The Polyglot Approach to Learning…And, Where I Currently Stand in 14 Languages

The truth of the matter is that actual mastery takes time. Yes, there’s the Anders Ericsson research into 10,000, as discussed before .

But, that’s actual mastery. World class mastery. Of a wide field. All-encompassing in a particular subject. What does that even mean? It’s often too vague for most of us to comprehend. Too far away to set a goal for. Too much to time to keep track of, to stay on task for.

Mastering smaller goals requires much less effort.

But, effort still.

The key being very focused study. Very focused goals.

Sometimes guys like Benny Lewis , Maneesh Sethi , and Tim Ferriss  catch a lot of flack for their whole “learning things quickly” gig.

Yes, it’s true that in order to actually master a particular subject you’ll have to put in years and years of work at it. I don’t really think any of them are denying that. No, instead, I think they’re merely trying to redefine learning, by showing people that you don’t have to absolutely master something in order to enjoy it.

You think we’d know this by now. Most of us aren’t wine connoisseurs, or even whiskey or beer connoisseurs even. Yet, we still tend to enjoy those things. Most of us aren’t even expert dancers or expert golf players, yet we still allow ourselves to enjoy those things.

I can sit here and say, “I know how to play golf” and when I say that nobody expects greatness from me. Nobody expects zero mistakes. Nobody expects that I’ve put in the hours and hours and years and years of hard work to reach PGA-level skill. So, it’s a clear statement. I merely “know how to play golf.” And, it’s perfectly fine to say such, even though I don’t know (and may never know) how to hit a power fade.

Playing Golf with the Deer in New Mexico

Playing Golf with the Deer in New Mexico

Yet, when it comes to things like languages many of us think this way. We tend to think of it as very binary. You either know a language, or you don’t. Michael Erard  calls this the “all or nothing approach” to language learning. Either you know that language, and you’re completely fluent/bilingual/native-like speaker, or you’re not. Knowing “some Spanish” or “some Japanese” is not a good enough goal for most people.

Most of us say things like, “I took Spanish my whole life, but I don’t really know Spanish.” I know. I have said this. But it’s a false statement. I do know Spanish. I know quite a bit of Spanish. I could probably test out of several levels of Spanish if you had me take a test on it. But, I would struggle to have an actual conversation in the language. Why is this?

Well, it has to do with the actual skills that were learned – and you can go back and say it’s a reflection of a poor education system which teaches test taking skills over actual real-life applicable skills. (Which is certainly true.)

Hell, the same is true in Japan. I met plenty of Japanese people with fairly high TOEIC scores yet they struggled to even have a conversation in English. Why it that? There’s a very good reason for it actually. A lot of Japanese companies give bonuses for certain levels on the TOEIC: if you score a 650, you get a $3,000 bonus. So, the Japanese go out, memorize 120 something odd English grammar rules (don’t ask, as a native speaker, I’ve never heard of half of these rules either) and they pass the test. And good for them, they get a $3,000 bonus for doing so. Hell, I’d do it too. Anybody want to pay me $3,000 for taking a test? I’m all ears. Anyway, the truth of the matter is, they’re good at memorizing the grammar rules and taking the tests, but they still struggle with actually speaking English.

Where do we even classify that in the “all or nothing” approach?

Polyglots See Things Differently

Polyglots have redefined what it means to know a language. Benny Lewis calls this “taking language back from the academics.”  I really like that idea – but then again I’m pretty biased here, I already have my pitchfork ready, and would love to see academia burn to the ground.

Michael Erard  calls it the “something and something” approach. And its quite an interesting one – polyglots tend to know exactly where they stand in each language.

I like that idea, so here’s my rundown:

English – Since birth. Native language. Actually, I almost wish this counted for more, as throughout my life experiences and travels, I’ve reached a point where I can understand and perhaps even speak a bit of several different dialects of English, including: Standard American, Southern American, African American, British English, and Australian English. (This of course, it’s not without its confusions. I’ve now had the privilege of writing reports for school and for clients in British English, Australian English, and of course American English. Nowadays I’m pretty confused as to whether words like colour or favourite should have a ‘u’ in them or not; if ‘travelling’ or ‘modelling’ should be spelled with one ‘l’ or two. Good thing I can just switch the default language on my computer from British English to American English and let spell check take care of those things for me!)

Polish – Polish is an interesting one. I almost didn’t put it in here. I’m not even sure how to properly explain it. My mom’s family is essentially Polish-American, and honestly some of the first words in my vocabulary as a child were actually Polish words. Aunts were always “ciocis”, my great-grandmother was “babci” and she spoke nothing but Polish; we sung Polish songs and ate Polish food at every holiday, but that’s basically it. As you can imagine, the actual Polish spoken in the family and the knowledge of the language has dwindled with each generation in our family. By the time we got to my brother and me, it’s really just a few childish words, family member titles, songs, foods, and occasionally crazy stuff our older cousins would teach us at parties.

