Polyglot Leadership

Last month I had the privilege to speak at the very first Polyglot Conference in Budapest, Hungary. I spoke on why being a polyglot is an advantage in the field of conflict management. At the end of my presentation I used the words of a polyglot peacemaker (Nelson Mandela) to sum-up why more polyglots should look into the field of conflict management: When you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. My studies and subsequent career change into conflict management have been the main things keeping me from posting here regularly.

Ryan Conference

Studying and practicing interpersonal conflict management have led me to also study other fields such as psychology, organizational psychology, communication, negotiation and leadership. When most people hear the word authority they tend to think of positional authority (like being a policeman or a CEO). There are actually many different types of authority. There is little doubt in my mind that my friend Richard Simcott obtained quite a bit of expert authority when he made this video back in 2008:

Since then Richard has been highlighted in the news in several countries, both on TV and in written articles. If you’ve seen the video you know exactly why. This video also got him voted, by the public, as the ambassador of multilingualism in an EU conference on multilingualism. When Richard published a video of a panel discussion from this conference I was surprised by something.

What the heck was Luca Lampariello doing on the panel? Don’t get me wrong. I have immense respect for Luca’s abilities. I was merely surprised because I was unaware that he would be participating, other than as a conference attendee. Not surprisingly, Luca’s insights in the discussion were great; it would have been a shame if he hadn’t participated. All the while I couldn’t avoid the suspicion that Richard had somehow been influential in getting Luca up there. I later had this suspicion confirmed.  This is merely one example of what Richard has done with his expert authority, he has combined it with moral authority. Instead of using it for self-aggrandizement, Richard has used his authority to point us all in the direction of many other fabulous polyglots, Luca being only one of them.

In this video (taken during the Polyglot Conference in Budapest), who is leading the charge, sounding the trumpet that Emanuele’s abilities are noteworthy? It’s Luca. From what I can see, Luca is following Richard’s example in combining his expert authority with moral authority. Instead of figuratively trying to keep all the pie for himself, Luca makes the pie bigger so that there is more than enough for everyone he interacts with.


Mohandas Gandhi is considered the father of history’s largest democracy: India. Who elected Gandhi to his position? What made Gandhi an expert in non-violent resistance and nation building? The answers are no one and and nothing. All the same Gandhi was able to mobilize Indians from all social classes and religions. What Gandhi had was moral authority. This kind of authority has an infections, synergistic impact with a wide ripple effect.

Since the video of Emanuele has gone viral (over 300 thousand views in a little over a week), Emanuele and Luca have made another video. Since thousands of the viewers of the first video were from Poland, this second video that Luca and Emanuele just made is subtitled in both English and Polish. I imagine that Michal Grzeskowiak was instrumental in making this happen.


Emanuele is not the only person to have been changed by the Polyglot Conference in Budapest. Ask anyone who attended and that person will tell you how unforgettable the experience was. Notable and charismatic figures from the online language community (such as David Mansaray, Benny Lewis and Susanna Zaraysky) appear more pumped than ever. In fact, many people, such as Brian Kwong, are spontaneously and independently stepping up to add a whole new and fabulous dimension to the online language learning community. Those of us who participate in this great community are fortunate to have such great leadership. They are great leaders who inspire other people to also be great leaders.

English Comes from Turkey: Part II

Last month I wrote about a BBC article that describes a bold claim from Dr. Quentin Atkinson. This claim is that the Indoeuropean language (from which English and many other major word languages descended) came from modern day Turkey, not the Caucus region. The new theory is based on the results of a computer program that is normally used to show how related the DNA from different species is.

Evolving Species and Evolving Languages

Evolution is certainly a buzz word. It has a halo effect that seems to add  legitimacy to what a person says. Because of this people apply the word to situations that I often find strange. An actor’s career evolves even though it doesn’t give birth to new acting careers? Another tangible difference between the evolution of a career and the evolution of, say, chihuahuas, is that human beings have free will and the animals facing extinction did not.

Rob Schneider Has Free Will

Rob Schneider is an example of this. A successful comedic actor, when asked if he would consider a dramatic role, he replied, People don’t ask Andre Agassi, ‘You know you’re the No. 1 tennis player in the world … have you thought about polo?’ Rob’s career has faced the gamut of stimuli: everything from being extremely popular to almost forgotten. Through it all he sticks to comedy. Why? Choice. It’s true that outside factors are important. Some actors change out of perceived necessity and others change because they are famous and think they can get away with a different type of role. Though there are many outside factors there is one internal factor that can completely invalidate all others: free will. When it comes to human beings, their perception and interpretation of their experiences is much more important than the experiences themselves.

