Specialize In One Language Or Limited Proficiency In Many?

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
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Specialize In One Language Or Limited Proficiency In Many?

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.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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I agree that mastery of a language or two is much more fulfilling in the long run, giving the learner a much deeper connection to the culture(s) in which they are interested. However, I do find joy in what I'll call culture-hopping. I spent a month in France during the summer of 2012, followed by the Fall 2012 semester in Senegal learning French and Wolof.

A week ago, I landed here in China where I'll be working as an au pair and studying Mandarin for the summer. In September, I'll hop over to Hong Kong where I'll spend my junior year (undergrad) studying Mandarin and Chinese culture. I'll study Cantonese on the side, but it won't be my top priority. I also do some French->English translation work as a side job.

While I acknowledge that this is "pretty much an either/or question", I recognize the importance of learning one or two languages to advanced fluency, but won't rule out the possibility of learning other languages for survival purposes.



Given that choice, I'd stump for deep knowledge/ability in one or two extra languages than achieving a polyglot tourist level (A1-A2) in a whole passel of tongues.

My own linguistic enthusiasm approach is less about multilingualism i.e. replicating in my target language all the abilities I have in my native one but more along the lines of the plurilingualism approach the Council of Europe has fleshed out.
If you've got the time, probably not ;-), there's a lecture I enjoyed recently that does a good job of outlining it and connecting it to the issue of language education and society.
See the itunes audio link for "When Language Goes to School': Pluri-lingualism, Subject-language, and Social Capitol" [sic] on this page http://languagecenter.emory.edu/news_events/lectu...



I started to get a little bit bored of studying Chinese and took up Japanese for a brief spell. I thoroughly enjoyed myself but found that I had no time to spend on my Chinese. Because I'm not comfortable with my current level of Chinese (after 2+ years) and still want to bring it higher I'm going to sideline Japanese or any other language for the moment until my Chinese is top notch.

So for me I'd at least want to a be a semi master of at least one other language before I started learning others.

Kevin Post

Kevin Post

I remember in high school I dreamed of speaking Spanish fluently. I now speak fluent Spanish and although I live in the United States I speak far more Spanish than I do English. I am now aiming for fluency in Turkish. After finishing my basic courses in uni I am thinking of going for a degree in Persian studies. As you can see, I'd rather dedicate several years of my life to a handful of languages that aren't closely related than juggle a bunch of languages in the same branch at an A2-B1 level and go on rants how it's not as hard as people make it out to be.



I used to have a romanticized view of being a polyglot. But I've since taken a step back and realized that what I want is near-mastery of a few languages, as opposed to being a circus polyglot. I agree with all of your points.

I decided to drop several languages and just focus on Japanese, Chinese, and Sign Languages (ASL, JSL). I recently wrote a blog post about why, but this post says everything I wanted to, in a much more eloquent way.

I really enjoyed reading this post!



Hi Donovan, I couldn't agree you more! I would much rather know one or two foreign languages at a very advanced level than a bunch at a mediocre level. I've been studying Russian for years now and I don't plan on stopping anytime soon. Occasionally I think it would be nice to speak other languages, but I can't justify spending the time studying them until my Russian is better. I have no desire to bounce from language to language every three months, like certain bloggers in the language learning blogosphere (I'll be nice and not name anyone specific, but I think most people will know who I'm talking about).



I've always liked the concept of "learn a few things about everything, and everything about a few things".

I think that diversification can help us to develop skills in flexibility and adaptability; to become comfortable with 'foreign' and 'unfamiliar', to be open and accepting of 'different' or 'new', to experience the 'bigger picture' similarities across different types of communication (and perhaps people?).

However I also believe that short-term, 'surface level' learning of 'as many languages as possible' robs the learner of developing a deeper personal connection to a language and its people and culture. I guess it's kind of like relationships - its great to meet many people and know them a little, but that can never compare to the fulfillment and sense of connection built from knowing one person over decades or a lifetime.

I would compare a little knowledge of many languages as being like a passport, a tool, for functionally interacting with many people - but long term learning of one (or a few) languages is like adding to one's identity.

I suppose it depends on the learner too - their own reasons and motivation for pursuing either approach will impact their satisfaction of the outcome I guess.

Breithlá sona duit!



It all depends on why you're learning languages. Learning as many as possible so you can talk to people from many countries is one strategy that appeals to some, but as you say, if you want to make deeper connections with people, cultures and places via languages, you need to spend a lot more time on them.

Quite a few years ago I realized that I couldn't speak any of the languages I'd tried to teach myself very well. At that time the only language, apart from English, that I was fluent in was Mandarin, which I studied at university. The other languages I'd studied in depth, French, German and Japanese, were decidedly rusty, and only other language I could sort of get by in was Spanish.

