Musings On the Polyglot:

Originally Posted on

For Matt & Mary Brinkley
April 2013

Full disclosure: I am just about finished with my PhD at the University of Chicago in early Chinese philology, poetics and phonology; I am a native English speaker and my "strong" (near-native/fluent) languages are French, German, Mandarin Chinese and Swedish, and my "weak" (conversational/literate) languages are Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Norwegian and Italian; I have also trained in Classical Chinese, Sumerian and a bit of Ancient Egyptian. My parents are monolingual English speakers, but I grew up with grandparents whose first languages were Swedish and Norwegian, and surrounded by Spanish (in Sacramento, California), so my language learning began at a very young age. I also write computer code/programs in a variety of programming languages, as I have always found them generally easier than human languages (slang and dialect are relatively minimal, among other reasons).

Using myself and other polyglots I've known well as a yardstick, there seem to be three main components to the "polyglot talent", each of which exists naturally to some extent within every individual and each of which can be augmented by training:

1) Memory: Especially for vocabulary-heavy languages like Chinese, an excellent memory is critical for language retention, but if you have a great memory to begin with (for example, if you use words after only hearing or seeing them once), then you're ahead of the game. Of the three, this is probably the ability which can be developed most through training.

2) Ear: Many polyglots are also adept at dialects and mimicry, as the ability to accurately hear and reproduce sounds outside one's already-learned/known languages is a critical component of reproducing a language accurately; this is particularly true for tonal languages. I recommend that one speak/cultivate a minority dialect, as it can give insights into the language and the ways native speakers understand different levels/types of speech (and there's often a cultural richness which is different from that of the "standard" dialect).

3) Interest and Environment: You could have the above two abilities in spades, but without an interest and/or being in a multilingual environment, the talent will likely manifest itself in ways other than multilingualism. On the other hand, environment can create polyglots in individuals who are not gifted in the first two criteria, particularly in communities where multilingualism to some degree is considered a basic skill (e.g. many parts of Africa, Europe, Asia and border communities).

Finally, I'd just like to note that it's a spectrum: not every individual will have these same skills to the same degree, and a child who is off the charts in the first two categories may well not receive the training to further develop his/her language skills/abilities. One's linguistic environment during childhood will often play a major role in how the talent is manifested.

There are many, many people with this/these talent(s) out there; perhaps in the future virtually everyone will be a polyglot?