Jack of All Trades, Master of None

Note: If you came here from HTLAL, please read my addendum here.

I hate fake polyglots. You may have heard of them – those people who say they speak five, ten, fifteen languages fluently and post video evidence on YouTube to prove it. The vast majority of people seem to take these videos at face value because most of us don’t speak multiple languages.

One of these alleged polyglots was even profiled in the New York Times. I found the link through a language-learning friend’s Twitter feed. Though I cannot judge his alleged fluency in most of his foreign languages, I was able to find this video of him speaking Russian. It annoys me that the article implies that he is fluent in Russian because he is most definitely not. He’s fluent in Russian in the way I’m fluent in French – that is to say, not at all.

The video on the main page of the article is worth watching, though. I think it’s interesting that researchers have found that many hyperpolyglots (people fluent, or allegedly fluent, in an insane amount of languages) are male, left-handed, and love arcane, in-depth study of grammar that would bore most other people. I’m not male, but I do fit the other two criteria.

There are very few people on the internet who actually have fluency in multiple languages. One is Jana Fadness, one of my favorite language bloggers ever and the other is Susanna Zaraysky. No doubt there are more people out there who actually possess the fluency they claim

It may seem like this post is motivated by jealousy, that I’m griping because I don’t speak multiple foreign languages. I’m really not because ultimately, I would rather speak one foreign language very well than many mediocre (or worse than mediocre) level.

7 thoughts on “Jack of All Trades, Master of None

  1. First, thanks for the link to Jana’s blog – it’s amazing.

    Second, as you know, I feel almost as strongly as you about these wannabe-polyglots. Not because I’m jealous, but because I don’t lile people who pretend to be something they’re not.

    Third, I’m female, right-handed and I HATE grammar (unless we’re talking Hungarian grammar, which is actually quite fun :)). There’s not much hope for me, it seems.

    Fourth, language is about quality and not quantity. Always.

    And I think that’s all for now ;)

    • Zsuzsi – 

      I figured you’d like Jana’s blog. She is pretty amazing and I love reading what she writes.

      I definitely agree with what you’re saying – it’s the pretending they’re something they’re not aspect that annoys me about the fake polyglots, not the idea that they enjoy dabbling in a bunch of languages. Heck, I’ve dabbled in Ukrainian, Serbian, Spanish, and Swedish within the past six months just for fun, because I like languages. But I would never, ever presume to say that I’m fluent in any of them, because I’m not. Whereas I feel like a lot of the fake polyglots would claim fluency in Swedish after having watched three Swedish videos on YouTube or something like that.

      And I never knew you hated grammar! Even Russian grammar? Though if I were you, I certainly wouldn’t worry about not fitting the alleged “profile” for language learners, as you know more languages now than most people will learn in their entire lives. ;)

  2. Natalie, first of all, thank you for the kind mention. =)

    But I’m not sure how it is that you’re putting me on the level of someone like Susanna Zaraysky, who really does speak seven languages quite proficiently as far as I can tell. (And yes, there are others like her, such as Richard Simcott and Luca Lampariello, just to name a couple of the most impressive ones.) I only consider myself fluent in two foreign languages (Japanese and French), and although I’ve posted videos of myself speaking other languages, I did so only for practice and to receive constructive criticism. I have never claimed to be fluent in Spanish, Mandarin or Russian, but some people who’ve seen my videos in these languages have decided that I’m fluent according to their standards. I don’t really even feel comfortable calling myself a “polyglot”, but a lot of people do call me one. I have never actually referred to myself this way. I’ve actually never even intended to promote myself as a “language blogger”, but somehow I’ve ended up getting a lot of attention in this sphere. Those of us who attempt to learn multiple languages often get our skills exaggerated by others, and there’s really nothing much we can do about it because they’ll just think we’re being modest!

    I also think deciding at what point you can call yourself “fluent” in a language is quite a personal thing. Some people are happy to be able to have casual conversations about their daily lives, while others want to be able to discuss politics and read literature. More power to them. Learning a foreign language shouldn’t be something you do to impress others, but to enrich your own life, and the only standards you should hold yourself to are your own. I’m not sure if Tim himself (that’s the kid in the NYT article) actually claims to be “fluent” in Russian, but if he does, that’s his choice. People are going to say what they want about him anyway. At any rate, I don’t think it’s really fair to call him a “fake” polyglot, since it seems to me that he’s accomplished quite a lot even if he doesn’t speak perfect Russian.

    This isn’t supposed to be a competition, anyway. I think most of the people making multilingual videos on Youtube aren’t out there to show off, but to provide others with encouragement to learn languages and to connect with natives and fellow language learners. This is what I’m doing it for anyway, and I know the other so-called “Youtube polyglots” I’ve talked with feel the same way.

    • Jana – 

      Your comment is epic (in a good way, of course)! I definitely see what you’re saying – you have often said you are not a language blogger (but you do blog an awfully lot about language learning… :)) and you don’t call yourself a polyglot, though to be honest, I do think I consider you one!

      Fluency is a tricky term to define, for sure. It does mean different things to different people. I could not discuss a highly technical subject in Russian, and I suppose by some people’s standards, this would mean (to them) that I’m not fluent. However, I do reject calling oneself fluent if all one does is memorize a few sentences just to impress others – and there are people in the blogosphere who do this, at least from what I can see.

  3. Indeed, ‘fluency’ is a pretty subjective concept. And I agree with you that there is more satisfaction (and use, including professionally) to be gained from an in-depth study of one or two languages than by spreading yourself thin with new additions to your collection. I used to be a bit of a serial language dabbler, but decided to focus on Italian and 4 years ago I became a professional translator. And that’s when you need to go back and study your own native language!

    • Yes, I definitely agree. I’ve dabbled in various languages just for fun, but my main foreign language is Russian, and I always end up wanting to perfect my level in that language rather than study a few other languages superficially.

  4. I so agree with this polyglot subject–jack of all trades master of none. Here is my story:
    Other than my native English, I learned to read, write and speak Spanish with idiomatic phrases and no trace of an American accent and I master all the grammatical rules and accentuation. Now, I started this at the age 15, and I never lived in a Spanish speaking country (although I lived in Miami for 12 years and always used it on my job and used it socially). This to me is mastering a language. I could move to a Spanish speaking country and be totally functional.

    I was in the US Army stationed in Germany and studied two college level courses, spent years in internet chat, made frequent trips to Germany. I speak the language very well, but not with many idiomatic phrases. I have a big vocabulary. I will be the first one to say that I can’t enjoy reading in the language (like I can in my native language English and near native Spanish)

    I was able to learn to transfer my Spanish into passable some Portuguese and I get along in French.

    People think I am talented in languages, but I am totally honest. Through years of hard work and dedication, I feel I truly mastered the Spanish language. As far as the German goes, I am very proud of it, but I don’t speak it like a German and I wish I had a larger vocabulary and more idioms. My Portuguese is what they call “Portunhol” (a mix sometimes of Spanish and Portuguese. I get along in basic French.

    When someone says that s/he masters a language, in my book they better mean that they have achieved native or near native fluency – reading, writing and speaking with a very large, ample vocabulary and that they have almost no trace of a foreign accent. Now that is what I call mastering a language.

    It really galls me to hear people say, “oh I speak this and that language. On these YouTubes I think they have Meryl Streeped a dialog and want people to think they are fluent in the language. I want the total package and I want honesty. Just my humble opinion.

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