What is a Polyglot?

The term polyglot gets thrown around a lot in the language learning sites and groups I belong to but, depending on who you speak to, it can have a different definition. So, I thought I would explain it a little.

In one of the groups I am in someone stated that it was someone who knew 3 or more languages. Another argued that this was “trilingual” and you had to know 4 or more languages.

The dictionary definitions aren’t that definitive either:

The Webster definition of polyglot is “knowing or using several languages”. So how many is “several”? And if it’s just using several languages then can you just get by with the basics? Technically you could by this definition.

The Collins dictionary does better. A polyglot by their definition is “a person with a command of many languages”. To have command of a language implies that you need to know it to a much deeper level.

For me, a polyglot is more about quality rather than quantity. I could learn the basics of 10 languages in no time at all and, arguably, could call myself a polyglot. But I wouldn’t. I think more along the lines of the Collins definition. A polyglot is someone who has command of the language. Someone who could hold their own in a conversation with a native speaker and rarely be stuck for words. Of course the “poly” part of this has to come in to it too so, by definition, it has to be many languages.

Is Polyglot just a marketing term?

Until I started researching language learning, I had never heard the word polyglot and whenever I use it talking to a friend, I always get asked “what’s that?’

I’ll be honest too, almost everyone I have encountered that calls themselves a polyglot is selling something. It’s easy to see why some think it’s just a marketing term to make someone sound impressive.

I wouldn’t say it is, it’s in the dictionary after all and it’s just a descriptive word. It’s just been used less commonly than bilingual, trilingual or multilingual.

Admittedly though, “Benny the Irish Multilingual Person” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. (This is just an example to highlight, not a dig at Benny. I am a strong supporter of Benny and Fluent in 3 Months, it’s what got me started in language learning)

Why I will never be a polyglot and that’s OK

I never started in language learning to become a polyglot and I believe that anyone that does, probably never will. It’s completely the wrong motivation and will be very very difficult to stay committed.

I like to think of myself as a “professional beginner”. I am more than happy to progress through the beginner stages and then hover around the intermediate. I want to be able to speak to people, have a laugh and enjoy their company.

For me, language learning is about learning about people, falling in love with their culture, their history and understanding more about their way of thinking. The languages I choose are much more to do with the countries I want to go to and the people I would like to get to know. I don’t really care how many languages I know, I only care about the experiences I will have as a result.

Language learning as a process is really hard work. It does get easier, once you figure out what type of learner you are but it’s never truly easy. The human connections you can make as a result are the reward though and totally make it worthwhile.

I think I have rambled on for long enough (for now). I know that everyone’s motivations are different and that some will disagree with me so let me know what you think in the comments below. Do you agree or disagree? Feel free just to add your thoughts to the conversation.

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