This post is a part of my Personal Development Project for May 2016.
I’m a polyglot. That is, I speak a couple foreign languages. I’m not perfect, but I speak Russian, Portuguese, and a livable amount of Polish in addition to English. I’ve spent lots of hours studying other languages like Japanese, Esperanto, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Turkish, and Nigerian Pidgin too just for fun.
My goal in my personal language learning is just puzzle solving. Plain and simple. Languages are like puzzles to me. I choose a language to learn with the intent to pick it apart and see how it works. If I remember enough to order dinner when I go to a Thai restaurant or if I solidify my knowledge enough to maintain a discussion on the Ukrainian civil war with a stranger on the train, that’s cool. If not, I don’t really care.
Truth be told, the thing I love about language learning the most isn’t even the language learning itself. Most of all, I love the diversity of the language learning and polyglot community that exists because so many people happen to share my weird hobby. The diversity of the community has made language learning invaluable for me.
I’ll bet that when I say the word “diversity”, you think of race or ethnicity or nationality or maybe socio-economic class. This is usually the context in which we hear this word. But I think that it’s hard to really understand what diversity is when we always look at it in these contexts. The word loses its power (if it has any) because it’s vague and impersonal and charged.
So I’m actually not going to talk about diversity in any of these contexts at all. I’m going to talk about it in a way that’s more real and meaningful to me in my life. I’m going to share five polyglots who I think represent the diversity of the language learning community. They’re diverse in their skills, their depth of knowledge, their breadth of knowledge, their approach to learning, their field of learning, and their goals. And these areas of diversity are what has made language learning so meaningful to me.
Luca Lampariello is a polyglot from Italy who speaks 10 languages extremely well. He’s somewhat of a celebrity in the polyglot community because of his YouTube videos and blog The Polyglot Dream. He also represents a lot of what we as a community believe in: 1) You can learn a foreign language as an adult, 2) You can learn a foreign language even if you don’t live in a country where it’s spoken, and 3) You can do all this with a full time job and a life outside of language learning.
One thing I really like about Luca and the diversity that he brings is that his pronunciation is really, really good! It might seem silly that I like that so much, but see for yourself how Luca speaks English. He has almost no accent.
A lot of other polyglots have hints of their native accent in their foreign languages. I know I do. So it’s exciting to see that having a foreign accent is like a spectrum. Luca is at the far end of the spectrum with nearly no accent when he speaks a lot of his languages. And the rest of us fall along side him somewhere (or maybe on the other side of him!).
Benny is a really popular and well-known polyglot. He’s an engineer from Ireland (currently a digital nomad) and his claim to fame is his “Fluent in 3 Months” approach to language learning. I had the privilege of seeing Benny give a live talk at the 2015 Polyglot Conference. He’s a really outspoken and bubbly guy.
Benny often has to make a clarification about his “Fluent in 3 Months” slogan. Being fluent in 3 months isn’t a promise from Benny, it’s actually a goal. And the goal comes from the fact that when you travel to many countries as a tourist, you can only legally stay in that country for 90 days. So this constraint to learn a language in such a short amount of time comes from his being a digital nomad. He can only stick around in one country for 3 months at a time before he has to pack up his work and go somewhere else.
I really like Benny because, first of all, he reaches out a lot to new learners. His blog is helpful especially for people who are new to independent language learning. Second, he’s nomadic, so he learns his languages “in the field” and in short periods of time (unlike Luca, for example, who learns in his home country over long periods of time). And third, his goal is never to discuss philosophy or read classic literature in his target language. His goal is to make meaningful connections through conversation.
Moses McCormick is a polyglot from Columbus, Ohio, who speaks over 40 languages. A lot of people rain on his parade because he doesn’t speak all 40 or 50-something languages at a C2 (very advanced) level or even a B1 level (intermediate). But Moses’s breadth of languages is part of what I love so much about him and what he brings to the polyglot community. He studies dozens of languages. And sure, he doesn’t speak them all perfectly. But what’s more important to him than perfection is courage and pure fun. He does what he loves and his enthusiasm is contagious.
Moses does these “level up” videos where he goes out in public and practices his languages with strangers at the mall or grocery store. He and Benny Lewis did a level up together once and put up the result on YouTube. There’s really no other polyglot comparable to Moses. He’s his own man. He’s his own category. He adds to the diversity of the polyglot community.
