Language Immersion Is a Loaded Phrase

Magic is wonderful. When I was a child and lost a tooth, the Tooth Fairy would magically leave a 25¢ coin underneath my pillow while I slept; Santa Clause would bring me presents on Christmas Eve night; early on Easter Sunday morning, the Easter Bunny would hide chocolate eggs and a basket of goodies for me and my brothers to find. As we get older it becomes our turn to make magic for our own children yet I have met quite a few grown adults who still naively believe in something quite magical: they think that living in a foreign country will magically teach them a foreign language.

Expatriates

I have met dozens of people who have spent months or years of their life in a foreign country and are barely conversational in the language of that country or know almost nothing. Most of them are expatriates. What is an expatriate? An expatriate is someone who moves to a foreign country, usually for economic reasons, with a particular goal in mind and who fully plans on returning back to his or her country of origin after achieving that goal.

Many Mexican immigrants to the USA are actually expatriates, which is why they can live there for thirty years or more and never learn much English. They come to get a better paying job, plain and simple. In their expatriate communities they often fly the Mexican flag, have their own restaurants, have street venders who sell Mexican products and they all speak Chicano Spanish. If you can talk to your neighbors, watch TV, buy a car, go shopping and get a get a job without knowing good English, why bother to learn it?

I don’t mean to harp on the Mexicans. All expatriates are like this. There are similar Chinese speaking and English speaking communities in most big cities in the world. If all you ever do is stay within your own little expatriate bubble you will probably not learn the language of your host country no matter how long you live there.

College Study Abroad Programs

Here is a pretty typical scenario, at least in the USA: Jenny has studied German for four years in high school and for the past two years at her university and feels ready for a “cultural” experience. She spends a lot of money and goes with a group of fellow German students and a fun German professor to spend a few months in Munich. When she comes home, she finds that she is only a tiny bit better at German than when she left.

Why can’t pretty little Jenny speak better German? It’s because she spent most of her time hanging out with her fellow American students and English speaking Germans. When she went to buy things, she found that the German required was not very difficult and that a great deal of shop keepers, waiters, etc. could speak better English then she could German. Although she was promised language immersion, she sheltered herself with her native language.

Do Your Own Preparation First

The US government ranks language proficiency with a five point scale:

1 – Basic knowledge of the language: You memorized a bunch of key words and phrases but can’t do much more than carry on very short conversation.

2 – Limited proficiency: You have studied all of the grammar principals and have a functional vocabulary. You can get your point across and understand the main idea of what people say to you but the language barrier is still very present.

3 – Proficiency: You can converse at length about a certain number of topics but start to have big problems when you stray from those topics. You still get things wrong here and there but few people have trouble understanding you and vice versa.

4 – Advanced proficiency: Your are fluent. Your accent is noticeable but slight and you can function in the language almost as freely as most native speakers.

5 – Near Native Proficiency: Your command of the language is as good as or better than most native speakers. People have to pay very close attention to notice traces of your native accent.

If you don’t have enough desire to get at least to a solid 2 in the target language before you start your language immersion it’s doubtful that you will get much better than that. I recommend getting to a 3 which is entirely possible for most languages. Getting to a 3 first will make it so getting to a 4 in the foreign country becomes very doable and even fun and enjoyable.

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone!

You can study a foreign language all you want and for as long as you want but it is doubtful that you will get beyond a level 3 without some good language immersion experience. When in the country, banish your native language from your mind. Force yourself to eat, drink and sleep in your target language. If you can, don’t go with a big group of people from your native country. If that is unavoidable, ditch the group and interact with the locals as much as possible. Start conversations with strangers in the park. Foreign experience is necessary for a high level of fluency but simply being there is not enough.

