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The International Writers Magazine: Language Skills
This is the second and third articles in a series about polyglots on the internet. I sent email to polyglots I found on youtube, Facebook, and elsewhere on the internet and interviewed them.

What Makes a Polyglot?  (Part 2)
And What do Polyglots think
Antonio Graceffo
Are most polyglots made or born?


This entire article is an interview with a single polyglot, Félix Wang. Felix is ethnic Chinese, but was raised in Belgium. He speaks Mandarin, Teochew, French, Dutch, English, and a number of other languages.

AG:Are most polyglots made or born?

Both cases exists but I still think that a person who knows more than 6 languages is not born with it ! Let me give you an example: I have an Italian friend whose dad is Greek. And we speak French at school. So she speaks perfectly 3 languages.

AG. Did most polyglots learn their languages as adults?

A British girl on youtube started to learn Japanese on her own at 13 and succeeded. But most of us start later. I think in general people start to love language around 17 or more.

AG. Do children actually learn languages faster? And if so, where are these child-polyglots?

I don't think children learn faster than us. I learnt more Japanese in two years time than a 4 year old baby. Adult brains can absorb faster. The problem is that adults always try to understand EVERYTHING ! Children don't care about TOTAL comprehension.

Felix asks “Do you really think children understand grammar?” If they don't, why do adults have to learn grammar first?

AG. Were you born into a multilingual family? (Were you raised bi-lingual?)

I spoke Teochew to my mom, Mandarin and Taiwanese to my dad.

AG. When did you start studying languages seriously?

Well I was forced to learn mandarin Chinese for tests every Saturday morning. So, when I was ten I started to learn it, but not because I wanted, just because I was forced. I started on my own my first language at the age of 16 with Spanish.

AG. Did you do any of your language study in a formal setting? If so, where and which languages?

I had Spanish class at my school. For Chinese I went to Taiwanese school during 8 years each Saturday morning. English, at school, but I learnt most of my English watching movies and communicating through Youtube ! Grammar rules never helped me...

AG. How much of your knowledge is the result of self-study?

Well, most of my Spanish is the result of self-study but also practice with my Colombian friends. All the Japanese I learnt: read, speak etc is the result of determination and self-study during a very long process 170h spread through out 1.5 years.

AG. How many hours do you study per week?
Well, if it's possible I study 30min per day = 3.5h a week.

AG. How many hours do you believe one needs to master a language?

You will NEVER master a language. Even in my native language I learn new words everyday. It depends which language you choose, which languages you already know and how much time you put into your learning process. If you're Portuguese and learn Spanish, I think you can learn it in 6 months. But if the same guy tries to learn Japanese or Korean, which are completely, it should take 3 to 4 years to really succeed and have a descent level.

AG. Do you have any goal in learning languages? Are you training to be a professor, teacher, translator...or do you just study for love?

It's all about passion and culture. I learn it because I love languages and I wish I could speak to any non-English native speaker, in his own language and not in English. English always breaks the emotion, if you’re not talking to an English native speaker. If you go to Paris and speak English you'll understand what I'm talking about. Knowing the local language changes your view of the society. It also allows you to know people you would never have met otherwise.

AG. Do you learn more than one language at a time?

I tried to learn more than 2 languages at the same time, but for me it's so disturbing. I get nowhere by doing that. I prefer to concentrate on 2 languages. Concentrating on one is actually the best and fastest.

AG. Do you believe children learn languages faster than adults?

NO! There is this believe because most ADULTS focus on grammar and can't even have a descent conversation. Children don't pay attention to the grammar and just absorb naturally. But if we adapt our learning process and mimic children we get there faster than them.

AG. Do you, or most polyglots, have some type of mental disorder, such as autism or obsessive compulsive disorder?

I don't really know for others, but I don't have that, you don't have to have a mental problem to be polyglot, actually being polyglot is a choice. If you choose to work hard to be conversational in a language you will be conversational.

AG. Why do the vast majority of people who begin a language fail to learn it?

Several reasons: The biggest one being: they are not motivated enough. As a result they are hoping that classes will give them everything. Which is actually wrong. We have to learn more outside classrooms. If I just learnt English when I had to, I wouldn't be able to write you this email right now. People don't invest enough time. Language learning requires time, but they want to go fast. You can't go fast it's a slow input process. People think they have to speak a lot to be proficient. I don't think that works. You have to read and listen for about 100h and then speak to natives. Most people who try to learn a language don’t invest 20min every day in it? Regular work is very important. People who learn Japanese or other exotic languages leave too early. After 3 months they give up. NEVER give up.

AG. Any comments on language learning or polyglot life you would like to share with the world would be great. Being a polyglot, I saw, learnt and know a whole bunch of things people would never discover because they don't know the language. I'm learning Turkish and I spoke a lot with Erasmus students from Istanbul. I discover so many things about Turkish wedding, society and fooooooood. Man, that's so interesting !!! Language learning also allows you to know more people. I made many friends I wouldn't have made without knowing their
Language. This is the case for Japanese and Italian.

AG. Do you have any dream languages, I mean, a language or languages you are dreaming of learning but haven't started yet? And why?

I'm dreaming to learn many languages ! But I selected some and made a list: 1) Russian, 2) Polish, 3) Thai, 4) Vietnamese, 5) Hindi, 6) Hebrew, and 7) Tagalog. Mostly because I love languages from different geographical areas and which are very different so that I can broaden my vision of the world and make new friends all over the world.


