Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fumbling Toward Polyglottery

This week, I've been sort of scattered, language learning wise. Part of this ties into language learning goals. And part of it, let's be frank, ties into ego.

I've always enjoyed dabbling with a number of languages. But I've always been stuck at two - English and French - where I have solid competence. On the other hand, I've let my Spanish and Italian wax and wane. The other day, I was updating my profile at and I noticed the criteria for basic fluency. Modestly estimating my abilities, I'm just a little bit short for Spanish. And so, while this is Italian month, I've wanted to dig in with the Spanish enough to maybe count myself a weak triglot. (My Spanish is far enough ahead of my Italian that this is the way to go, and, besides, I talk to Spanish speakers in Spanish all the time so ramping it up a bit will just make it easier to do something I'm already doing.)

This week, then, I've slogged through a bit more Michel Thomas Italian. I'm partway into disc 6. And I've worked through lessons 1-4 of the DLI's 200 Hour Uzbek course (though I don't have the audio, so my work consists of working through the written exercises and making sure I know all the vocabulary). Finally, I'm midway through lesson 1 of the DLI's Spanish Head Start course, which doesn't teach a ton, but what it covers it drills you on well. If you're a corporal, I know exactly what to say if we're introduced!

There's the background for our title: Fumbling Toward Polyglottery.

If you're going to be a polyglot, there's the question: How? Do you learn all your languages at once? Do you learn them all to fluency? Does it make more sense to learn them one at a time?

One of the challenges that comes up in becoming a polyglot is that you wind up a serial bilingual or serial trilingual instead. If you're going to be a true polyglot, you have to be able to have a bunch of languages running around in your head at the same time. So in a way, it's reassuring to see my learning go a little bit willy-nilly again. Keeping Spanish and Italian at the same time poses its particular set of challenges with respect to interference. I'm starting to discover, though, that if I study them both the same day, even during the same hour, instead of mixing them up, my brain catches on that I've switched. It's when I let one go dormant for a while that the interference starts, with me filling in the gaps in the weak language with guesses from the stronger one.

Want to be a polyglot? If you do, it's not just about learning multiple languages. It's about keeping them and letting them co-exist in your mind. So if you find yourself drifting between languages, instead of sticking to your schedule for learning them, don't worry. It's just practice for the day when you speak them all at a higher level.


Blogger doviende said...

I've heard it said many times that the better you know a language, the less you lose and the slower you lose it. If you get to fluency in a language such that listening and speaking are natural easy things, then I bet it would take very little effort to keep yourself somewhere near that.

I only know from experience that languages where i never really got anyhere have quickly dwindled down to almost nothing.

This is definitely the year for me to make a couple of things stick finally, but for the long-term I try to think of examples like Steve Kaufmann. Learning one language every year or two consistently can take you a long way over time. I think sticking to one language at a time might be he fastest way to go overall.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Aidan said...

I agree with doviende that the languages that are really embedded really do tend to stick. However, I think that there is real value in learning (or maintaining) many languages in synch. I am in the lucky situation where I get to speak Dutch and Polish every day so they take care of themselves. I have subscriptions to magazines and books in French, Spanish and Italian to keep those ticking away. I am only really 'learning' Japanese right now. Of the other languages I know Irish doesn't really disappear since I spoke it for many years regularly but I must say that the weaker ones like German and Swedish are much harder to remember easily especially since I am not really doing anything with them.

2:10 AM  

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