A polyglot is a carefree genius with a perfect memory who, without any social obligations or financial limitations, travels the world with a backpack and an endless supply of airline tickets, effortlessly making friends while he sits in a cafe in Rome (or in a noodle shop in Hong Kong, or on the beaches of Brazil) with nary a care in the world and only endless adventures on the horizon.
After attending the recent polyglot conference in Berlin, I can tell you that I didn’t meet a single person who comes close to that description (although I’m sure many of us wouldn’t mind it). It’s true that some polyglots have a few small things in common with the romanticized image of a polyglot. Unfortunately, these qualities end up becoming exaggerated and congeal into a single archetype. It’s as if the most interesting aspects of all polyglots were merged together, given a magic serum, and a mythical polyglot came out the other end.
The mythical, romanticized ideal of the polyglot is incredibly unhelpful to language learners. You can end up feeling that you’ll never reach the ideal, so why bother trying? Today, I’m going to run through six of the most common myths about polyglots. I’ll explain why they exist, then reveal the real, messy, behind-the-scenes truth about what it means to be a polyglot.
MYTH 1: POLYGLOTS ARE NATURALLY GIFTED AT LANGUAGES AND PICK THEM UP WITH EASE
Britain's trains aren't as overcrowded as New Dehli — but we could be getting close.
This is the myth I hear the most. The idea that polyglots have a unique, “genius level” mental gift, or are genetically predisposed with a “language gene” is incredibly common. I believe the reason this myth is so pervasive is because most people are afraid of learning a language. This myth, more than any others, gives people a handy excuse for why they can’t learn a new language. After all, if you are “genetically predisposed” to not be good at something, then naturally it makes sense that you can’t achieve it, right? Wrong! Language learning is not like the colour of your eyes or how tall you can grow. It is a skill, and like any skill, it can be learned. Essentially, “I’m not gifted at learning languages” is the fear-translation for “I’m afraid of failing at learning languages”.
THE TRUTH: POLYGLOTS HAVE DISCOVERED SPECIFIC HACKS FOR LEARNING LANGUAGES, WHICH YOU CAN ALSO USEPolyglots are no more unique and genetically gifted to learn languages than anyone else. The only difference is that they have committed to take the actions necessary to learn a language, and faced their fears of speaking and making mistakes. I’ve said before that the first language I learned (Spanish) was the hardest, not because of the grammar rules or vocabulary or pronunciation, but because it was first.
Learning languages is a skill, so the first time you try to develop a skill it is challenging. But, just like playing music or skiing, each time you work on the skill, you will improve and it will become easier. The only difference between polyglots and failed language learners is that the polyglot kept pushing through and didn’t stop learning. As a result, they picked up tools and methods necessary to help them learn languages. The good news is these tools and methods are available to anyone. Once you learn how to learn a language, then the act of doing it becomes easier and easier with each new language.
MYTH 2: POLYGLOTS HAVE INCREDIBLE MEMORIES
When someone can speak 3, 4 or even ten languages, many people assume that they have a photographic memory or are able to store thousands of bits of information in their brains at will.
Learning thousands and thousands of words must require a special ability or talent, right? Not necessarily. It’s true that if you tried to memorize anything using standard rote memorization — repeating the same thing over and over in the hopes that it gets “stuck” in the brain — you would have a hard time retaining information. Now that I think of it, If I had used learning by rote with my languages I probably would have given up out of frustration a long time ago.
I believe this myth came about because most people never learned memory techniques when they were in school. If teachers taught the same memory techniques that many polyglots use to pick up vocabulary, then the mystique of a strong memory would be dispelled.
THE TRUTH: POLYGLOTS HAVE LEARNED INCREDIBLE MEMORY HACKS THAT YOU CAN LEARN TOOThanks to memorization techniques like mnemonics (a technique you use to retain information through association) and Spaced Repetition Systems (a system that ingrains information in your memory quickly by prompting you to recall it just prior to the moment you’re likely to forget it) polyglots have been able to learn thousands of new words and phrases in a relatively short period of time. This is a case of having the right tool for the job. If I asked you to paint a house and gave you a can of paint and a toothbrush, you would probably lose patience with the work and give up. But If I gave you a nice big roller brush or a paint sprayer, the job could get done in no time at all. The key to a polyglot’s memory isn’t the brain they were born with, but is a result of the memorization techniques and methods they have learned.
