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:
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 😉