Polyglot – learn a language like a Polyglott

What is a Polyglot

A polyglot is a person who learns language to the point of high level of fluency. There have been famous and non famous polyglots in history. There was Cardinal Mezzofanti who learned some 38 languages, by studying morning to evening his whole life. On the other hand my grandmother Anna Wolonick for example was fluent in five languages but never studied any languages formally, she simply lived in Eastern Europe during her teens.

The word Polyglot comes from the the Ancient Greek language word πολύγλωττος (poluglōttos, ‘many-tongued, polyglot’), from πολύς (polus, ‘many’) + γλῶττα (glōtta, ‘tongue, language’). In English we also talk about someone who is multilingual. But I think polyglot has a different feel. For me the word is more about natural ability and talent.

Does Polyglotism exist?

Since I have taught and learned languages, I have not meet any real Polyglots. I have heard of many people claiming to know people who have a gift for languages, but all I have known is people who study hard and work day and night to learn these languages.

I have also seen multilingualism with people raised in Europe and living between two or three language zones. These people are bilingual, trilingual or multilingual not because of a gift but because their brains as children were stretched by the exposure to several languages.

How to become a Polyglot

  • Choose one language and get to the intermediate level – Once you learn one language others will be much easier.
  • To learn a language fast use the flashcard approach. Find the most important words in the language. The vocabulary is a different list in every languages. Next, find the most important two-hundred 200 verbs. Verbs are the soul of a language and you need this to understand the action of the sentence. Learn these with flashcards until you know them by heart. This flashcard approach is the best approach to learn a language.
  • With toil, suffering and lament, work through a very good book on grammar. It can not be one of these phrase books or introduction to the language books, it needs to be a real language book with drills and exercises on every page. You need thousands of language patterns to test and make mistakes before you begin to understand the grammar. Understanding comes after you do the quizzes and make mistakes not in some theoretical language school class. No one can teach you a language. It is all self learning. No one likes this advice but you need to do it.
  • At this point if you can not fall in love with a native speaker, try making online friends or at least chat with someone online.
  • Read books that you like in the language, I like fairy-tales and fantasy books. Books are better than movies as it is an active not a passive activity.
Some polyglots learn several languages at once without getting jumbled in their polyglot brain

There is a lot written on the web about how to be a polyglott, but the reality is polyglotism is about hard work. Try my flashcard approach above for three months and you should make very good progress with your first language. Then try another language, some people I know like this polylinguistic learning approach, that is simultaneous learning of several languages.

5 Replies to “Polyglot – learn a language like a Polyglott”

  1. I laughed out loud when I read this post. I was taking a break from entering all the verbs from my 501 German verbs book into a graded spaced repetition flash card program when I stumbled upon this blog. The bit about falling in love with a native speaker is good too.

    I’ve got to say, overall this description of the process is really pretty accurate. I grew up speaking English, and learned Spanish through pure hard work. Now as I embark upon learning my third language, I can see how much I learned about how to learn the first time around. Something that I would add is that the fastest way to learn is to follow the advice in the post, plus move somewhere that the local population speaks your target language. Without lots of interaction with native speakers learning the learning processes is much much slower, and requires a huge commitment from the learner.

    1. Verbs are a great way to learn a language as is falling in love. What is your next language? I am curious and what other methods have you used? English, German, Spanish what next? I wrote a few long posts on how to learn a language and my personal experiences with this.

  2. Mark, sorry I wasn’t quite clear. I’m working on German now, I was counting English when I wrote that I was working on my third language. I took a position in international marketing with Fujitsu in Augsburg Germany so for me the natural thing is to learn the language. As this is only my second foreign language I’m still working out the kinks regarding how learn in the most efficient manner. I learned Spanish pretty much by force of will. It took around 5-7 years of domestic study to reach the point of being able to confidently write a graduate level literature paper.

    I believe that I can significantly shorten the time required to reach that point with additional languages. Currently I’m experimenting with a number of different avenues for learning German. I’ve listed each element of my strategy below.

    1. I’ve enrolled in language classes 4 nights a week. Two of those nights are with an A1 level beginner class, and two are with a B1 level class. I get the basics in the first class and the more advanced stuff simultaneously in the intermediate class.