I decided that to focus on one language until I was fluent, and chose Welsh - I have family connections to Wales and it's a language I've always wanted to learn. It took many years, but eventually I became fluent. I did dabble with other languages during that time, but my main focus was on Welsh. I've been living in a Welsh-speaking area of Wales for five years now and try to use my Welsh as often as possible.

When I was reasonably comfortable with Welsh I started learning Irish as well, and am now more or less fluent. I've also acquired basic conversational fluency in Manx and Scottish Gaelic, and revived my French. I'd like to revive my Japanese and German as well.

Recently I've been thinking whether to learn any more languages, or to learn more of the ones I already know. I haven't come to a definite conclusion, but I think that it is a good idea to focus your efforts on one, or maybe two, languages at a time until you have reached a level you feel comfortable with.



Do both. Concentrate on 1 or 2 to start with but you can still dabble in heaps more. But there's no doubt that it's only by concentrating on 1 language that you can get the immersion to really improve. On the other hand you can get a lot of enjoyment about knowing other languages not so well... but it has to be more than just the handful of individual words that some (often backpackers) learn of some language and then they think they can actually speak the language.

Edward Robe

Edward Robe

Man, such a great post - this really resonated with me. I have a ton of comments about this topic, so I'll try not to leave a wall of text here. :)

I too have been studying Russian for a couple years, and have been living in Ukraine (first the Russian speaking part, now the Ukrainian speaking part) for over a year and a half. I have diligently studied several hours a day, conversed with people on a daily basis, and even went long stretches without speaking English whatsoever. I've passed an equivalent B2 exam in Russian a while back, and feel confident that I could tackle C1 without too much trouble. I've actually set up a Russian language immersion program with my girlfriend here, and I help her with her beginner students with grammar/conversation practice.

That being said, I am reminded on a *daily basis* that there's vast areas where I can improve my Russian, and that I'd be kidding myself if I remarked to someone that I was "fluent" or an "expert" of the language. Certain accents, tons of specialized topics, or simply less-than-ideal situations (noisy bars) reduce my competency or comprehension quite markedly.

Although it's fine to encourage people who are getting started in learning a language that these things are necessary evils (don't be a perfectionist! Fluency doesn't mean being perfect!), I think it's really damaging when certain bloggers/language enthusiasts (who shall remain unnamed) endorse the idea that "learning" a language is simply a matter of achieving a benchmark point of the CEF (B1, C2) and being able to impress people at a party with a rapid-succession recital of phrases in a variety of foreign languages.

You're ability to communicate isn't determined by your CEF rating or certificates. It's based entirely on the intangible relationship you have with people in that language. It's immeasurable and very hard to define - perhaps even impossible. You can spend years developing a language in order to delve deeper and deeper into real communication with people. And I don't think this idea should be eschewed in favor for adding another language "notch" on your belt just for bragging rights, or for some sort of shallow "cultural understanding" which could just as well be communicated through other means.

(What I mean by that last statement - going to a foreign country and talking to a poor person in their language is not going to gain you much more insight on their socio-economic disposition than as if you spoke to them in English, assuming they spoke English (or, for example, if you spoke through an interpreter).

Anyway, my point is this - I think dedicating yourself to one or two languages beyond your own is a worthwhile goal, if that is what interests you. If you want to collect C1/2 certificates, travel around the world, and photograph/tape yourself talking to people - so be it. Nothing wrong with that. I think that's a worthwhile goal too.

In the end, it's all a question of one thing - time. It's the most precious thing we have, after all. And as long as you spend it in a way that's fulfilling to you, that's really all that matters. :)

*** Last thought - I realize that despite my best efforts, I might come off as being kind of dismissive of the "language-hacker" archetype of linguistic enthusiasts here. The fact is, I'm not really against them, but I often find them to be really abrasive to be around IRL. They probably think the same way about me, so I can't blame them. :) It's just that due to the nature of their methods of communication, they tend to talk a LOT more then they listen (in order to keep the vocabulary of the conversation in the realm which they understand). Just a pet peeve of mine, I guess. Oh well. :)



It's all about quality. Saying a few basic phrases won't get you very far in terms of connecting with natives. If you are just passing through a country, however, I think survival level language ability is fine and good for showing respect to the natives.

The more languages you focus on without increasing the time practicing the languages, the worse you are in each individual language. Even if they are related languages, you still would be much better if you stuck with one. For me, the hard part is learning the specialized, advanced vocabulary that is not used very often in daily life. Like, "drill bit" or "firecracker" for example, too words that I just relearned recently.



