The polyglot project: my submission

The web is the place to learn languages. There are resources, and content and learning tools. But more than anything, the web is a community. Here is an excellent example. Check out this video?? by Claude, the creator of the polyglot project.

Here is how he describes this great project.

“I want to put a book together, available to all for free which is written by you language lovers for all language lovers. How did you learn your languages? How has the study of foreign languages enriched your life? Who influenced you? I want to know. Send me a written piece, in English, by July 31, 2010. About 1-15 pages, covering any topic you wish relating to foreign languages. Send the finished piece by email to:

I’m looking forward to hearing from you guys!

I can only say wow! Congratulations and thanks Claude for this initiative. Fortunately he extended the deadline so I was able to make a submission, which Claude has accepted.

The book is here, and will be a wonderful resource for language learners everywhere.

Here is my submission.

Language lover – what a great term for someone who speaks more than one language, a better term than polyglot, which, to me, sounds harsh in English. I also use the term linguist to describe someone who speaks more then one language. Everyone speaks one language, but to speak more than one is special, not difficult necessarily, but special. It requires a deliberate decision to learn something, and a commitment to sustained activity and practice. In this sense linguists are like a violinists, pianists, or even dentists. I am a language lover, and do not hesitate to call myself a linguist, (which annoys those who have studied linguistics), because I have learned to speak 11 languages, and have no intention of stopping at my present age of 65.

The world is full of linguists, and always has been. In ancient times, when a different language was spoken in every valley, people had to have the ability to communicate across language barriers, in order to trade. The teen-aged street vendors of Tangiers, when I visited in 1964, all spoke 5 or 6 languages, as they pressed tourists to buy their wares. The courts and aristocracy of Europe spoke Latin, French and several vernacular languages, to communicate with each other and their subjects. Today in places as different as Sweden, Singapore and Ethiopia, it is just considered normal to speak more than one language. Being a linguist is not a big deal, or at least should not be.

Linguists are not born, they are made. They are made because of need, or interest, or a combination of the two. In my case, it was interest rather than need that got me going. Nevertheless, I was often able to use my languages, and benefit from them. In learning my languages, I was able to do what the French call “joindre l’utile ?? l’agr??able”, in other words combine usefulness and pleasure.

It was 1962, when?? a professor of French at McGill University, Prof. Maurice Rabotin, turned me on to learning French, by stimulating an interest in the world of French culture, something a series of anglophone French teachers had been totally unsuccessful at doing during elementary and high school in Montreal. I stopped classroom learning and sought out the real world of the language, in radio, newspapers, theatre, movies, and French speakers in Montreal. I even ended up going to France to complete my university education at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris. What I obtained was not only fluency in French, but the conviction that I could convert myself into a fluent speaker of another language. Many people never have that experience.

As a result, when my first permanent employer, the Canadian Diplomatic Service, announced that they would be looking for someone to learn Mandarin, in preparation for Canada’s establishment of diplomatic relations with the Peoples’ Republic of China, I knew I could do it. I started taking lessons on my own and then volunteered. My initiative was recognized by senior management and I was soon on my way to Hong Kong to learn Mandarin, full time, at the Canadian tax-payers expense. It was while learning Mandarin, in a wholly Cantonese speaking environment in Hong Kong, that I discovered many of the language learning truths that would guide me through my learning of other languages.

These include the following:

  • You do not need to be surrounded by the language or live in the country to learn a language.
  • You mostly need to learn the language on your own, through a lot of listening and reading.
  • Most grammatical explanations are obtuse, hard to remember, harder to apply, and need not be learned.
  • The milestones on the road to fluency are the number of words you know.
  • You need to make an effort notice the patterns of the language as you read and listen, and this gradually becomes easier to do.
  • You should start using these words and patterns, as soon as you feel like it, and even if you make many mistakes.
  • The language will remain fuzzy for a long time. There is no need to despair over what you forget, do not understand, or are unable to say.
  • Your brain learns, inevitably, but on its own schedule.

As I watched my fellow language learners struggle with Chinese, I came to realize that need or obligation or external pressure were not as strong motivators as interest. I loved my Chinese language learning. Most of my unsuccessful colleagues saw learning Chinese as a chore. I was to observe this phenomenon over and over, whether with immigrants to Canada, or corporate language learners in Japan, or unsuccessful language students in school or college. To learn a language, you cannot hold your nose, and just dip your toe in the water. You have to jump in. You have to like the language, even to love the language. You have to commit.