The Many Languages of Ziad Fazah

About a year ago I began to become acquainted with the online language community. Since that time I have found no hyperpolyglot more inspiring or controversial than Ziad Youssef Fazah. Over the past twenty years, he has been featured many times showcasing his talents on television programs in several European and South American countries including Greece, Argentina, Spain and Brazil. In the early 1990’s, Ziad was approached by the Guinness Book of World Records and asked if it would be all right for him to appear in the 1993 UK edition as the “world’s greatest linguist.” Mr. Fazah’s abilities have inspired, awed and educated, however, they have also been criticized, understandably doubted and unfairly defamed.

Getting to Know Ziad Fazah

Although Ziad does not seek the spotlight he doesn’t hide from it either and, looking here and there, I was able to find his email address. After corresponding briefly through emails he and I started talking on the phone. I too was skeptical and spoke to him in English, Spanish, Portuguese and even a little in Mandarin Chinese. Ziad responded confidently in every one of these languages. When my wife and I visited Brazil last year, he graciously entertained us at his home in Rio de Janeiro and showed us his scrapbook of magazine and newspaper articles that have been written about him. Since there have been so many things said about him, for good and bad, I decided that it might be good for me write what I know from personal experience. To that end, I called him on the telephone today to make sure I had my facts straight and, with his permission, have decided to write this post.

What Kind of a Name is Ziad Fazah?

Ziad’s parents were Lebanese, though his father was born in Colombia. In 1953 Ziad’s father had moved his family to Liberia, for work reasons, when Ziad made the newest addition to their family. A few months later the Fazahs moved to Lebanon where Ziad was raised. Arabic was the language at home but in school he was also taught French and English. Many Armenian families were living in Lebanon at the time and Ziad became curious enough to learn their language. At age fourteen he decided to learn “all of the world’s languages” and started buying cassette courses and books to first learn German and then every other major language of the world. Lebanon was a fairly peaceful and cosmopolitan place back then so he was able to practice speaking the vast majority of the languages that he was studying. Although you will find written that he speaks 56, 57 or 58 languages, he himself gave me the list below which includes 59 languages/dialects:

Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Azeri, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Cambodian, Cantonese, Czech, Cypriot, Danish, Dutch, Dzongkha, English, Fijian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Kyrgyz, Lao, Malagasy, Malay, Maltese, Mandarin, Mongolian, Nepali, Norwegian, Papiamento, Pashto, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Singapore Colloquial English, Sinhalese, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tajik, Thai, Tibetan, Turkish, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese and Wu Chinese.

Fleeing to Brazil from Lebanon

He studied philology for four years at the American University at Beirut and had plans to become an interpreter for the UN. Fate had other plans. Lebanon became a scary place so, like thousands of other Lebanese people, the entire Fazah family immigrated to Brazil. Ironically, Portuguese wasn’t one of the languages that Ziad had studied at that time. This is somewhat surprising since Ziad’s Portuguese now sounds absolutely native. Soon after settling in Brazil, Ziad started offering his services as a tutor and has taught many languages to many people. His students are usually young people trying to learn English in preparation for studying in the USA, Australia or Great Britain but he also finds himself teaching languages like Arabic, Farsi, French, German and Mandarin Chinese.

Ziad Fazah’s Methodology

Ziad says that everyone should build up his or her own methodology but that there are three basic steps to follow that he has used and finds very effective.

  1. Listen to the target language for at least half an hour a day. In a week you should be very familiar with the sound system of the language.
  2. Study the language (written form) for another half an hour a day. In two weeks you should have a good grasp on it.
  3. Ziad wanted me to emphasize this step. Shadow or recite the language out loud for at least fifteen minutes a day. What you recite isn’t nearly as important as doing it out loud for at least fifteen minutes a day.

According to Ziad, if you follow these steps, you will be speaking the language well in three to six months, depending on the language and the capabilities of the learner. These steps seem remarkably similar to Dr. Alexander Arguelles’ who is also an accomplished self taught language learner. The remarkable thing is that Dr. Arguelles and Mr. Fazah came to similar conclusions independently through personal study.

Does He Really Speak 59 Languages?