MYTH 3: POLYGLOTS HAVE THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS/EURO/POUNDS TO SPEND ON TRAVELLING
Given that polyglots “spend all their time travelling the world” (a myth that I’ll discuss in just a moment), clearly they must have lots of disposable cash lying around to take these international language-learning treks. I can understand why people might think this. Just look at the price of a “standard” ticket from New York to Paris, or the cost of a hotel room in a large city. Clearly anyone who travels a lot has some deep pockets! Well, not really. What you need to realize is that polyglots are very resourceful and have learned “hacks” that help them reduce the costs of international travel.
THE TRUTH: POLYGLOTS MAKE CREATIVE SACRIFICES SO THEY CAN TRAVELThere are many different types of travel, so its important to realize that most polyglots who travel extensively, like myself, are not your typical “tourists”. There are many ways to “hack” travel to reduce the costs of transportation, lodging and food. And some of these hacks require a bit of sacrifice. For example, instead of staying in a nice hotel, I save money by staying in a hostel or renting an out-of-the-way apartment on airbnb.com. Or instead of taking a direct flight during the peak season,you can take multi-leg trips on budget airlines during the off season when prices are lower.
Want to save money on food? Do it the same way you would back home! Don’t eat out as much and cook for yourself buying food at the grocery store or local market where the costs are lower. If you are willing to make some sacrifices with your comfort or convenience, you can save quite a bit on travel costs. I’ve written up a post on how to travel the world on the cheap, and also be sure to check out Nomadic Matt’s travel site, where my good friend Matt shares amazing advice on hacking travel all around the planet.
MYTH 4: POLYGLOTS HAVE MORE FREE TIME THAN “NORMAL” PEOPLEOn one side of this myth is the idea that polyglots forgo all the enjoyable activities in their life — spending time with friends and family, going out to see a movie, or playing sports — to satisfy the extensive time requirements that learning a language requires. On the other side is the idea that polyglots have nothing better to do with their time than spend it learning languages, having no responsibilities or obligations to anyone but their love of languages. Clearly they can’t both be true! This is another myth brought about by fear — a fear of losing one of the most precious commodities people have: time. As with all beliefs based on fear, the reality is not that bleak, and learning a language doesn’t mean giving up the things you love.
THE TRUTH: POLYGLOTS FOCUS THEIR TIME AND ENERGY IN SMART WAYS TO CAPITALIZE ON FREE MOMENTS
For people who believe this myth, the first mindset shift they need to make is realizing that, for most polyglots, studying languages is something they love. They don’t see learning a language as taking away time from other things because language learning is their passion.
Of course, polyglots, like anyone, have other interests and hobbies, so they don’t spend every spare moment engrossed in flashcards and textbooks. Instead they have been able to develop efficient ways to use their time.
First, they have studied enough languages that they know which activities give them the biggest bang for their buck. For example, instead of spending countless hours memorizing vocabulary lists from a textbook, I create my own personalized vocabulary list, ensuring that I’ll learn the words that I’ll need to know first.
Second, they utilize methods for heightened productivity. For example, I use thePomodoro Technique, a method where you create 25 minute focused work session with 5 minute breaks in between them. You may also have read my post on the power of siestas which have been shown to improve productivity and effectiveness.
Third, polyglots combine things they love to do with learning a new language. For example, I took tango lessons while in Buenos Aires and got instructions in Portuguese on how to windsurf while in Brazil! Studying a language doesn’t mean giving up the things you love to do. But it does mean being smart with your time. Time is just as precious to a polyglot as it is to anyone.
MYTH 5: POLYGLOTS ARE SUPER OUTGOING AND CRAVE ATTENTIONThe image of the polyglot social butterfly, flitting around a party effortlessly transitioning between languages as they dazzle people with their charm and charisma is a common myth. This is probably due to the fact that polyglots actively seek out opportunities to practise speaking languages. So it may appear that they have an innate ability to make friends when really they’re just trying to get in more speaking time (while meeting new and interesting people, of course).