The answer lies in context and need. Yes, there are some circus polyglots, and this fad too will pass, like <insert obnoxious fad from the past that you're glad is gone.> One thing I've discovered talking about my book is that there are contexts where knowing a range of languages to a basic to intermediate degree is legitimately useful -- and not just tourism, either. I'm also not certain it's a zero-sum game, either: the work I did in Mandarin definitely benefited from the experiences I had with Spanish, for instance. In my book I met people who "dabbled" in languages with historical links to their main secondary language in which they were pursuing proficiency.



Have studied seven languages and I use them mostly for reading, or when I travel to the countries. Only really fluent in Portuguese. Have not spent much time in other countries due to time and job restraints. Would love to be able to spend a year in one country working towards being fluent.
So for me personally having a moderate knowledge in several languages works for what I need. For example I spent the day in Berlin last month, and found that there were not a lot of English speakers. So I had to fall back on my German. It was passable, and I was able to get my questions answered. Was it fluent? No, but it serves my purposes.



Interesting to see all the strong opinions being expressed here! I think the answer must depend on your own situation and what you want out of life. I've learnt all my languages to a pretty good level, but now I'm getting to the stage where I'm feeling that I'd rather prioritise my existing languages over new ones, to see if I can get them all up to a similar level. However, if I were to move to a new country tomorrow, I'm sure I'd concentrate on learning the local language instead. I don't think labelling people who learn multiple languages as "circus polyglots" or whatever is very helpful - we all have different circumstances and goals.



I hear what you're saying, but do you think it's always for show? It might seem that way because it invariably makes an impression on YouTube, but is it not possible that there are people who enjoy learning new languages for reasons other than complete cultural immersion - even if only because they enjoy the academic pursuit? I mean, they must enjoy it on some level to put in so many hours' work on it! :)



I myself favor mastering 1-2 foreign languages rather then speak 3-6 or more at the basic level because I have other interests, no desire to visit 10 countries in ten years or backpack across 2 continents, etc. However many beginning language learners have difficulty choosing which language and culture so being a "circus" polyglot for a few years might be a good way to get your feet wet and discover which language and culture you have a true passion for.



Hey Donovan!
Thank you, thank you and thank you for your realistic approach. I think you opened my eyes and showed me what I already knew about certain people and language learning.
Perhaps it is my way of romantizing things, so I am totally subjective, but for me language learning is not a matter of 3 or less/more months. It doesn't have a time span, it doesn't get interupted and replaced by a new foreign language, to be forgotten forever.
Learning a language means making a language-culture part of YOU. I had taken various English lessons for many years with limited success, and it was not until I embraced the English language and culture as one that will acompany me in my whole life (instead of a couple of months for a degree or showing off), that I actually learned it.And I still learn it. I will always learn it. As long as this language exists, I will improve. English is part of me, and I can't imagine myself without it.
I was always suspicious about your blog. 'Why doesn't he say what languages he speaks?' 'Why is he so subtle?' 'Why is this blog so different?'
And this post gave me the answer, and I respect you very much for not bragging and not trying to show everyone how to 'hack' languages. You are a true language learner. Your Egyptian Arabic is probably better than all of the other languages other 'polyglots' claim to speak. You didn't embrace just the language, but also the culture. It's not a marathon for you, so that you can show off your amazing skills, but a true journey. Why make it a marathon? Why 'learn' a language in 3(...or less/more) months? If someone truly loves a language and the culture it hides, he doesn't put a limit, because he knows there are no limits.

Personally, I say to myself that I am 'fluent' when I can speak-understand-express my self through every aspect(or most aspects) of every day and profesional life(only on my field). I prefer to take the C2 exam. The degree is important for me, but only for future emploees. In reality, I take it because of the journey and the miles I will cover to reach the level to gain the knowledge for the degree. Language learning didn't start for the degree and doesn't end there. I took my C2 English exam when I was 13 years old. I was like the 'genious language kid' to people. In reality, I couldn't speak English if my life depended on it (I read books and hence managed the exam).
It was much later, when I discovered youtube on various matters, listened to radio every day,talked to myself and most importantly travelled abroad and spoke only english, that I reached a stage where I can call myself fluent. (and as you can probably tell, I still have a lot to learn)
I try to do that for all my languages. It is fascinating to start one after another, but i doesn't work. You end up learning none.
People who claim to speak an absurd amount of languages just for show and profit and sickening sometimes. This kind of approach doesn't help people learn languages. People shouldn't rush. It's a journey.

Thank you and I will follow you around :)

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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