Polish Food - cooked by me, In London

Polish Food – cooked by me, In London

Spanish – Since the age of 3. Yes, I started learning Spanish in pre-school. Pre-school Spanish isn’t much beyond Feliz Navidad songs, counting to 10, and random body parts (boca, nariz). After preschool Spanish, there was a lifetime of public school Spanish, including acting like complete shits and running the new Spanish teacher off each year (including one who may or may not have been Selena’s killer – certainly looked like Selena’s killer anyway). Because of the new teacher every year thing, the curriculum basically started over every year and we never really got much further in the language. In the midst of all of that, I actually did have one decent year of Spanish in middle school (sandwiched between years and years of awful Spanish classes in elementary and high school) and a couple of decent years in college. I do have a fairly broad knowledge of Spanish and can actually read and understand Spanish fairly well. But outside of drunken Spanish and coarse language, my conversation skills are fairly minimal. Pinche educacion! For the record, my accent is probably fairly decent though (of a Northern Mexican variety, I am from Texas) since I started with Spanish at such a young age, before the brain plasticizes (around age 14) and accents become much harder to influence. So, my accent in Spanish is probably better than I’ll be able to ever achieve in any other language.

German – I once took 5 week course in German back in middle school. The only thing I remember how to say is “Sprechen Sie Deutsch? (Do you speak German?)” Which doesn’t really work too well if you don’t have a follow up to it.

French – Similar to German. I also took a 5 week course in French. I don’t remember anything.

Latin – Similar to German and French. I took 5 week course in middle school. All I remember from it is that I learned that Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar stuck their names into the middle of the months (July, August) and that’s why the number system for the months is completely messed up after June. (Sept=7, Oct=8, Nov=9, Dec=10… yet, these correspond with months 9-12 instead of 7-10.) I think I also learned some other things about prefixes and suffixes that were actually useful in English. Don’t know much beyond that.

Portuguese – Very minimal. A few basic formalities learned off of friends.

Italian – Also very minimal. Same as Portuguese.

Dutch – Similar to Portuguese and Italian, I got some Dutch girls to teach me a few basics once when I was an Amsterdam.

EsperantoInspired by Benny’s blog post , I once spent a weekend cramming Esperanto vocabulary and watched a movie entirely in Esperanto. My Spanish knowledge really helped with picking up Esperanto vocabulary quickly and I probably picked up a few hundred words or so. Not sure if I would understand any of it or even recognize it if I heard it now though.

Mandarin – I first got interested in Mandarin when I moved to Shanghai last year. I did the Pimsleur lessons, flirted with Chinese girls, talked to taxi drivers, and my most impressive feat was successfully bargaining with a shop owner in Mandarin over the price of a hat. When I was in Taiwan earlier this year, I was surprised at how fast my minimal Mandarin came back to me without making any real conscious effort to get it back. The fact that it was stowed away somewhere in brain amazed me.

Bahasa Malay – I lived in Malaysia for 2 months last year (Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur) but I never put much effort into the language. A few basic formalities is all I picked up. Similar to Portuguese, Italian, and Dutch.

Hindi – Similar to Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, and Malay, plus a few “coarse words” I picked up while drinking with friends in Singapore.

Japanese – The first language I really put an intense effort into while living in Tokyo for 5 months. Again though I probably dabbled and bounced around too much: sometimes spending weeks studying vocabulary words, sometimes spending weeks reading or writing, and other times spending weeks hanging out with friends and having conversations in the language. Am at a fairly basic conversational level, and can read and write a bit, but honestly, not much, maybe a few hundred kanji (well short of the 2,000 kanji needed to be “newspaper-literate”). As of right now, I’d rank Japanese as my 2nd best language in speaking ability (behind only English) and 3rd best in terms of reading ability and comprehension (behind both English and Spanish)


My Japanese “textbook”

So… definitely a fan of the “something and something” approach, as I wouldn’t call myself anywhere close to fluent in any of these languages, other than English. But, I enjoy it though. I plan to continue to move forward and I would like to boost my levels in each of these languages.  But, honestly, Spanish and Mandarin intrigue me the most. I would like to reach a very high level in both of these languages someday. I’ve said before that I would like to reach a high level in both of these languages by the time I’m 30. I’m 27 now, so there’s a lot of work cut out for me over the next 3 years. We’ll see if I can get there.

I plan to keep dabbling in other languages as well – in particular Thai, Korean, and Bahasa Indonesian come to mind.



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