Some polyglots are especially interested in a specific family of languages. Mike Campbell is one of those polyglots. He speaks lots of different languages, but his specialty is Sinitic languages (think “China”). Here’s a video of Mike speaking Chinese. (That video itself just gets me so excited, seeing him speak Chinese so fluidly!)
Mike is a linguist and the creator of Glossika, a language learning company that invented a method for learning that I find extremely valuable and effective in my own studies. The method is commonly called “the Glossika method” among seasoned language learners, but it’s also called “the mass sentence method”. Basically, you have 3000 sentences that are recorded/written in your native language and a foreign language you want to learn. You listen to a chunk of new sentences everyday and repeat them aloud (and transcribe them, if you want). You do this for 90 days. Very simple.
It might seem weird that polyglots love this stuff so much. But the beauty of the method is in the fact that the sentences are intentionally chosen and arranged so that you learn not just words in context, but grammar in context too. Everything becomes intuitive and natural. It’s like magic!
But my love for this method aside, Mike is part of what makes me love the polyglot community so much. He’s somewhat of a region-specific polyglot, and he also contributed to the community with a great idea (the mass sentence method itself) and an awesome product (the packages that Glossika sells).
Iversen has been learning languages since before the internet was around. He’s got lots of wisdom and experience under his belt (and lots of languages too!). He’s given the community his “wordlist method”, and also written an extensive guide to learning languages based on his experiences.
The diversity that Iversen brings to the community is his “learn to read first” approach to learning a language. Most people nowadays say that you have to start speaking right from the start. Moses and Benny are big supporters of this philosophy. But Iversen does what feels right to him: he learns to read first.
Despite his differing approach, Iversen is just as great a polyglot as Moses, Benny, Luca, and the others. He stays true to himself and his experiences, and he helps a lot of people.
So why do I love diversity?
These five people give a quick overview of the thing I love so much about language learning. Together they highlight the diversity of the polyglot community. They each learn languages for different reasons than each other. They each learn languages in different manners than each other. They have different levels and different expectations and different philosophies. But each is inspiring and successful in his own way.
Sometimes I find myself looking around, comparing myself to the people around me, and thinking, “Gosh, I’m just not as good as these guys. I’m not as old. I’m not as smart. I’m not as whatever.” I often think of Moses McCormick during these times. I think about how a lot of people give him a hard time because “he doesn’t speak X as well as so-and-so”. And then I remember that speaking X as good as so-and-so isn’t his goal. Other people are operating under a different paradigm of success than him.
Moses McCormick is my roadmap to remembering that we all have different criteria for success. We all have different experiences, different talents, and different goals. Benny Lewis reinforces this. Luca Lampariello and Mike Campbell and Niels Iversen all reinforce this.
And the diversity of the community itself also makes me feels like it’s a safe place, a place where I can belong. Whether I care more about reading Anna Karenina or talking with an old woman who survived 20 Siberian winters doesn’t matter. Whether I want to be able to order ice cream in 20 languages or watch the news in 2 doesn’t matter. Whether I’m a formally educated linguist or I failed high school Spanish doesn’t matter. The community takes everyone, and everyone can find a brother-in-arms.
When I say the word “diversity”, what do you think of? Traditional “diversity” is politics. Traditional “diversity” is an emotionally charged idea. Traditional “diversity” is actually hard to define, hard to think about, hard to understand and appreciate.
The diversity of polyglots though, that’s something concrete. It’s something that I came to notice and appreciate. Polyglottism and language learning defined diversity for me and made it meaningful. Diversity is difference. Diversity is strength. Diversity, for me, is community.
I can see for myself and relate to the different approaches everyone takes to learning new languages. I can see the different goals and different levels of success, all the layers woven and steps taken. And I can take this knowledge I have of diversity and use it as an encouragement for when I start to compare myself to others.
The reason I love language learning so much is because of the inspiring community of language learners. The reason I love the community so much is because of its diversity. And the reason I love diversity so much is because it empowers both me and others to become the best people that we can be by following our own paths — no matter how different or similar they appear to be to the paths of those around us.