Croatian Does Not Want to Be Serbian

At the moment, Croatian and Serbian are mutually intelligible. Contrary to the trends of most other languages, Serbian and Croatian may no longer be mutually intelligible after 100 years or so. The reason for this is Croats are taking words of non-Slavic origin, inventing new replacement words of Slavic origin, and trying to phase the old words out. In Croatian the word for university is sveučilište. When you break down the different elements of the word it means the same thing as university (place of all knowledge/learning) but uses Slavic morphemes instead of Latin ones. The word in Serbian is yниверзитет (univerzitet). If the Croats continue this trend then their language will eventually cease to be understood by Serbs, Bosnians, Bosniaks and Montenegrins.

One could argue that this is evidence of linguistic evolution since Croats could feel threatened by the Serbian language. This argument has dubious merits but let’s consider it for a moment. Does it explain the way other mutually intelligible languages in similar circumstances have changed or not changed? Norwegian, Danish and Swedish are mutually intelligible but are not giving way to each other, in spite of Norway historically losing its statehood from time to time to the other two countries. Laotian, Isan and Thai are another example of mutually intelligible languages that have not made significant efforts to distinguish themselves in spite of conflict between their speakers.

What Makes the Difference?

People make the difference; their perceptions make the difference. Basque and Welsh should have disappeared long ago but they haven’t and probably won’t. Hebrew was resurrected from the dead! On the other hand, Dutch, Mongolian, German and Turkish were militarily and economically dominant languages that have left a proportionately tiny linguistic impact on the world. This is why I can’t accept a purely evolutionary explanation for a quintessentially human driven phenomenon. A physicist lives in a world of relative certainties; a psychologist does not. She may be able to predict with as much as 80% accuracy how different people will react to different things but, in the end, she will never know for sure. This theory that Indoeuropean came from Turkey may possibly be better than the one that claims that it came from the Caucuses. This, however, would only be so if the latter theory were slightly better than a wild guess.

English Comes from Turkey: Part I

This recent BBC article highlights the work of Kiwi researcher Dr. Quentin Atkinson on the origin of Indoeuropean. This is a language that we actually know very little about but many of the world’s major languages are derived from it (see the map below). The green countries mainly speak languages that descend from Indoeuropean, the neon green ones have an Indoeuropean language as their official language (or an official language) but actually have multilingual societies, and the turquoise ones have large minorities that speak an Indoeuropean language.

My friend Vlad (over at Forever a Student) has been attempting to learn Persian/Farsi. He speaks eleven languages, some of them with a near native level of mastery. Most of his languages are Indoeuropean: English, Italian, Slovak, French, Russian, German, Czech, Spanish, German and Portuguese. He also speaks two that are not Indoeuropean quite well (Mandarin Chinese and Hungarian). The man can’t help but be a philologist! Here are some examples of connections that he’s made between his different Indoeuropean languages and his newest Indoeuropean language: Persian.


Apart from the most obvious ones like bad (bad), tche (che), barâdar (brother), nou (new) and others, there are also a few mind blowing vocabulary relation to Slavic languages:
vopors – to ask (Rus vopros – question, Svk prosiť – to ask)

Zohré (Venus, Svk Zornička – Venus)
zohr – morning (Svk zore – morning red sky)
zan – woman (Svk žena – woman)
zemestân - winter (Svk zima – winter)
zamin – ground (Svk zem – ground)
Here’s a list of some other cognates I found so far:

Hast – there is, il y a, es gibt

Barâdar – brother
Markaz – market
Mâdar – mother
Dochtâr – doughter
Kelid – key

There are a lot of other cognates as well, but they are obviously much younger:

garson – boy

botri – bottle
taxi – taxi
All of these languages must have had a common source. We call that source Indoeuropean even though we have no idea who the Indoeuropeans were, what they actually called themselves or even exactly how their language worked. The modern language that is closest to the original Indoeuropean is supposed to be Lithuanian. What scientists have commonly suspected is that, after the wheel was invented, the Indoeuropeans left their home in the Caucuses (see below) and went all over the place.

Dr. Atkinson applied technology that shows the level of commonality in the DNA in different organisms to languages. This apparently was done with a huge data base of cognates. His results led him to believe that Indoeurpean does not come from the Caucuses but from Turkey.

What do you think of this idea? Do languages change the same way that organisms evolve?  Does it matter where Indoeuropean originated?