The truth is, polyglots are no more outgoing than anyone else. Like any group, you’ll find some polyglots who are extroverted and some who are more introverted. But the one thing they generally have in common is a love of practicing languages.
THE TRUTH: POLYGLOTS LOVE TO PRACTICE LANGUAGES AND LEARN ABOUT NEW CULTURESIt is a love for practicing languages that compels most polyglots to put themselves out there and meet new people. Most polyglots don’t crave attention or want to show off (at least no more than anyone else). But this perception comes out because they tend to have a reduced fear of social engagements with strangers.
I’ve written before that the best way to learn a language is to open your mouth and start using it. Polyglots have learned this simple truth, and use it to their advantage. After all, if you want to learn something, and you’ve found the fastest way to learn it, even if it is a little uncomfortable, you’d probably prefer to use it than an “easy” but ineffective method. Often the “magic” happens far outside your comfort zone!
MYTH 6: POLYGLOTS ARE SINGLE AND CAN SPEND THEIR LIVES TRAVELLING AND PRACTICING LANGUAGESAnother popular myth about polyglots is the idea that polyglots have no social obligations with families or children. They’re able to spend their lives wandering around the globe, with a romantic relationship in every port and all the time in the world to spend learning languages. I may have unintentionally contributed to this myth, not because it is true, but because some people who visit this website and see that I have been travelling for over a decade may assume that all polyglots live a “vagabond” lifestyle.
The number of globe trotting, single polyglots is actually quite small, but since many of us are active online with blogs and video channels, we appear to be more common. It is a case of the vocal minority being louder than the silent majority. Again, this is a myth that is perpetuated through fear. It is easier to say that something isn’t possible because your life situation isn’t “ideal”, than to find ways to work around your environment to fulfill your dreams.
THE TRUTH: POLYGLOTS COME IN ALL SHAPES AND SIZES, AND SOME OF THEM DON’T TRAVEL AT ALL TO PRACTICE THEIR LANGUAGES.
Many of the polyglots I know are not single. In fact, having just got engaged myself I will soon be happily married! Having a family and social roots doesn’t mean you give up the opportunity to learn languages. In fact, often having a good support system at home allows you to focus even more on your passion for languages. And while travelling is a great way to practise a language, it is by no means necessary. As I showed with my mission to learn Arabic while living in Brazil, technology allows the opportunity to practice with native speakers no matter where you are. Some well-known polyglots like Moses McCormick (a.k.a. Laoshu) in Columbus, Ohio, rarely travel, instead finding native speakers in their own home town to practice with. A while back I went on a “Language Level Up” excursion with Moses and we ended up practising a dozen languages in the span of a few hours in the local shopping mall!
DON’T LET THESE LANGUAGE LEARNING MYTHS GIVE YOU AN EXCUSE!Polyglots may seem like a rare breed of people, able to scale tall languages in a single bound, but the reality is far from the case. As you’ve seen, polyglots are really no different than anyone else. We have just spent time focusing on a specific skill set and, as a result, improved those skills.
The interesting thing about learning languages is that it seems to come with it’s own set of fears, not present in other skill-based pursuits. For example, if I had told you I knew someone who could cook 10 different types of cuisine from around the world, would you think they were a genius? Or If I told you that I could play 5 different video games at a high level, would you think I was gifted? Any skill can be learned, and language learning is no exception.
Here’s the hard truth: with all of these myths, you could just as easily replace the word “myth” with “excuse”, because that is essentially what they are.
- Polyglots are gifted at languages = an excuse not to try because you think you’re already at a disadvantage.
- Polyglots have incredible memories = an excuse not to take the effort to learn memory techniques that are accessible by everyone.
- Polyglots have lots of money to spend on travelling = I don’t think I can afford to travel so why bother studying?
- Polyglots have a lot of or not enough free time = I don’t want to learn how to find a way to make the time for something that is important
- Polyglots are super outgoing = I am afraid of putting myself out there, so I can’t learn languages.
- Polyglots are single and spend all their time travelling = I have social obligations and can’t take the time to travel and learn