Can Anyone Become a Polyglot?

You’ve probably heard of Olly Richards and his amazing grasp of all the major languages you can think of. Apart from his native English language, the dude has seven other languages under his belt, including Japanese, Cantonese and Arabic.

If that doesn’t impress you, then there’s no other card I can put on the table than that of the famous Irish Polyglot, Benny Lewis. Benny is fluent in 11 languages, including Esperanto, American Sign Language and Portuguese. He also runs the world’s most popular language blog, Fluent in 3 Months.

If you put the time and effort you can become a polyglot, however it will take you approximately 2 years to learn one language and then 10 years to learn the amount of languages to become a polyglot.

Before we move into the reasons for my answer and how you can be one, let’s understand who a polyglot is.

Who is a Polyglot? Definition of a Polyglot.

There is often confusion regarding the difference between a polyglot and a person that’s bilingual. Also, there is another group known as multilinguals. Technically, speaking more than one language makes a person a polyglot. But that’s who a bi-linguist is. Besides, many people who are bilingual are not considered polyglots.

Multilinguals should also be able to speak a few languages, maybe even three or four. So, speaking contextually, a polyglot must’ve attained a professional status of sorts. Must have mastered more than a few languages beyond the casual, ceremonial manner.

And so, for the purpose of this article, we’ll agree that a polyglot should be able to speak at least four languages, fluently. The term is derived from the Greek word polyglottos which means “more than one tongue”.

You’ll agree with me that it takes a lot of effort to attain fluency in a foreign language. Yet, they say “language is man’s birthright”. A baby grows to learn the language of her immediate environment without anyone actually consciously teaching them. But as we grow up, we get to realize that it takes more than catching up or simply memorizing “ich liebe dich” to become a polyglot.

Do you have to be fluent to be a Polyglot?

The term ‘fluency’ is relative. What does it really mean to be fluent in a language? So, I’ll take the words of Daniel Morgan, learning development head at the Shenker Institutes of English in Italy. Morgan says fluency actually means the smoothness and efficiency a second language (L2) speaker shows when they speak on “a range of issues in real time”.

If we’re to go by Morgan’s submission, then perhaps, we’ll say it’s not enough to understand what every word in a language is and be able to speak it. But it is not the same as proficiency. What this means is that accuracy and range may come into play if you’re required to speak a language professionally and not merely in social settings.

The fact that one speaks and another understands, despite the seeming errors, does not mean the speaker is proficient. In today’s craze for multilingualism, the term “fluency” has been abused by such group of people who think they are “perfect” at a language because they can have conversations.

I believe for you to consider yourself fluent in a language, you must’ve have attained a C1 (Advanced Speaker level) at the least, based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. A polyglot has to be fluent because it’s a professional status, and such a person is expected to be an influencer or even an informal teacher of the language.

How long does it take to be a Polyglot?

There has been a myth for so long that polyglots have a special genetic makeup that makes it easy for them to learn languages. This myth also tends to suggest that these guys are born that way. That is not true. Benny Lewis says this myth gives people an excuse not to learn a language.

Learning a language and becoming a polyglot requires practice and persistence. The amount of time it takes you to become one would depend on how much attention you give to it. Generally, experts say it takes about two years to learn a foreign language. Every other language after that is expected to be easier. However, if we go by two years, then it will take about 10 years to learn five foreign languages. This also depends on dedication and individual differences.

But learning a language doesn’t immediately result in fluency. Being fluent is a continuous exercise. Established polyglots like Olly Richards understands this and says you must be consistent over time, and must also not wait too long before speaking with people in the new language. He adds that “you get good at speaking by speaking”.

Another polyglot, Teddy Nee agrees with Olly. He says that you should use the new language as often as possible. “Begin your learning with phrases you frequently use”, he says.

How many languages do you need to be a Polyglot?

While there is still no commandment or globally accepted rule for the number of languages that qualifies a person to be called a polyglot, there is a consensus. It is believed that a person must be proficient (to an extent) in at least four foreign languages to be called a polyglot.

Do Polyglots have high IQs?

Again, this depends on what you mean. If you want to know whether a higher IQ is the reason why they are polyglots, I’ll have to disagree. Emil Krebs was a 19th century German diplomat. Before his death, he had mastered 65 languages. When scientists dissected his brain in 2004 in a bid to find out if he had a special brain structure.

