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The International Writers Magazine: Learning Languages

What Makes a Polyglot?  (Part 1)
And What do Polyglots think
Antonio Graceffo
Many people wish to learn a foreign language. Unfortunately, like weight loss, playing the guitar, and earning a black belt in martial arts, mastering a foreign language is one of those dreams that people spend a lot of money on, but somehow never achieve.


While the averageperson struggles to master a single foreign language, polyglots are those insane people who seek to master three or more foreign languages.

Natural talent? Gifted with languages? Ask anyone who ever gave up on learning a foreign language and they will tell you, “I guess I don’t have any natural talent for it.” Most experts will agree that there are people who possess a special talent for languages, just as there are people who are musically gifted. But these people represent less than 1% of the population.

My personal belief is, Any person of average intelligence, who is literate in their native tongue, can learn a foreign language. And if you can learn one language, you can learn a hundred.

To find out what makes polyglots tick and learn more about their relationship to languages, I searched youtube and facebook for polyglots.
I sent them a a questionnaire and received responses from 14 of them. This article is clearly not a scientific analysis of a large sampling of polyglots. But, in communicating with the youtube polyglots we are able to get a look inside the heads of polyglots who “put themselves out there.” These are people who are confident enough in themselves that they regularly publish or produce videos on language learning and other aspects of language acquisition.

Nearly all of the polyglots agreed that polyglots were made, not born. They also believed that one needed specialized training to be a translator, rather than a simple polyglot. Nearly all of them agreed that adults learn languages faster than children. Children have advantage in acquiring language and in loosing their native accent. But adults are better at learning. All though nearly all of the polyglots had attended some formal classes in their languages, nearly all of the polyglots earned the bulk of their languages through self-study. Many of them cited the ineffectiveness of modern language teaching techniques as both a reason why people often find it impossible to learn languages and a reason why they went off on their own to study.

Alexander says: I believe there is an important distinction between being multilingual (= knowing multiple languages as a result of growing up in their environments) and being a polyglot (= knowing multiple languages as a result of consciously studying them).   While adolescents can study languages consciously in the same fashion as adults, adolescence only lasts a few years, and while some polyglots may get their start in this time, particularly with languages that they are being taught well in school, I think most people lack the discipline and the know-how to study intensively and effectively on their own when they are this young.

Do children learn languages faster than adults?

Alexander: To be technical here, children don't “learn,” languages at all, they acquire them.  They may do this to the childish level that is appropriate for them in a seemingly effortless and swift fashion, but, accent aside, an adult studying seriously and consciously could certainly “learn” more in the same time frame.

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

Almost all of it.  Not only using, maintaining, and taking the languages I began learning in formal settings to a higher level by myself, but learning the majority of the others entirely on my own.

How many hours do you study per week? 

The excel study sheet chart upon which I log my hours computes my current daily average at 9.77 hours per day, so that would be just under 70 hours per week.  These days, “studying” means using (mainly reading and listening) and maintaining (transcribing and otherwise revising) rather than actually “learning” new information.  I am now essentially “retired,” or well past my prime. About 10-15 years ago, when “studying” meant actually learning new information and new languages, it was more like 12-16 hours a day, or 84-112 hours per week.

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

Fundamentally, I see no reason to question the basic figures put out by the FSI, namely a range of a few thousand for a relatively easy language to 10,000+ for a really hard language.  Of course, this answer really depends not only upon what you mean by “master,” but also
upon your skill and experience as a language learner.    If you memorize 25 words a day, within 100 days or just over 3 months you will have 2,500 words or the vocabulary adequate for “basic fluency” in any language, and if you do concomitant grammatical study, speaking practice, etc., in an intensive fashion for, say, 5 hours a day or a total of 500 hours, anyone studying intelligently on his own or under knowledgeable tutelage should be able to attain this overall level.  If you are already a polyglot and you have already learned many or most of the other languages in a language family, you may even be able to attain this same level in something that is generally considered a different, non-intelligible language but which to you is only a variant-upon-a-theme-dialect, almost upon contact, in a matter of weeks or even mere days of intensive immersion, that is to say, in under 100 hours.
On the other hand, to go beyond “basic fluency” to true near-native mastery is another story altogether.  How long does it take to become a highly educated native speaker?  I used primarily English until I earned my Ph.D. at the age of 30.  Is that 30 years x 365 days/year x 16 waking hours/day?  Then it took me 175,200 hours to develop my English abilities. 

I have made language learning the focus of my life because I find language learning more interesting than anything else I know.

What is your occupation? 

I am a career academic, a university professor, and in my current post-graduate institute incarnation my actual job title is “language specialist,” which I have to say I rather like.

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

Unfortunately, I do have to say that I, as a relatively “prominent” polyglot, am contacted by an inordinate number of other self-identifying polyglots who do seem to be more-or-less “unbalanced.”  Objectively speaking, it is “normal” to be either monolingual or multilingual to the extent of perhaps quadri- or quinilingual at the most.  Thus, to aspire to know 10+ languages or so is, by definition, “eccentric,” although I do not understand why it makes so many people as strange as it does seem to make them.  That said, I do fundamentally object to the current pigeonholing of psychological types.

Most are simply enthusiastic if not actually scholarly language lovers.  It is just that the percentage of crazies among them does seem to be higher than it is in the general population. 

Polyglot Arthur Moon

How many hours do you believe one needs to master a language? Ha, ha, probably 20 hours per week plus homework/immersion. Anything less is less than mastery.

