Are you born a polyglot or can you become one?

Disclaimer

First of all, despite my personal objection to the “polyglot” word (due to its perception in mainstream society), I shall use this concept in its strict, original sense and considering the beautiful definition in Spanish (someone well-instructed in many languages).

Okay, after this short disclaimer, I will introduce today’s topic of discussion, which has been a matter of discussion in the language learning community. A question that reminds me a lot of the Chicken or the Egg dilemma: are you born a polyglot or can you become one?

First of all, I am no neurologist, yet I do acknowledge that there are people out there with a predisposition in their minds to learn languages. Just like there are people with talent for sports, maths, the arts, acting, or any kind of field… there are people who simply have it easy with learning languages or expressing themselves comfortably in different cultural settings. There are other people who might have to work really hard in order to understand or do something others can do with not much of an issue. However, here comes the most important challenge and what I personally think is the most important thing to take in consideration about being a polyglot: STIMULATION.

Stimulation in the sense of being inserted, surrounded or in contact with an environment that promotes, fosters and encourages foreign language learning. Of course, there have been many situations in which families have played an important role: having a parent that speaks a different language from the other, being in a country that does not speaks the language you use at home, being encouraged by your family to learn a new language, living in a place with constant contact with foreign language speakers or having the posssibility to study in a foreign language immersion program in school. Also, people who probably lacked those opportunities during their early life and when they grow up, even by networking online or having a better environment in life can give us good surprises and being included easily in this sense of community of language learner (and actually that gives them a big confidence boost).

Personally, despite my schooling in Chile wasn’t quite the most accepting or friendly one towards my interests (especially in foreign language), I must say I felt quite supported by my family during those times. We had the opportunity to live abroad twice and managed to learn English, practically by going to school and watching TV. To be honest, the first 2 months of having my education in English were a nightmare. I never understood anything (because I did know how to ask for permission to go the toilet, but science in English? I never learned that in Chile!). I would come home many times feeling sad or overwhelmed by the system. My parents were there to give me moral support and by the 6th month, I already had friends and never felt alone at school. I could also understand everything and… managed to be student of the month in Physical Education (which was probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever got). Also, being in a setting where there were other students from different countries and who spoke different languages made me interested on them, especially after realizing we have more in common than people think.

Later, when I came back here, the Internet was my big ally for having a friendly, empowering foreign language community: blogs, bulletin boards and then social network sites. All of those places were good for meeting people with similar interests, from different backgrounds, but with a spirit to learn about each other. Yes, getting proper stimulation is an important thing when you are discussing about being polyglots: being able to use your foreign language skills in different contexts, or even simply learning about someone else’s life, customs or interests (even helping that person practice your native language). This process can also be two-sided, as you can also help others, especially in the field of mental health.

In conclusion, you cannot understand one thing without the other. Polyglots can be born (due to reasons we have yet to understand), but they do need to be stimulated in order to achieve even their minimal potential. Otherwise, it’s worthless to have a potential for learning about languages and not use it or even lacking certain awareness about other language speakers (i.e. mores, customs, taboos, et al). Understanding that a being polyglot is a more holistic concept than an isolated one (even the one I tend to like leaves behind certain things) and that you don’t have to be extremely fluent in every language, but there are ones in you can feel at ease, others that, for X or Y reason, you don’t feel comfortable and others that you’ve simply forgot most of them.

What is your opinion about this issue? Do you think your experience in life has shaped your interest for languages? Share it in the comments!


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  • In my opinion, it’s not only about some talent in learning foreign languages. I guess the language process develops more rapidly in those that have some kind of easiness related to words in general. However, even if you have to put more effort, by maintaining a motivation, you can learn to speak many languages.

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Hmm…if you go with the definition of “someone who is well-instructed” in many languages, then I don’t know how many “born” polyglots we’d lose based on inferior schooling? Instruction plays a huge role, as do national attitudes.

    • That’s where I wanted to take the discussion. Of course, you can have a certain disposition to languages, but an overall attitude either at home or outside is probably the most fundamental role.
      I always think about how “lucky” I was that my parents didn’t have an entirely negative towards foreign languages and then I could be at an environment that saw it as positive traits and not “negative” like my school advisor once said.