They did find differences in the Broca’s area- the part of the brain responsible for language, but it was impossible to tell if those differences emerged as a result of constant learning of new languages or if it was there at birth and responsible for his ability to speak as many languages in the first place.

More recent studies have revealed that polyglots have distinct features in their brains as a result of engaging in the activity of learning multiple languages. The brain adapts to that neural-enhancing activity over time and develops certain features. This is much like you’ll find in people who play puzzles or musical instruments.

I think it won’t be far-fetched to say this results in a higher IQ. But it’s not that such people are born with a higher IQ; it is the act of “polyglotting” (pardon my language) that increased their IQ over time. This process creates new pathways that strengthen the brain, and further supports learning even more languages.

Are Polyglots Smarter?

In lay terms, a person with a high IQ is considered smart. But that doesn’t mean a person who speaks several languages is smarter than the one who doesn’t. a polyglot becomes smarter as a person over time due to the impact learning new languages has on the brain. However, there are so many other activities that the average man can engage in to make him smarter as well.

2015 study published in the dailymail also found that people who speak more than one language have more grey matter in parts of their brains. Scientists found an increase in size in the part of the brain that supports short-term memory and attention span. The study was carried out by Georgetown University Medical Center, and found that polyglots perform better at “executive control” than monolingual people.

The study was just a part of a long history of research into the possibility of continuous performance of a particular skill leading to changes in the brain. This is actually logical because a polyglot will put an effort to maintain cognitive control of multiple languages. This means increased brain power and exercise.

Is it worth being a Polyglot?

Becoming a polyglot takes time and painstaking effort. It requires lots of travels as well to different parts of the world to interact with people from different cultures and beliefs. There are some perks to it; spending so much time learning a language only to forget most of it is one frustration that many polyglots have to deal with. Despite this hassle, there are a number of benefits that make being a polyglot worth it.

Multitasking ability is developed:

Languages require cognition. By constantly switching between languages and making sense of it all, you’re enhancing your ability to focus on multiple tasks at the same time.

Improved Memory:

You have to be able to remember every syllable, word, phrase, pronunciation, and all the other details of all the multiple languages you have learnt. This requires lots of memory training and can help you improve your memory in others aspects of life.

Flexibility and Open-mindedness:

By learning new languages, you become more in tune with the cultures and peoples of the world. Your mind becomes open to differences and uniqueness you never thought existed. Most polyglots get to become more open-minded as a result.

Brain Power is boosted:

I mentioned earlier that certain unique features are found in the brains of polyglots that are lacking in those of monolinguals. Research has also shown that polyglots have more grey matter in their brains resulting in better cognition, short-term memory and retention.

Performance is enhanced:

This goes beyond languages. Polyglots get to perform better at other things, whether it’s school or work. The increased brain power comes to life in most other aspects of their lives.

The Trip and the Thrill:

You’ve heard that polyglots travel a lot, yeah? That’s mostly true. An average polyglot will travel to at least three countries a year, spending several months, living in hotels and having a thrill with the locals. It’s like vacationing, except that they go on serious learning business.

Polyglots get favors too:

One polyglot Muriel Finetin told a story of how she got a Japanese treat just by speaking the language. It is normal for locals to want to associate with you better when you can speak their language.

Add all of the above benefits to the fact that you’ll be able to do business in multiple languages, understand a book or tv show without waiting for a translator, and build relationships, and you’ll see that being a polyglot is actually worth it.

What is a hyperpolyglot?

There is a very thin line between a polyglot and a hyperpolyglot. It is simply a matter of more. The term “hyperpolyglot” has only been around for just over two decades. Richard Hudson, a British linguist wanted to find the world’s greatest language learner.

But when we talk about more, do we mean speaking more languages or being more proficient in languages than others. The debate is as old as they come and it doesn’t look like a consensus is coming anytime soon. Simply put, a hyperpolyglot is someone who can speak at least six languages (at least that’s what most experts say).

In fact, president of the International Association of Hyperpolyglots defined it as someone who speaks at least six languages with fluency. Some other experts actually move it up to about 11 or 12 languages to call yourself a hyperpolyglot. That has got to be some really hyper definition, though.

It’s just about being more.

Final Words

Let’s go back to the question at the top of the page; can anyone become a polyglot? My answer would be Yes- as long as you’re willing to pay the prize and go on that journey. There will be frustrations and hazzles along the way, but persistence is the key. You can learn more about how you can become a polyglot, or even a hyperpolyglot by finding the right materials and dedicating your time to it.

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