A New American Polyglot and Wise Words from Anthony Lauder

This is a quick hodgepodge post. Tommy McDonald is the newest polyglot I’ve come across. I have great respect for all polyglots but particularly ones who come from places that are culturally monolingual. His, subtitled, video below shows skill in English, Spanish, Japanese, French, German and Italian. How’s that for variety?



Anthony Lauder is very good at breaking things down into easily understood, yet insightful, pieces. I highly recommend all ten minutes of the following video.


What Is Leveling Up?

I Used to Be Overweight

Between 2005 and 2010 I gained 53 lbs. (25 kgs). My BMI was at the bottom of the obese range. During 2010 I tried a juice diet and lost 35 lbs (about 16 kgs) in three months. I slowly and steadily gained 25 lbs back and, in December of 2011, I decided that something needed to change. Since then I’ve used an app on my phone to keep track of my calories and control my portions. I’ve also gotten into exercising, mainly cycling and hiking. It’s been a good time to go through Michel Thomas Method Arabic and Chinese, as well as listen to podcasts in my other languages. To date I’m down 46 lbs and am at a healthy weight for the first time since 2005!

Leveling Up On Y Mountain

I’ve become a rather inhibited person and I don’t like it. In addition to getting my weight under control, I’m trying to get outside my comfort zone more often. On a hike a few days ago, I passed a group of young Mexicans on their way up the mountain. On my way back down, I recognized one girl who was still hiking up the mountain far behind the group. ¡Tú sí puedes! (You can do it!) I said to her.

It’s hard. she wearily replied. I usually let other people determine the language but this time I felt insistent.

Tus amigos te están esperando. ¡Vas a poder!  (Your friends are waiting for you. You can do it!) I was rather surprised by what happened next.

Van a tener que esperar mucho. (They’re going to have to wait a while) she said.

Para eso son los amigos. (That’s what friends are for.) is what I think remember saying but by then I was farther down the mountain and she probably didn’t hear me. I was proud of myself for getting outside of my comfort zone and the rest of the hike went quickly.

At the end of the hike I noticed a Chinese family taking pictures of the valley below us. I loaded my dogs into my car and was about to get in and drive away when I decided not to be such a chicken. Nervously, I walked over to them and said, 请问. 你们 是 中国人吗? (Excuse me. Are you Chinese?)

I’ve been speaking Spanish since the end of 2000. I can handle myself in almost any situation. Chinese is a different story. My Chinese is laughably limited. This is why I was so happy when the oldest son replied, . (Yup.)

I thought of asking them where they were from but then I realized that I wasn’t very familiar with China and probably wouldn’t recognize the name of the city. Under pressure, I smiled and said the only thing that came to mind, 欢迎! (Welcome! [As in Welcome to my country!])

They smiled back and said, 谢谢. (Thanks.)

That’s leveling up.

Leveling up is what many people in the online language learning community call giving a practical application to the language you’ve been learning. This was demonstrated very well in a video of Moses McCormick and Benny Lewis that I blogged about a few weeks ago. This can be done online on websites like SharedTalk.com and the Polyglot website’s chatroom or on Skype. I think the best and most rewarding way to do it is in person. My friend Rich blogged about a recent experience he had leveling up in Persian.

I know it sounds daunting but even if you mess up it’s usually exhilarating and makes you want to go home and learn more. Leveling up exposes your weaknesses and shows you where you are actually better than you thought. You often get much needed encouragement and make new friends. You learn little things that are impossible to learn by your self, like facial expressions and filler words. Have you had any experiences leveling up in a language? Tell us about them.

Language in Education: Part II

I was tempted to change the title of this post (and the last) to Minority Languages in Education but that would be inaccurate. Some students that belong to minority groups in their communities are educated in a language they don’t speak at home. This is the case of Curds in Denmark, Pakistanis in Kuwait and Brazilians in Japan. This is not the case, however, of millions of kids in Africa, virtually all of the kids in Haiti, or even of the upper-class kids who go to private English schools all over the world. These young students speak their native language at home, in the market, on the playground and pretty much everywhere else but in the classroom. In my last post I delved into the advantages and problems related to educating children in a language other than their native one. I am grateful for those who weighed in on the issue in the comments section.

The Good News

It is almost impossible for one group to take away another group’s linguistic identity. The only way your linguistic identity will be lost is if you allow it to be lost or pushed out. A long time ago, Americans tried very hard to squash the languages of the natives. Certain languages have been lost or will be lost soon but others came out of the experience stronger than before. You couldn’t teach Cherokee in school two hundred years ago because it wasn’t a written language. Now it is. Navaho is not only now a written language but can be used to give university lectures. The Welsh, Ukrainians, Norwegians, Basque, and even the English have all had their languages seriously threatened at one time or another. If you are willing to fight for it, no individual or government can rob you of your language completely.

