Sunday, September 30, 2007

Staying a Polyglot...

In my last post, I wrote about what makes for a polyglot. In it, I looked at Tim Ferriss' idea that it's better to have a basic idea about a language in mind and refresh before a trip than to try to maintain multiple languages. From a practical standpoint, if his refresh methods work for you and you don't need to be able to immediately use all the languages you've learned, it is an awful lot to maintain languages. From the point of view of pride, however, if you assert you're a polyglot, mention you speak German and have somebody come back at you with a well-chosen phrase in German, it's going to be ego-wounding not to have a response.

In discussion forums for polyglots, new language learners always wonder how many languages they should try to learn at once. And great argument ensues over whether mastering a family of tongues will reinforce or distract from the learning. But there's another question: How many languages should you maintain at once?

If you look up famous polyglots, you find occasional references to someone having known x number of languages but needing some time to refresh if asked to use one of the odder selections. I'd propose that the typical language addict is going to wind up studying a lot more languages than he or she will actually learn. I've read Hans Christian Andersen in the original. It doesn't mean I know Danish today. I've read the opening of the Iliad by way of Clyde Pharr's Homeric Greek. Don't ask me to translate it for you this evening, though. So, if you visit the main page for, you'll find lots of languages and you'll find a reference in my bio to some of the languages I'd played with at the time I started the site. How many languages do I know? Four: English - native; French - pretty darn good; Spanish - I read fairly easily and can limp through a conversation; Italian - I can handle basic conversations and my reading isn't bad. For the record, I can also buy a meal or get a room in Beijing, but I'll have no idea what I actually paid for it. My goal, for the short term, is to speak five languages - the aforementioned - reasonably well. And I'd like to learn some more. How to go about that?

In the past few months, I've really become a fan of Assimil. It's not that they're a panacea. But they do provide a lot of content, good explanations, and a format where once you've learned the lessons you can cover up the translations and tackle the language head on. So for the past week, I have been reading one chapter a day from Using French, L'italien sans peine, L'espagnol sans peine and Chinese with Ease. (I've also been limping through a chapter of Le breton sans peine about every other day.) At the same time, I've been making a point of listening to music in French, Spanish and Italian at least a couple times a week, with Chinese music thrown in when I'm in the mood. On the one hand, it sounds suspiciously like pretending to be a polyglot. On the other hand, all the "getting ahead" books tell you to "act as if..." and living a multilingual life has a way of making it feel natural and fun to have five languages floating around in your head. I'll update later on regarding how well this works.



Blogger Pistolette said...

I'm also struggling with how to 'keep' languages I don't use regularly. I'm a native English speaker, and I used to speak French pretty well. Now I'm refreshing because I'd like to teach it to my new baby, but I feel really rusty!

By the way, I'm also aiming for five total - English, French, Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin) and Russian. Bon chance!

6:05 AM  
Blogger Joseph said...

I've been reading your blog for a while now, I finally wanted to comment!

It's really a good question, and one that I've been wondering about myself for some time. My problem is that there really isn't a language out there I'm not interested in or wouldn't like to learn. (OK maybe I'm not that interested in some Amerindian languages, but I digress) Simply put, there's a LOT of languages I'd like to learn.

But I'm a perfectionist so I don't do well with the theory of just dabbling and forgetting. On the other hand, I need to realistically figure out what languages I want to really focus on and get to as fluent a level as possible. For the time being, I've decided on French, Portuguese, Italian, and German. All of these are languages I've been studying for some time.

This revelation came after I started dabbling in Afrikaans, Russian, Dutch, and Serbian all in the past few months, which was starting to become detracting.

There are so many languages that I want to learn but don't mind if I become really fluent in, mostly languages I'd like to use for travel, as I'm one of those people who likes to learn the language of whatever country he visits. But I figure I can dabble in those as the need arises, and if I lose some fluency, no big deal.

I guess, in sum, some languages I won't mind if my active knowledge slips a bit, because I could always recall them later, but some languages I always want to be able to have on command, so those will be the ones I'll be working throughout my life to keep up and perfect.

11:13 PM  
Blogger gbarto said...

Pistolette: Good luck to you as well. If you don't get to speak your languages on a regular basis, be sure to have some resources around to keep them in the background of your life - music, movies, etc - so they don't get reduced to books.

Joseph: It sounds like you've got quite a project ahead. I don't travel much physically, but I do like to pick up books in different languages and see what I can work out, which also leaves me sorting out which languages I want to be a part of my permanent repertoire and which ones I'll be content to have some experience of at some time or another.

11:05 AM  
Anonymous Samantha said...

I have never even thought about the language upkeep. Right now I am just focusing in learning them in the first place. It's a good point though, something I hope I have to face in the near future.

7:17 PM  

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