celebrity and the Western media swoons like mad over him as if he’s done something remarkable (not to mention self-praise)."

    1. While Timothy Doner’s blog has some self praise, it also has some depth. He wrote, “Reducing someone to the number of languages he or she speaks trivializes the immense power that language imparts. After all, language is the living testament to a culture’s history and world view, not a shiny trophy to be dusted off for someone’s self-aggrandizement.”

  2. A few time ago I read, in a book, of a sailing voyage up to the hearth of the Amazon forest, where a couple settled for a few months near an Amazonian tribe village. And managed to learn the local language to communicate with the members of the tribe. Language described as composed of a very restricted bunch of words. In that environment, it wasn't requested that much in order to communicate.
    I think that people of rich countries live stressful experiences, into a complex environment, in which many times may be engaged to digress about complex and abstract subjects. I mean without limitation toward basic need and simple lives, so the amount of words needed grows significantly.
    Plus, in our wealthy countries a particular attention is given to sound well educated, grammatically correct: there is a high level of expectations by people that judge you, etc. I suppose that some western monolingual people can see learning a new language like a social risk, an additional workload. All the opposite of what it takes to start with, and continue along.

  3. This is an interesting argument, and one that I've heard before in a different form. But you don't touch on why someone in the west would want to learn another language or three. For better or for worse (probably worse), I take very utilitarian approach to what I learn.

    Will learning a foreign language make me better at what I do, or get me a better job? Probably not. Mere fluency (and I don't mean to denigrate fluency, knowing how difficult it is to obtain) wouldn't be enough. I'd need to have at least a near-native grasp of a language to do what I do.

    Will I be travelling soon? Doubtful. And if I do, it will be for work to a place like the U.S. or Great Britain or Australia where English is the main language.

    For fun or personal interest? I've got a lot of other things that I do and am learning or want to learn. I don't have the time or energy to add language learning to the mix.

    For the sake of learning a language? If I was to learn languages, I'd learn them to use them not to collect them like trading cards.

    I recently read a blog post about having a compelling reason to learn something. With languages, I (and a number of people in the West) probably don't have that compelling reason.

  4. I loved this article. So true we should be more humble as we learn more not arrogant.

  5. Hey Donovan,
    Good post, I’ve been reading your blog a couple months or so now, I find it pretty insightful and helpful, as a language-learner but especially as someone learning Arabic right now.

    I strongly agree with the general sentiment and arguments of the article, but I’ve two things I’d like to chime in with, one to add weight to what you’re saying but also one as a caveat of sorts.

    The first is that I’m generally more impressed by someone learning languages which are less related to their native language or which have less cultural contact and interaction with their native language (or, in both cases, to and with languages they’ve already learned besides their native language). Part of what I mean by this is that somebody who can fluently speak English, Dutch, Danish and Swedish (all Germanic languages), or English and five Romance languages and three Germanic languages, will certainly be noteworthy – as somebody who likely has at least a passable collection of interesting stories and who can speak four languages. Extraordinary, no, but worth taking note of, yes.

    Meanwhile, somebody speaking English, Tamil, Aymara, Aramaic, Uzbek, Hausa and Cantonese is absolutely a collection of languages I would find genuinely remarkable because they’re all completely unrelated to each other and scattered over enormous distances of both space and time. There’s a lot less chance of learning those without expending a great deal of effort than there is of finding someone who can speak several languages located in close geographical proximity, which also usually have a great deal of back-and-forth influence on each other. It’s a big difference in the amount of effort to be expended, I feel. Even in your example above from the Classical World, both Ancient Greek and Latin are Indo-European languages with a history of mutual interaction between each other and not extremely distantly-related, and the Hebrew and Aramaic of the time were (and still are, albeit to a lesser extent than ~2,000 years ago) both closely-related Semitic languages.

    Taking this further, along the effort-expended, I mean – I find a lone polyglot in a sea of monoglots to be a bit more remarkable than a polyglot in a region where large numbers of languages are being used on a regular basis. I think of it as being a statistical outlier of sorts – if you were to plot a map where each member of a population were assigned a “pin” of a certain height based on their number of languages, the “pin” somebody speaking twelve languages in the middle of the solidly-Anglophone American Midwest is going to seem to stand out as being a lot taller than if you were to drop that polyglot into the middle of an area that sees a great deal of multi-linguistic interaction, per your e.g. the streets of Egypt.