As I said in my last post, this situation is a sticky one and there is no one size fits all answer but there are three principles that can guide every society facing this problem.

Principle #1: You Need to Want It

In order for this to work then the group that wants to promote its language needs a very strong sense of self-determination. If Xhosa speaking parents organize, come together, and say they want their children to receive instruction in Xhosa then I think the government should provide at least a few classes and activities in the language for them. Books should also be provided for Xhosa speakers at the library. If the Xhosa classes are enthusiastically received, if there is a very high level of participation in Xhosa activities, and if there is a long waiting list for Xhosa books at the library then I think the government should expand Xhosa services. They could perhaps even allow for schools to teach half in Xhosa and half in English.

Principle #2: You Need to Want It More Than Me

I often go to the Spanish language book section at my library. Do you know which people I don’t really see much in the Spanish language section? Hispanics. You can’t expect your language to thrive if you aren’t really enthusiastic about it. Especially in this economy, why should one group vote to allocate funds to support a different ethno-linguistic group if the members of the latter group aren’t going to make really good use of the money?

Principle #3: Think Win/Win

Many people approach language with a very Win/Lose mentality. If you speak my language then you can’t speak yours. Continuing with that logic these same people often think, If you speak your language then you cannot speak mine. When trying to push a language in schools it helps to assure others that the students will continue to learn English, or whatever other language they need to learn in order to function in a broader society. This requires some extra effort and a change in lifestyle that many do not expect. This is where principles one and two become very important.

This Can Really Work

When the Persians took over the Babylonian Empire they kept Aramaic as the language of government. Everybody already knew Aramaic so why should they try and fix something that wasn’t broken? Many languages coexisted side by side but it was understood that the official language was Aramaic. This is the way Greek functioned for centuries in the Mediterranean countries and Latin in much of Europe during the Middle Ages. Just like the ancients, I believe people in modern times can learn a vehicular language, like English, without losing their own ethno-linguistic identity.

Language in Education

Kirsten, a college student from South Africa, sent me a nice email a while ago asking me to weigh in on an issue that I find extremely important and often complicated. It is an issue that affects people in every country of the world and one that has affected every ethnic group in the history of the world. The question is whether children who should be educated in their native language or in a language that will give them more opportunities later in life.


What kind of opportunities in life will you have if all you know how to speak is a variety of Zapotec that only a few thousand people in Oaxaca, Mexico understand? No one would blame such a person for making sure their children learned Spanish from an early age. How far can you go in life in south western China if you don’t know Mandarin? Ethnic minorities are certainly not the only people confronting this issue.


German is the official language of six prosperous countries and has over 100 million native speakers with tens of millions of non-native speakers added to that number. It also has a literary tradition that is hundreds of years old and boasts some of the best writers and philosophers in modern times. In spite of this, every German engineering student knows that his or her career will be limited without a solid command of English.


Is it any wonder that millions of students from all over Africa are demanding to be educated in English instead of Afrikaans, French, Yoruba, etc.? Many American, British, Australian, etc. companies have been known to favor employees with fluent English over other employees who are harder to understand but are more competent in their professions. The advantages to combining impressive professional skills with fluency in English are palpable.


On the other hand, I wonder about the Filipinos who have a wider vocabulary in English than they do in Tagalog or Cebuano but speak it with a heavy accent. I wonder about Haitian children who are taught that what they speak at home is corrupted French, instead of a proper language. This means they have to be be taught to speak the real thing by teachers who usually cannot speak French well either. I also wonder about the Hispanic youth in the USA, the Turks in Germany, Moroccans in Spain, and Algerians in France who never learn to speak any language well.


What does it mean to undervalue, or even despise, your native language? What does it do to a person to intentionally lose or weaken the ability to speak with Grandparents and other relatives? How do we feel about ourselves and our worth as individuals if we believe that the language that feels most natural to us is somehow inferior to another language? Can a language’s true worth be calculated accurately with money alone?


I wish I had a simple answer to this complex problem. There is, however, no single solution that will work for countries as diverse as South Africa, the USA, China, Ukraine, and Malaysia. I would like to describe some principles that will help people as they try to negotiate their education between two or more languages and I will talk about them in my next post. Until then, what are your thoughts?


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