"Language puts the world in your grasp."

Can you be a polyglot? Why should you try?

A self-directed interview with multilingua.info's creator

Can one really learn this many languages?

It's extremely unlikely anyone could become fluent in all these languages. Even gifted learners rarely get really good at more than ten, usually drawn from a maximum of three families. On the other hand, most serious students should be able to pick up the bare bones of at least three languages from a single family. If you've got a particular language or particular languages in mind, you should start there. If you're interested in becoming a polyglot for the challenge of it all, Spanish, French and Italian mark an easy spot to start.

If the goal isn't fluency, what is it?

Functionality. You don't need to be able to pass for a native to get use, enjoyment and even enlightenment out of your language studies. If you like an author, you may profit from tackling, dictionary in hand, your favorite passages in the original, even if reading a whole book seems like too much. If you're going to a foreign country, you don't need to live as a native 24 hours a day to derive satisfaction from ordering meals and giving instructions to cab drivers in the local language. In either case, your knowledge gets you one step closer to the culture and its inhabitants than you would have got otherwise.

What have you gotten out of language study?

I've been able to enjoy life in France without the language barrier shutting me out of what those around me are thinking and saying. I've discussed the weather in French, Italian, Spanish and German with people who desperately needed to blurt out something in their own language because English is as hard for them as German is for me. I can go to French, Italian and Spanish movies - or the opera - and notice places where the subtitles are inadequate, inane or just plain wrong. Walking by larger newstands, I can figure out what the press is focusing on in half a dozen countries. Your world gets bigger when you no longer have to depend on other people to decide whether things outside the English-speaking world are worthy of your attention.

There is also the literary aspect. Lest one get the wrong impression, I wouldn't suggest tackling the Iliad in the original after doing a bit of Greek. But you can certainly putter around in the text, locating your favorite passages and seeing what comes from Homer and what comes from the translator's understanding of Homer, for example. Even if you can't read the original, you can form a better judgment about different translations and get an inside track on what's really going on in foreign classics. It brings home what you're reading in a new way having that extra bit of access to what's in the text.

Have you really messed around with all these languages?

To a greater or lesser degree. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, a little study can have an explosive impact in terms of the walls it knocks down between you and other languages and cultures. A combination of earnestness about the project and vanity about my own studies compels me to mention some of what I've done with different languages. Not being a globetrotter, I've mostly met my language in books, and have translated at least short passages or poems by/from, among others: Victor Hugo (French), Jorge Luis Borges (Spanish), Dante (Italian), Catullus (Latin), Heinrich Heine and the Brothers Grimm (German), Hans Christian Anderson (Danish), Snorri Sturluson (Old Norse), Bede and Chaucer (Old and Middle English), the Iliad and the New Testament (Greek), the Old Testament (Hebrew), the Koran (Arabic), Omar Khayyam (Persian) and the Tao (Chinese). Most of the other languages I know as linguistic objects: I've studied them in grammar books and done my exercises, but haven't gotten acquainted with the living, breathing forms as much as I'd like. But if you stick around, you and I will both get to know these languages on closer terms.

- Geoffrey Barto, creator of multilingua.info

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