The Parable of the Wannabe Polyglot

Once, long ago, an aspiring but disillusioned polyglot sought out the Keeper of the Languages.  It was a long and arduous journey, but the Seeker brought snacks so all was well.  When at long last the Seeker found the Keeper of the Languages, the wannabe polyglot knelt at the Keeper’s feet.                             image

“Oh your Linguintastic Awesomeness, I have traveled long and far to ask of your wisdom.  I too wish to reach Multilingual Nirvana but alas nothing I have tried has worked.

I bought language dictionaries.  I collected youtube videos.  I signed up for classes on Coursera and LiveMocha.  I even took out a second loan and bought Rosetta Stone!  Yet still I am but a single language speaker.  What is the SECRET, oh great Keeper of the Languages?”

The Keeper looked down at the Seeker, smiling in a knowing fashion. Then the Great Fountain of Linguistic Knowledge spoke:

“My child, I hear that you have gathered many tools.  But, may I ask, have you actually USED any of them?”image

This parable is a direct derivative of the various people who have asked me what they need to do to learn a language.  People always ask me WHICH tools they need to achieve their goal.  Certainly some tools ARE better than others (otherwise this blog would be moot), yet I can’t help but feel they are missing the point.

The secret to successfully learning a language isn’t so much about the tools; it’s about the commitment.image

Language is a DAILY practice- it requires consistent nurturing and tune-up.  I have watched people spend hundreds of dollars on software programs and books, and then watched all of it gather dust on shelves.  Rosetta Stone does not work if one leaves the CDs in the box.  Same goes for paying/signing up for courses and not showing up.

A fellow polyglot friend and I once joked that languages become significant others.  The plus side is there are no laws against polyamory with a set of abstract concepts, so you don’t have to worry about committing to more than one.  Bear with me as I expand on this crazy metaphor.

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First, you flirt with a language.  You eye it across the bar- wow those words are beautiful.  And check out that syntax!  You’re smitten and you check out a few webpages or thumb through a book or two at Barnes and Noble.

Next comes dating your language.  For those fearing rejection, languages are always up for a good time, though some play hard to get a bit more than others.  You gather resources, you play around a bit, you get native speaker friends to teach you a few words.  It’s light, it’s fun, you wonder where these words have been all your life.                             image

Then reality hits you.  You are in a significant relationship and you don’t really know when that happened.  All you know is this beautiful abstract phenomenon has a hold of your wallet and your time, but you’re not as sure about your heart.  You’ve learned enough to hold basic survival conversations- are you sure you want any more out of this relationship?  It’s time to either put a ring on it or see other grammar charts.

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(This stage can be particularly interesting if you’re on your 3rd or more language.  My friend equated working on his 3rd language as feeling almost like he was cheating on his 2nd.  Obviously his time was now being split and he felt like he had neglected the 2nd language some in the process of courting the 3rd.  I equated the 3rd to being his mistress.  Again, the good news is that languages are wonderfully accepting and lack the jealousy found in most relationships.  Therefore, you can split your time as you desire- guilt-free!)

Finally, if you do decide to make a life-long commitment to your language, you will find some similarities to taking on a spouse.  It will require your time and even some monetary investment.  You will have good times and bad times (“Why the *BLEEP* do I have to learn subjunctive to stay with you?  Screw your irregular verbs!  I hate your lack of consistent pronunciation!).  You will take trips together, meet other couples (fellow polyglots get easier to spot with time), and chase a variety of dreams together.  And if you really love your language, you will find this commitment to be one of the most fulfilling of your life.

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So my friends, if you stumbled upon this blog wanting to know THE SECRET to learning languages, this is what I offer you.

Be prepared for a SIGNIFICANT commitment.  One that will be with you daily from now on.  Be prepared to give time to your language and be prepared to make some sacrifices.  

From personal experience, I can promise you this.  The rewards far outweigh the costs.  I strongly recommend embarking on a tryst with a language today.

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Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 03/11/14.