Polyglot Christophe Clugston has studied countless languages on an academic level. He has studied at the Defense Language Institute and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in linguistics in Thailand. Christophe has an extensive background in professional fighting
and often draws parallels between sports, fight-training, and language acquisition.

Christophe: As a linguist I have looked at about a hundred languages (their particular features) like Bru, Pwo Krin, Papua New Guinea languages, Crow, on and on I have found interference when doing 4 or 5 languages at a time (learning/studying).

I told Chirstophe that a lot of people on the internet had already lumped us together, as the two guys who had fought professionally and also learned languages. Some people didn’t realize that Christophe and I both train under the same Khmer boxing coach, Paddy Carson, in Phnom Penh. I also shot an episode of my web TV show, Martial Arts Odyssey with Christophe at the only Savat training gym in Bangkok. The episode is called “Martial Arts Odyssey: The Boxing Linguist” Watch it on youtube

In Chrisophe’s own words: “They lumped us together--probably because we get pissed off. And why not?”

Christophe: I've studied, acquired 32 languages (more as experts state some dialects are different languages).

I can understand 6 languages at living. I understand that as whatever you want to talk about. And there are 2 or 3 others if I am back around them that I will be back up and functional.I've dreamed in 5 languages even interpreting two or 3 back and forth that are not my L 1

What is your occupation?

Christophe: Linguist, language teacher, pro fighter, developed what has been called the World's strongest self defense. Accelerated learning, Neuro Linguistic Programming, Athletic enhancement (mental and physical)

Have you studied overseas? Where? How long?

 This needs to be clarified. I was born in Europe. I've learned in Italy,  France, Spain, Canada, USA Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Thailand.

Do you believe children learn languages faster than adults?

Not for study (not Left Hemisphere)—through acquisition they do. Also they have better control over phonemic inventory.

Do you feel that polyglots are qualified to work as translators and interpreters or must one do formal studies first?

It takes far more than hackneyed learning and speech skills is needed, specific and technical lexicon. Text analysis is crucial. Ability to understand that Farsi, for example, is not English: not English using different words.

Any comments on language learning or polyglot life you would like to

Monolingualism is actually rare in the World (USA people just don't grasp diglossia). There is a cure to monolingualism. The W.L.s should be learned.

I have wasted my time on non essential languages in the past instead of learning how to talk NASA, Kant and physics in W.L.s  (World Languages). For this reason, I only care about the W.L.s. Languages are equivalent to physical performance: You must work at it, practice it and maintain it. Geo Locked languages are like working out and doing wrist curls instead of dead lifts. Wrist curls won't take you as far as dead lifts.
Too many people use some sort of “I've got the rest of my life to learn this language” This is very untrue. In fact, those that have the opposite mind set will actually learn. To use a Joseph Campbell quote about the need for urgency: “You must seek it like a man whose hair is on fire seeks a bucket of water.”

“I only learn global languages, not geolocked languages.” Christophe Clugston

Polyglot Claude Cartaginese

Claude Cartaginese is the creator and editor of The Polyglot Project, a book written entirely by YouTube polyglots, hyper-polyglots, linguists, language learners and language lovers in their own words. The Polyglot Project is available as a free download on Claude's YouTube channel (syzygycc), his blog (, or you may purchase a hard copy at

Claude Learned English in school after family moved from Italy to the United States.

My Parents never learned. I studied French in high school, but didn't like it. It was entirely grammar-based, and I found that approach to be tedious. We spent most of our time conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary lists. It was a very inefficient way of learning a language. Interestingly, 30 years later my children, who attended the same schools, had similar experiences. Nothing at all has changed when it comes to teaching foreign languages in the school system. In college, it took a completely random event to get me really interested in learning foreign languages: I met a polyglot. Not only could this individual speak over 20 languages, but he was completely self-taught. I did not know such a thing was possible. And yet, it was still many more years before I began to study languages myself in earnest.
What are your language learning goals?

Claude: There is a story I like about Oliver Wendell Holmes, who needed to go to the hospital for a minor procedure when he was in his late 80s.
A visitor found him lying in bed one day reading a book on  Ancient Greek. When asked why he was studying such a complicated subject, he is reported to have replied: “to improve my mind.” I think that's primarily what motivates me as well. I don't need to study languages, I just like to. It keeps my faculties sharp.

Do you believe children learn languages faster than adults?

Claude: No, not really. In the first place, a child has all the time in the world to focus on language learning. Even so, it takes years before that child
can express itself using compound sentences and complex ideas. An adult could accomplish what a child accomplishes in much less time. As for learning multiple languages, adults retain their advantage. How many six-year-olds have you seen who can speak 10 languages or more? I haven't seen any, and believe me, I've looked. The notion that children learn languages faster and easier than adults is, I believe, a myth.

Antonio: Do you, or most polyglots have some type of mental disorder, such as autism or excessive compulsive disorder?

Claude: I have come across some polyglots who have the types of disorders you're asking about. Some of them are in my book. I know of some exceptional cases where a mental condition or disorder facilitates the language learning process. Daniel Tammet comes to mind. I think that these may be the exceptions, and the vast majority of language learners may not have any of those disorders; but obviously I can't be certain.

Any comments on language learning or polyglot life you would like to share with the world?

Claude: Well, I guess this would be a good point to make a plug for my book, The Polyglot Project. The 43 authors contained within its over 500 pages explain the polyglot lifestyle much better than I can in a few sentences. I think it's important to keep things fun and interesting,
and to have a high level of motivation. If you can keep those three things in the forefront, everything else follows.

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo 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)



Brooklyn Monk fan page

Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE

Brooklyn Monk in 3D
Order the download at

© Jan 2011

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