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Language Matters: What Is a Polyglot?

By Alexander Arguelles | Published: May 21, 2019

I have a confession:  I am a polyglot.  For much of my life, I have been obsessed with studying foreign languages. In some way, shape, or form I have studied close to 90 languages. I certainly don’t speak them all, but to some degree I can speak several dozen, and I can read even more. It was this love of languages that recently brought me to Concordia Language Villages. Since many people are unclear about what a polyglot is, I am responding to the questions that often come my way.

What is the difference between being “multilingual” and being a “polyglot?”

What do you call someone who knows two languages?  Bilingual, right?  And someone who knows three languages?  Trilingual.  What about someone who knows more languages than that? Multilingual, of course, though there is another word that can be used: “polyglot.” However, are “polyglot” and “multilingual” truly synonyms?  There are differences between them that should be highlighted, and that I'll do my best to explain. Let's start with "multilingual."

How does multilingualism affect society?

Socio-linguistic anthropologists tell us that multilingualism is the norm. That is, most people on the planet speak more than one language. There are many countries in Africa and Asia in which hundreds of languages are spoken. Many European countries have two or more official languages, and many Europeans also know the languages of their close neighbors. Even though Americans are stereotypically monolingual, the United States is a country of immigrants where those who have recently come from others lands retain their other languages.

How do individuals become multilingual?

People become multilingual by growing up speaking multiple languages. This can be because their family speaks multiple languages. It can be because their society does so. It can be because their personal circumstances involved moving abroad or other exposure to the use of many tongues when they were young. Or it can be any combination of these factors. In any case, multilingualism is a product of the environment, of early childhood exposure, and of informal language acquisition (as opposed to formal language learning).

Are there limits on multilingualism?

The majority of multilingual people know two languages; that is, they are bilingual. Trilingual individuals and societies are not rare either. In countries like India, South Africa or Nigeria where scores of languages are spoken in close proximity, some people may end up being quadrilingual or even quintilingual (knowing four or five languages). However, most do not know all of these languages well. In other words, though there are societies in which dozens of languages are commonly spoken, there do not seem to be any societies in which everyone speaks six or more languages.

How Many Languages Do Polyglots Know?
A plethora of polyglots at the International
Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad, Serbia.

Even though there are no known societies with six or more shared languages, there are individuals who know six or more languages. There are even some who know dozens or scores of languages. These individuals are “polyglots.” One difference, then, between “multilinguals” and “polyglots” lies in the number of languages they know. There is no set definition of a polyglot, but the word usually refers to someone who knows six or more languages.

How do you become a polyglot?

The most important distinction between being multilingual and being a polyglot does not lie in how many languages you know, but in how you came to know them. Some polyglots get a jump start by growing up multilingual. Still, just like polyglots from monolingual backgrounds, they must actively learn most of their languages.  Polyglottery is usually and mostly a question of conscious study . . . that is, of formal language learning (as opposed to informal language acquisition).

Multilingualism is, in essence, accidental. Being multilingual is a question of fate, of birth, or at most of parental choice. An individual human being cannot decide to grow up multilingual on his or her own. In contrast, becoming a polyglot is a question of choice. Becoming a polyglot requires lots of hard work and an almost obsessive passion for learning languages. It is rarely, if ever, accidental, but rather the result of conscious effort.

Is there a polyglot society?
The 2016 meeting of the international polyglot 
community in Thessaloniki, Greece. 

In the past, the very existence of genuine polyglots was denied or disputed because they are relatively rare. There are no societies where everyone is a polyglot. However, in the age of internet communication, an international polyglot community has formed and holds an annual international conference that more than 500 people attend each year.

Concordia Language Villages may rightly be seen as a breeding ground for polyglots. The Villages have not only produced and harbor a number of polyglots, but have also now started to attract even more. I have met several others here already, and intend to write about them in a future post.

About the Author

Alexander Arguelles grew up in a home filled with books in different languages, watching his father teach them to himself, and traveling abroad with his family throughout Europe and Asia. He studied as many languages as he could in college and graduate school, mainly medieval literary ones. When he did post-doctoral research in Europe, he found that his philological training made it very easy for him to pick up modern European languages. He wanted a challenge, so when he found that Korean was supposedly the most difficult language to learn, he moved there to study it. A decade later, he moved on to Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates in pursuit of Arabic mastery. Now, after 25 years abroad, he is eager to share his experience not only as a polyglot but as a global citizen with the Concordia Language Village community as director of its “Group A” languages.

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