Why I don’t call myself a Polyglot

I have been thinking about this issue from a long time. In many places or language blogs, I tend to see many people claiming to be polyglots and giving their own explanations to this polemic concept. Often, they quote role models they follow, whether from history or current times. Nonetheless, what calls my attention is that every person has its own perception of being a polyglot, which makes me feel like it is a clique or a closed group of people in which there is no space for further discussions, interests or such. There are even people who think that “you cannot be a polyglot if you do not know X language”.

Honestly, I find the concept so polemical and overrated that I avoid defining myself as one of them. First of all, in Chile, the concept is hard to understand. Many people do not care about language learning or just think it is a silly pastime which does not bring any profit whatsoever. So imagine telling one of those people, “oh, I am a polyglot”… Poly-WHAT?!
Then, one of the “famous people” in Chile who described himself as a polyglot was a total fraud. The name Ziad Fazah might ring a bell for many of you. A man living in Brazil who claims himself to know more than 30 languages fluently and was proven to be a fraud in Chilean TV in the 90s (despite his latter claims that “it was staged” and that “he was nervous”, I can attest that it wasn’t and this man was a complete fraud). With all of those precedents, you might think

So, what are you, then? What do you consider to be in relation to languages?

One of the first things I was taught while doing my degree in History was that language creates realities. That is, you should be careful with the language you use in academical work and look for the right concepts that could reflect situations. No wonder the concept of race is now ditched for human beings and we now tend to say ethnicity (which reflects better it) or there is a strong movement to stop calling people with disabilities “handicapped”, “disabled”, “sick” or worse concepts, but mentioning they are people first; or one of my favourite replacements, to call mental health by its name and not put them all as “sicknesses”.

Since there is not a strict criteria for being a polyglot and many people have pushed for a rather agressive or even conflictive agenda with my beliefs, I decided to describe myself as a:

Language enthusiast

What does that mean? Someone who likes languages and loves learning about them. I could probably add to it language and culture enthusiast since culture is 100% important when learning a language in my situation (i.e. the social mores, music, pop culture references, et al). It is a less restrictive and more inclusive (I am all for inclusion here!) concept than polyglots. You could know even one language quite well (or 4 or 5), but push for awareness of other languages and cultures. You can say you have picked up some phrases in that language and that you really want to continue learning them, but probably not in the near future. It is a concept that invites people to sit back and enjoy their learning and take it as it is. It is also an invitation to know your strengths and weaknesses. You don’t have to push yourself for recognition and knowledge quantity. Who cares about mastering 6 and 7 languages when you don’t have the time for it? No one will care about it. People would probably admire you more when you acknowledge the time you have available and you may learn one language, but one language well (thanks to online tandems, materials, lessons, consuming media, et al).

A language enthusiast tends to have an open mind towards other languages and cultures, avoiding any kind of previous judgement and tries to be aware about the do’s and don’t’s and can talk about many topics and even letting know their opinion with respect. I also believe there should be an important responsibility about history and human rights: being aware of the local history and what may be sugarcoated. Being aware of the past and that you can forgive, but do not forget and that should be done together. We cannot forget what has happened. Be acquainted with the issues facing the culture that speaks your language can create better connections and empathy with people.

Yes, I am only comfortable with expressing myself in 3 languages, but that doesn’t mean I love learning about cultures, languages and trying my luck with new ones 😉

  • interesting thoughts, i don’t call myself a polyglot too because I dont feel comfortable with it. I prefer to call myself a language enthusiast, who like learning languages and use it to know more friends and to read. Nobody is perfect even in their own language, learning is a life-long process. And about Ziad, did you know that he was interviewed by one of our multilingual friends from Brazil?

    • Yes, I heard the interview and it confirmed me that Ziad is nothing but a fraud.

      • panglossa

        Yes, that interview confirmed it to me as well.

    • Alex Gentry

      I agree. Ziad is a complete fraud. I listened to that interview too.

  • Erik Zidowecki

    I have noticed that many people don’t like using the term “polyglot” for themselves, mainly because there is no real consensus on how many languages it takes to earn that title. How many is “many”? Meanwhile, it is an easy term to refer to people who like to learn several, as opposed to the person that picks up a language or two in school or something job related.

    Would you call yourself “multilingual”? That has the same meaning as “polyglot”, just using Latin words instead of Greek.

    • I am not a fan of Latin, to be honest.
      The way I see it is that “polyglot” has become a rather negative term. Many people do it for the sake of attention rather than the sake of enjoying a culture, learning about themselves or so. I would never count how much time I spend learning or the words I have to learn or feel bad if I didn’t learn a language or if I forgot one.
      I prefer to be more cautious with it. I know people who probably just know 1,5-2 languages, but they have become more talented, admired and respected anywhere because of their actual skills, honesty, modesty or simply because they have made great contributions to language learning (even just by spreading good quality materials, creating platforms or so).

    • rebel polyglot

      this one is a really interesting discussion. I want to give my personal opinion :

      a polyglot is a person who can speaks at least 3 languages speaking them like a native ( having a big cultural knowledge of at least one country per language ) . finally it is exactly an evolution of the word “bilingual”
      a polyglot can live and work in at least 3 languages.

      About me I do call myself a polyglot.
      hyperpolyglot is a word I am finding more and more oftem but should be less used because following my theory it should be the 3th step , mastering at a native level more than 5 languages and here is where the ‘talent’ comes out ..if you have it.

      • With this comment, you are proving myself why I hate the Polyglot label. If you are thinking of language learning as quantity, you are going the wrong way, I guess.
        I have met also plenty of people who speak multiple languages who lack common sense in any of the cultures they should be acquainted with.