    2. I’m watching a lot of German movies and listening to numerous German podcasts. I learned with Spanish that podcasts are a great way to input new vocabulary and get a feel for the rhythm of the language. I’ve always got headphones on with German news commentary streaming into my brain.

    3. I’m studying my flashcard database at http://flashcarddb.com/ljacts to learn at least what all the verbs mean. As I get more vocabulary words I’ll input them into new card sets and integrate those into my study sessions.

    4. I’m starting to experiment with recopying my notes from class, and also with some memory techniques from the world of competitive memorization. I just started working through “A Sheep Falls Out of the Tree” by Christiane Stenger. I’m hoping to apply these memory techniques to remembering the conjugations of irregular verbs.

    5. I’m encouraging everyone I know to speak German to me and around me for all noncritical communication. This is a tough sell. Most educated Germans speak exceptionally good English and are happy to practice with a native speaker. In addition to that, I’m starting from zero with this language so although I understand quite a bit, I’m not super vocal yet. I anticipate that once I have a few thousand more words in my active vocabulary people will be more willing to put up with my request.

    Learning a language is rewarding, but I think most people underestimate how much work goes into it. Hopefully over the course of this year I’ll find ways to refine my methods and gain momentum quickly.

    If I’ve missed some tactic you found to be quite helpful I’d love to hear about it.

  3. This blog offers some great tips. I live in Bangkok in Thailand and have just spent the last 5 years mastering Thai which is a tonal language. It was at first really difficult to tune in to the nuances of the sound. Over the time I have tried to track my efficiency at learning. It definitely goes in fits and starts. I have found that after really intense periods that having a complete break really did the world of good. Sometimes in these breaks I would be out of the country and then when I arrived back I found my brain had connected more dots and my Thai had improved while I was not using it at all.
    I think living in the country is definitely an advantage but I have not had the benefit of a long haired dictionary so I have made every effort I could every day to engage Thai people in my day to day life. Some of the best conversations are with taxi drivers. But I think there are two aspects that made a difference. I did an intensive Thai course at Chulalongkorn university and one of our lecturers in basic 3 told us to stop translating Thai to English and understand the new words by using the vocabulary we had already. That I think was a big step towards coming fully into the language and learning to think in it. Another thing I have always done and still do is practice in my head. I find practicing what I want to say mentally a great form of practice. Apart from that I think that the most important aspect of learning a new language is learning to be a good listener. To listen to the native speakers, to the sounds that they make, the context that they use language and to also listen to yourself and to compare what is coming out of your mouth to the native speakers. Only by doing that do we slowly tune into the sounds of the language, become fluent in listening and then speaking, and that is essentially how we all learnt our mother tongue as children isn’t it!

  4. I’ve noticed the same that it gets easier after having learned more languages. I’m a native Finnish speaker fluent in English and German, quite fluent in Swedish, intermediate in Spanish and beginner in many more.

    I never tried the Flashcards, so thank you for the tip. I will try that!
    I love learning languages, but it does take some time.

    In my opinion the only way really to learn the language (fluently) is to live in a place where it’s spoken, aka use it in every day situations. For beginners stuff, I like to stick small papers with foreign words all over my apartment.

    I agree that you should learn a language that you’re interested in learning. It’s so much more motivating! Only after the compulsory language classes in elementary and middle school I realized I could also learn something new for fun.

    In High School my best friend happend to be Korean and I got really into the Korean movies and the culture through her. That’s when I started to learn Korean. There were no Korean classes available in my town and no Korean-Finnish study books ever made, so I serched some “Learn Korean” excercises in the internet and practiced with Koreans where ever I got to know them. I haven’t got very far in my learning but it was still fun to learn a new alphabet and some useful phrases etc. Living in Finland, Korean really isn’t a the most useful language to learn, but it’s really beutiful, fun and relatively easy, too. I have found some similarities between Finnish and Korean and there’s even a theory that these languages might be distantly related. I’m hoping that one day my rare interest in this distant language might give me some benefit in the working life, too.

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