    Finally, the second point (or, I suppose, group of points given how I lumped the above together as one), is that I find the level of proficiency in a language tends to vary based off use. I don’t doubt the boy you encountered in Egypt was fluent in those languages you saw him using, but up to what register, i.e. could he use all of them to hold an intellectual discussion at a university level on politics, or read a high-level classic work of literature in them? Probably not, I suspect from my experience, but then again a great many native speakers can’t manage seem to manage either in their own language LOL.
    Again, not to cast doubt on his grasp of the languages, that’s not my point. What is my point is, is that someone like him, and indeed most polyglots I’ve met who learn multiple languages out of necessity, usually seem to have a grasp on them to the extent that they need to. For example, I would not expect your Ancient Palestinian to be able to crack jokes and wax eloquently in his liturgical language of Hebrew, and would expect he’d probably have a grasp on Greek & Latin mostly related to trading and dealing with imperial authorities or foreigners.
    However, I’ve been told or read of foreign language learners, both from people I’ve met and from historical or other written accounts, of non-native speakers who managed to achieve greater command of a language than most native speakers do. This being an accomplishment almost exclusively pointed out to them by the native speakers – Ajami Arabic vs. FuSHa Arabic is one area where I’ve read of or been told of this happening the most, I think. Part of that I suspect comes from having to expend more effort wrapping the mind around something new and unfamiliar to understand it, versus simply growing up acquiring and learning it as simply being “the way it just is”, so to speak.

    I guess summing it all up, I think it’s a good deal more *or* less impressive than you’re giving it credit or than others give credit to it (respectively), and I think which it is ultimately comes down to the effort one has to expend to learn the languages. While native Anglophones have an undeniably benefit in speaking the international lingua franca of our times and almost certainly have access to more materials for learning more languages than native speakers of any other language would, most Anglophone countries are also largely monolingual and (barring enclaves of immigrant communities or indigenous peoples) separated from the nearest non-Anglophone nation or area by an ocean or more. Which, in my case as an American (excluding local immigrant communities and ethnic enclaves) would be Latin America or Quebec where the languages spoken have long histories of mutual interaction and shared history with English.

    Anyway, food for thought (I should hope), didn’t realize I’d rambled as much and drawn this out as much as I had until just now. I enjoy the blog, it’s both interesting and helpful, keep up the good work,
    M.W. Taius Reitz

    1. replying to my self to check the follow-up notification box, haha

  6. Hi Donovan. I’ve been traveling in all continents for over a decade, and I noticed this belief about how clever European polyglots are, but nobody seems to know anything about polyglots in the middle east, the aboriginal people in Australia, and some other “language practitioners” around the world. There’s an overflow of information complicating language learning, and people forget that simplicity is the key to faster learning. Most people don’t realize that the best polyglots were self-taught, and came from the BC times (Before Computers). I always hear people talking about studying hard, having discipline, pushing your limits, meeting goals, and so on; but I feel that nobody has a clear definition of these words, and a clarity of purpose for their efforts. I did a lot of hard labor work in my life, but I never thought it was hard at all; because I did it by choice, and I truly enjoyed all my experiences struggling with life. It’s just a matter of perspectives. Pain or difficulty is a relative feeling we get based on our perceptions of life. I mean, we are not breaking rocks, and even then, it could be worst. I believe is very important to have a vision, and work with flexible goal settings, but focusing on accomplishing and achieving proficiency levels could create stress, and people will forget to have fun, and that’s how we learn…By finding pleasure in what we do. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  7. I can hold a conversation in four languages, three of them being romance languages. People from the U.S. are impressed by that but what they don’t realize is that if I lived somewhere else, I wouldn’t be that special. It’s so interesting that more people are multilingual than not!

  8. “It makes you wonder why when a privileged rich American kid makes a couple of YouTube videos speaking foreign languages he becomes an overnight celebrity and the Western media swoons like mad over him as if he’s done something remarkable (not to mention self-praise).”

    I find the tone of this part of your article to be disturbing. Really? Instead of knocking people down and sounding like a bully you could easily have left this paragraph without affecting your argument. Instead you opted for the put down.

  9. Perhaps it’s because many people are unaware how prevalent multilngualism is in certain parts of the world. I am from America and did not know this until taking a sociolinguistics course.

    Also, while multilingualism may be common, how commmon is it to pick up languages as an adult? What if the Egyptian teenager was a 30-year-old man? Even though it’s been over 10 years since the course I took, I seem to remember it saying that the speakers acquire the languages before puberty or at least by early adolescence.

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