Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

In his book, The world until yesterday, Jared Diamond recalls an evening in Papua New Guinea when he went around the campfire circle asking members of different tribes how many languages they speak. The smallest number of languages anyone spoke was 5, several people spoke 8 to 12 languages, and the champion spoke 15. And these were mutually unintelligible languages, belonging to different families! Now, does this mean that all New Guineans – or at least the ones around the campfire – have unique language abilities? Are they polyglots? Or is there a fine line, separating multilinguals from polyglots?

And if there is such a line, where should we place that celebrated polyglot of antiquity, Cleopatra VII, who, according to Plutarch, easily passed from one language to another in her melodic voice, and rarely needed an interpreter to speak to the representatives of barbarian nations: “to most of them she spoke herself, as to the Aethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and many others, whose language she had learnt” (Plutarch, Antony, p. 497). And what about the famous explorer of antiquity, Heinrich Schliemann, who boasted of more than twenty languages, including ancient Greek?

Lately, the media has shown a heightened interest in polyglots, with numerous articles, blog posts and even a book, Babel No More, dedicated to people who speak multiple languages. Diamond and Plutarch allow us to re-evaluate this trend, with an eye on who writes these reports, for whom, and to what effect. One thread that links many reports involves authorship: they are usually written by journalists who, by their own admission, are monolingual English speakers or have English and a modicum of Spanish or French. As a result, they are more likely to be impressed by the rapid barrage of foreign words, to mistake speed for fluency, and to buy into the speaker’s own descriptions of their abilities, without picking up on the limitations and inconsistencies.

Now, far be it from me to say that monolinguals should not write about multilingualism. My concern is about reports that describe people who can learn dozens of languages ‘rapidly’ and speak them ‘fluently’, without a solid basis for such descriptions, not unlike Plutarch’s second-hand portrayal of Cleopatra. This is all the more pertinent because, at closer inspection, some self-reports turn out to be greatly exaggerated, including Schliemann’s – classics experts who examined his ancient Greek writing found it to be truly appalling. 

The second thread that unites many reports is selective portrayal. The polyglots featured by the media are usually Westerners. Missing from the picture are Cameroonians, New Guineans, and many others, for whom everyday interaction in multiple languages is the norm, or even classicists who work in, but do not necessarily ‘speak’, their ‘dead’ languages and who are among the most impressively multilingual people I have ever met.

On the face of it, there are good reasons to focus on ‘exceptional’ learners – their stories of learning languages for pure love and ‘against all odds’ are more dramatic and exciting. They also allow journalists to speculate on the elusive and mysterious language talent – aka language aptitude or the secret of the multilingual brain – that could explain why some people have an easier time learning languages. But what is the secret? Is it prodigious memory or the skills of immediate pattern recognition? Or maybe it is a uniquely tuned ear or a nimble tongue that easily mimics foreign sounds? Or, perhaps, it is a chameleon-like ability to dispense with all inhibitions and become someone else, if only for a moment?

Alas, the reports come short on substance, because different polyglots have different abilities and go about language learning in different ways, using strategies that match the unique circumstances and preferences of each learner: some pore over books and grammars, others favor listening to songs and movies, and yet others prefer to learn by speaking and making new friends. But then again, this is what multilinguals do as well, isn’t it?

Perhaps the only difference between multilinguals and polyglots is that the latter spend their time studying languages they do not need for everyday practical purposes. In this they may be akin to amateur musicians who learn to play dozens of musical instruments. Interestingly, we do not see reports on such musicians – even though they undoubtedly exist and have valuable knowledge and expertise – because we know that the end result still lands them quite far from Yo-Yo Ma.

I have no doubt that the journalists writing about polyglots mean well: they want to inspire and maybe even shame us a little into learning the language we always wanted to speak. But by differentiating between ‘regular’ multilinguals and polyglots – extraordinary learners with unique abilities – the polyglot hype trivializes the complexity of the language learning process, obscures the amount of time and effort necessary to master a language, detracts from the normativity of multilingualism in many places around the world, and reinforces the very monolingual norms it purports to challenge. At the end, it gives the readers a sense that without an aptitude for languages they should not even try.

And as to Cleopatra, Plutarch’s description gives us a good sense of where she falls in the multilingual - polyglot dichotomy and why he found her achievements worthy of reporting: they were “all the more surprising because most of the kings, her predecessors, scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue” (p. 497). In other words, Cleopatra was not a collector of languages but a multilingual ruler who used her knowledge – whatever it was – strategically, to differentiate herself from the other Ptolemies and to enhance her royal prestige.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo of Cleopatra VII and Caesarion from Shutterstock.

References

Erard, M. (2012) Babel no more: The search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners. New York: Free Press.

Laes, C. (2013) Polyglots in Roman antiquity: Writing socio-cultural history based on anecdotes. Literatūra, 55, 3, 7-26.

Plutarch’s Lives, volume II. The Dryden translation, edited by Arthur Hugh Clough. New York: the Modern Library.

Aneta Pavlenko's website.

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