Just a few years ago a professor at an American university wisely told me that the secret to language learning comes down to three things, attitude, time on task, and attentiveness. It is worth looking at these in more detail.

Attitude: You not only have to like the language, and at least some aspect of the culture of the language, you have to believe you can learn it. You also have to be willing to leave behind your own culture, and unquestioningly project yourself into the role of a speaker of another language, and therefore of a person carrying many of the behavioural traits of that culture. You should not worry about what you cannot do, and certainly should not expect to learn something just because you studied it. You have to enjoy the process.

I always laugh when I look at textbooks that tell you that in this chapter you will learn the subjunctive. You will not. You will exposed to some explanations and examples of the subjunctive. As to when you will learn the subjunctive, that will be decided by your brain, but it may not happen until six months later. So take it easy. Sit back and enjoy the journey, and wait for the fog to lift, slowly.

Time: For most people it takes quite a long time to learn a language. Therefore, you have to put in the time, regularly. In my own experience, the development of the MP3 player, iTunes and other similar technology?? has made it possible to immerse myself in the language, even while running my business. I have learned Russian and Portuguese, and dabbled in Korean, over the last 4 years, mostly using “dead time”, while doing household chores, exercising or waiting in line, with a little investment of dedicated study time in front of the computer or with books. I did not attend any classes, and learned more than most students who did. Today I can listen to Russian radio stations, read Tolstoi, and enjoy Portuguese podcasts. But I have put in the time, probably around an hour a day on average
, while working and carrying on my interests in sports, and other things, and working. Remember, also, that I am 65.

Attentiveness: We can do things to help our brain notice the patterns of the language we are learning. Different people use different tools, or combinations of tools, to make their brains more attentive. Reviewing grammar rules from time to time, without trying to nail anything down, can help. Flash cards can help. Being corrected when we write or speak can help. None of these are at the core of language learning. Listening and reading, and eventually, communicating are.

After studying Mandarin and living in Hong Kong from 1968-70 ( I successfully passed the British Foreign Service Mandarin exam in 1969), I moved to Japan. Even though I lived surrounded by Japanese speakers, and took every opportunity to speak, most of my time was spent listening and reading, and building up my competence in the language. In this way, I became more and more confident in my interaction with Japanese people. I did not want to use the Japanese people I met, as teachers, but rather wanted them as friends or business associates. I did most of my learning on my own.

Back in Vancouver in the late 1980s, after starting my own lumber exporting company which involved business dealings in Europe,?? I again combined the useful with the agreeable,?? and at various times scoured book stores, especially second hand book stores, for German, Spanish, Italian and Swedish books and audio content. I also sought out similar material in order to maintain my Chinese. The problem was always that I was either limited to readers with glossaries, or would have to confront the time consuming and frustrating task of looking words up in a conventional dictionary. In my experience, I no sooner looked things up in a dictionary than I forgot them. It was in the 1990s that the world of language learning changed.

The Internet, online dictionaries and MP3 technology have created a new paradigm. I believe they will make the class room and conventional language labs largely irrelevant. The last 4-5 years have been the most intense sustained period of language learning in my life., and this is, of course tied up with my involvement in the LingQ project, and it is at LingQ that I have been learning my languages during this period.

On a final note, my languages have benefited me professionally, throughout my?? 43 year career as a diplomat and businessman. But these rewards are small compared to the personal, social and cultural enrichment my languages have brought me. In some ways, the greatest benefit of language learning is the process itself.?? As we gradually acquire confidence in another language, we sense a feeling of achievement and power or conquest. We make new friends, and discover aspects of humanity that were hidden from us. It is like being at a banquet and having more and more dishes to enjoy, without getting full.?? Of course if you are just a meat and potatoes man, you will never know what you missed. Maybe that is the greatest role of a teacher, like my Prof. Rabotin over 40 years ago, not to teach the language, but to create an appetite for languages.


One thought on “The polyglot project: my submission

  1. Once again,Steve, you have hit the mark.Your knowledge of language learning is phenomenal.I particularly liked the part about the language remaining fuzzy.I am trying to come to grips with the continental portuguese accent.whenever. I feel frustrated I turn to your blog.Thanks for the motivation.

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