Speaking in (Many) Tongues: The Benefits of Being a Polyglot

At the end of this week is the international polyglot conference (www.polyglotconference.com, for those who are interested), an event which I am greatly looking forward to. There will be numerous talks in all aspects of language, learning languages, what it’s like to be a polyglot, and more. People from all over the globe will be attending, bonding not through the common enemy of Covid-19 but through language. This is something that is truly heartwarming and uplifting to the soul. When we think about what separates us from all other living beings, it is our specifically verbal mode of communication. Cats may meow in different ways to get different things, as any cat lover knows all too well, primates have different shouts to express their distress in the forest, and birds can deploy a variety of calls during mating season. We are also the only living creatures that have a written mode of communication, thanks to the ways our brains have developed from our pre-verbal days. 

What does it mean to be a polyglot? The word polyglot itself, as per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, comes from the Greek, “polyglottos” which is made up of poly- (many) and glotta (language). Fairly self-explanatory. But in reality, what it means is having to grasp different grammars, syntaxes, vocabularies, phonetic systems, expressions, idioms, and even physical gestures. When one is a polyglot, it requires one to shift modalities in thought and in one’s very being. Naturally, polyglots will differ in their levels of fluency with the languages that they speak. Neuroscientists and linguists have studied how the brains of people who speak more than one language work, and it differs from those who speak only one language. A linguist once told me, for example, with people who are bilingual, two sets of vocabularies are coming up simultaneously, and the speaker will choose whichever one is appropriate to the situation. This all happens in a fractions of a second, a completely subconscious process that one has no idea of. 

On the day-to-day level, what this means is there is a certain richness of language and expressions one can choose from, a sort of “word palette” with many verbal colors to choose from. Certain languages just “get it right” with expressing certain emotions or thoughts. Whenever I see cats, I immediately lapse into Tamil because I find it more suitable to speaking to them in ways that are humorously chiding, loving, and expressive. There is a certain intimacy of the language that I cannot find in any other language I speak, and I confess I think cats love being spoken to in Tamil. A Korean native told me that Korean is so much more expressive with colors, that there are multiple words for yellow. Italian is incredibly robust and rollicking and highly physicalized, Russian is very rich and melancholy, English is very inventive and has a tremendous vocabulary that draws on many languages. The list goes on, and for each polyglot, the buffet of languages offers much to choose from. There is of course always the difference between speaking and reading and writing language. For some people, the auditory skills are much stronger, whereas with others, the literary skills dominate. 

As one polyglot who speaks 7 languages told me, he feels that he has a different identity in each language. This is very beautiful and also very true, for each language will bring out a different facet to our identities, freeing us or confining us or perhaps allowing us to be more serious or more humorous, more or less expressive. Many children of immigrants struggle, for they do not speak their parents’ native tongues easily, and often report feeling “forced” to speak those languages. This is truly a shame, for I feel that so much of culture is attached to language; perhaps many of our multicultural problems in the United States would be ameliorated by people speaking more than one language, therefore having a window into another culture. In many parts of the United States, such as California, it is advantageous to speak Spanish and one can initiate a conversation with a native Spanish/non-English speaker who will usually be grateful and this can facilitate an interaction to go much more smoothly. 

Sadly, language education begins too late in most of the United States, past critical periods, for when it comes to language acquisition, younger the better. I saw an example of this when a French woman brought her five-year-old daughter to a sewing workshop. They had only come to the U.S. five months before and her daughter was placed in kindergarten without knowing a word of English. The little girl watched me and asked, “Where are you putting buttons?” Though spoken with a mild French accent, it was astonishing, for the child had grasped vocabulary, syntax, and understood how to formulate a question in a remarkably short time. Children are like a sponge at a young age, and we must teach them non-native languages as soon as possible. A friend sent her children to Spanish language preschool so that they would have the advantage of another language; her children spoke Spanish with perfect accents, and no one would have suspected it was not their native language.

Language is a great way of uniting the world, and I can only hope that as so much tension and strife is tearing apart our world now, we can come together through the beauty of language, whatever those languages may be. If there is a language you’ve been yearning to learn, try it! It teaches us so much about ourselves, about others, about humility and patience. And it might just bring you a new friend, lover, or colleague. 

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