Now we are featuring Mike Campbell, from Glossika. Mike lives in Taiwan and has done significant study in Chinese and Taiwanese languages, among others.

   1. Are most polyglots made or born?
      I think everybody is born equally but with their own interests, so given the same environment two children grow up to be completely different people. However, I believe that environment creates the potential for a polyglot, for example access or exposure to different languages. Interest then drives the child to discover more.
      2. Did most polyglots learn their languages as adults?
      I believe that typically a child may learn as many as three or four languages to fluency based on his interaction with people. But there will be a tendency to only use one or two at most. True polyglots are of a different nature, those people who search after and discover more languages out of their own interest. This drive helps them achieve a lot over a lifetime. Most polyglots are not able to pursue these interests until they reach adulthood anyway.
      3. Do children actually learn languages faster? And if so, where are these child-polyglots?
      It takes a lot of exposure and interaction for a child to learn a language. There is also peer pressure and the embarrassment of sounding different that can intimidate a child's use of another, especially minority, language.

      4. Were you born into a multilingual family? Were you raised bilingual?
      I was born into a family that had only studied foreign languages formally. My mother attempted to raise me bilingually in English and Spanish but failed probably because the one person - two languages approach doesn't work with children.
      5. When did you start studying languages seriously?
      I was exposed to my foreign languages early as a child, but my first foreign language classes (French and Latin) came in first grade. I was fascinated by all the rules of Latin and by the age of 8 or 9 I was spending a lot of times in libraries looking at the grammars of various languages. I managed to learn a lot about grammar while still in elementary school.
      6. Did you do any of your language study in a formal setting? If so, where and which languages?
      I had formal language study of French, Latin, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, and Japanese up through high school. In university I focused on Russian, but also did classes in Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Malay and Kazakh.
      7. How much of your knowledge is the result of self-study?
      Of course these classes gave me a foundation and groundwork for building more fluency in these languages. However, it was through my own self-study and drive to become fluent in any of them. Of those mentioned, my Chinese is strongest.
      8. How many hours do you study per week?
      Now I've been out of school a long time and I'm working. But even now I spend 4-6 hours every day devoted to training (not studying) foreign languages.
      9. How many hours do you believe one needs to master a language?
      I believe there is no true mastery, but to become good at a language at least a thousand hours of speaking needs to be devoted. To gain true mastery, I would say ten thousand hours. I've put in more than 25,000 hours of speaking Chinese.
      10. Do you have any goal in learning languages? Are you training to be a professor, teacher, translator, or do you just study for love.
      I have only the goal that someday I can use these languages when I travel and if not open new opportunities. To be able to interact with people in their countries in their native languages is respectful to them and very eye-opening to me.
      11. What is your occupation?
      I run an online business, I make videos, I write and I teach.
      12. Do you learn more than one language at a time?
      Yes, as a polyglot I have to continuously use my strong languages and maybe even use them to learn new ones. During any given month, I'm using a dozen strong languages, learning two new ones and reviewing two other from the previous month.
      13. Have you studied overseas? Where? How long?
      I spent most of my childhood living overseas primarily in Italy, Germany and Russia. I traveled Europe, the Middle East, and Africa extensively with my parents during that time.
      14. Do you believe children learn languages faster than adults?
      As a child I learned to speak some languages naturally, but these languages are completely different than the ability I have gained as an adult. For example, I learned to speak German like a child and then moved away later, but I could not function as an adult with the German I had. Primarily because as a child I didn't understand a lot of concepts, or even if I could say them I didn't really have any use for them; concepts like taxes, bank accounts, loans, bills, interviews, marketing reports, financial plans, etc. But these are terms that I learn with my languages as an adult. My adult language capability is much stronger and much more expressive than any child, and my skills at persuasion cannot be beat by a child.

15. Do you feel that polyglots are qualified to work as translators and interpreters or must one do formal studies first?
I was hired to work as a translator of Chinese to English, then I opened a small agency that I ran for four years. Through constant translation work and practice, you build up a vast amount of skills in working between languages, both orally and in writing. I would not say polyglots are qualified to work as translators or interpreters, especially if they only use one language in certain environments. But those who are most qualified have been working between two languages at the same time and have a lot of experience doing so.

16. Why do the vast majority of people who begin a language fail to learn it?
Learning a foreign language is like anything else. The same can be said of those who sign up for martial arts classes, or dancing classes, or gym membership, or music lessons, or train to run a marathon. Few actually follow all the way through. It's a long process and requires a lot of work and determination. But the results are rewarding.
17. Any comments on language learning or polyglot life you would like to share with the world would be great.
Languages are like puzzles and they're great mental stimulation, but more rewarding because of the social interaction. I'm constantly sharing my thoughts on language learning and polyglot life through my youtube channel and welcome everybody to come and interact.

19. I need your name and if you want me to include your website, please send me the URL
My name is Mike Campbell, my online name is Glossika, and the website is

© Antonio Graceffo March 2011

AG is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)



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What Makes a Polyglot? Part 1  
Antonio Graceffo

Many people wish to learn a foreign language. Unfortunately, like weight loss, and mastering a foreign language is one of those dreams that people spend a lot of money on, but somehow never achieve.

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