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. 

The Physicality of Language

There is an emphasis–dare I say overemphasis?–on the intellectual, cerebral, and cognitive aspects of language today, especially in academia. Camille Paglia has written countless essays on the dominance of postmodern deconstructionism, how we are in a Foucauldian and Derridean era, so to speak. We are unfortunately in a paradigm of a very heady way of approaching ideas and language, and it is important to think beyond this. What of other aspects of language? We have explored the importance of rhyme in my post “Time for Rhyme” on this blog which also appeared in the Macedonian online magazine Blesok. But it is important to go further than rhyme and to think about how language can be physical, auditory, something that invokes movement.

French stage actor and pedagogue Jacques Lecoq did quite a lot with physical movement and mime in his teaching. I was fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity to watch a video of one of his classes, given to me by someone who had studied at his school (from what I understand students are discouraged from revealing too much on video about it). There was one exercise where students from different countries were asked to make a hand gesture related to a certain word. It was interesting to see the diversity of responses as to how language is physicalized, and how different cultures perceive the same words.

The Italian language is so enjoyable because it is so kinesthetic. I’m not only referring to the stereotypical hand gestures that most people imagine when they think of an Italian talking, but also the way in which the inflections and the double consonants and the way vowels are drawn out for emphasis resulting in a very rollicking, physical way of speaking. There is a reason why opera was born in Italy: opera requires the physicalization of language in one’s body. There are a number of physical gestures in Italian that express a certain emotion or thought. It is also important to mention that from region to region, the language varies greatly. Italy is a country full of not only mutually unintelligible accents but dialects. The singsong calls of the Neapolitan vendors at the market (in dialect, or with a Neapolitan accent) are not something that would ever be heard in, for example, Milan, nor would they easily be understood by people of different regions, if even understood at all. This gives a richness to the linguistic culture of “the boot” (as some people lovingly refer to Italy, due to its shape), which is unified through a “standard Italian” accent even though many people still speak dialects at home or within their communities.

I am bilingual in both English (my dominant language by far) and Tamil. The latter is a Dravidian language, completely unrelated to the Indo-European family. Tamil speakers, in my observation, do not always use their hands when they talk, though there are some common gestures and it is certainly a more gesture-heavy language than English. What is noteworthy is that Tamil has quite a lot of onomatopoeia in it. To me, this is a different sense of physicality in language: the actions and motions and sounds of things as well as objects themselves are represented well by the language. For example, the word for firecracker, “pattoss,” is an actual noun that is onomatopoeic. Of course, there is always the much-mocked head nod on the Subcontinent (which I do find hysterically funny). A cousin once told a story of a four head-nod conversation at a train station between him and a vendor on the platform in which both parties completely understood what the other was saying!

We cannot ignore the tonal languages in which meaning is conveyed by tones. This is a very simplistic way of describing the complexity of how pitching one’s voice, the inflections used, and the subtleties of sounds are equally as important to a language as its orthographic and cognitive features. We think of, immediately, Chinese, and there are numerous others such as Thai or Vietnamese and even Swedish. And to go beyond tones, there are families of languages with clicks, such as the Khoisan languages of southern Africa. The language of Xhosa, which is a Bantu language spoken in South Africa, features a high degree of click consonants that can be quite challenging to non-natives. Comedian Russell Peters even has a routine about this that many readers might find funny.

In our digital era where everything is two-dimensional and on a screen, highly physicalized languages are a welcome relief. English is a rich and complex language, but American English in particular can be so literal, efficient, and to-the-point that we need to think about different ways of expressing ourselves, both verbal and nonverbal. Americans need to know more about different types of languages around the world, because when you understand a language, you get to know the people who speak it.