Ziad is a very talented human being, however, he is still a human being. For the past two and a half decades he has only had the chance to speak Portuguese and Arabic on a regular basis. Besides these two, he also feels quite comfortable speaking French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, German, Danish, Papiamento, English and Russian. His grasp on the other languages varies but after a few days of study and review he says that he feels confident going on television and speaking any one of his 59 languages with native speakers of those languages.

Studying with Ziad Fazah

Are you curious about Ziad Fazah? Would you like to talk to him? Would you like to learn from him? Ziad said that he would be open to teaching people on the phone, via Skype or in person, if you live in the Rio de Janeiro area. His email is ziadyfazah(at)yahoo.com.br. The two of you can make your own arrangements. I think you’ll find Ziad personable and open to whatever your language goals are.

How Would You Like Your Worst Day at Work Broadcasted on Youtube?

There are no good videos of Ziad showing his language abilities. He has contacted the different television stations that he’s been on but none have sent him a copy of programs that featured him. A little while ago there was a deceitful video on youtube that made Ziad look very bad. Before he went on that Chilean program the producers had told him that he would simply be interviewed and not tested. He went to the studio finding that they had brought diplomats from many different countries that were going to test him in their native languages. A lack of preparation, nerves and jetlag got the better of Ziad and he responded incorrectly to a few of their questions. To this day he wishes he would have walked off the set instead of going on live TV but that’s life. The video on youtube was edited to only show the incorrect responses and not the many correct responses that he gave.

Providing Proof of Ziad’s Language Abilities

As soon as Ziad and I can coordinate our schedules and find a half decent way to record it, I am planning on giving him a language test that I will post on youtube and on this blog. It will most likely be similar to the test administered to Stuart Jay Raj when he went on Thai television. I will tell Ziad in advance what languages that he will be tested on but not what he will be asked to say in those languages.

Esperanto: the Saga of a Universal Language

Just last month I published a post about the languages with the biggest number of speakers which then lead me to write another post about which languages were worth learning, since learning even the top five would prove quite difficult due to their lack of similarities. Bill Chapman commented on the latter post that the difficulties of learning the world’s most spoken languages made a good argument for learning Esperanto. Well Bill, you got me thinking. I had heard of Esperanto before but didn’t know too much about it so I decided to read up on this language; what I found turned out to be much more interesting that I expected.

What Is Esperanto?

Esperanto is the most widely spoken artificial auxiliary language in the world. It was created over one hundred years ago with the intention of making it a universal second language that everyone in the world would study along with their own native language, thus preserving everyone’s native tongue and being able to communicate with anyone everyone else in the world. You’ve got to admit that it’s an intriguing idea. Its creator was a Polish/Russian/Jewish man named Ludvic Lazarus Zamenhof.

L.L. Zamenhof: the Creator of Esperanto

Zamenhof was born in what is now Eastern Poland, and which was then part of Russia, to Lithuanian Jewish parents, a Yiddish speaking mother and a Russian speaking father. He grew up speaking both languages, and later Polish when his family moved their home to Poland, as well as German since his father was a German teacher. Zamenhof’s home town was multilingual and many fights would break out between the different linguistic groups. Zamenhof felt that a lot of these fights were due to their unfortunate language barrier.

He started working on the creation of a universal language in high school. Interestingly, he did not go on to study linguistics or any type of language related field in college. He went to medical school in Russia and Poland and then settled in Austria and worked as an ophthalmologist. His language studies were an interesting hobby, as they are for many of us. He published the first Yiddish grammar and studied French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English, Italian, Spanish and Lithuanian.

Esperanto Takes Off!

Although he finished Esperanto in 1878 he was too young and lacking in money and influence to publish it. With the help of his future father-in-law, he was able to publish Lingvo internacia. Antaŭparolo kaj plena lernolibro” (International Language. Foreword and Complete Textbook) in 1887. He published it under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto (Doctor Hopeful).

After its publication Zamenhof went on to write and translate many things into Esperanto, including the Hebrew Bible. He was praised for his valiant effort to promote universal understanding and was even nominated to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1910, seven years before his death. One of his daughters taught and promoted Esperanto all over Europe and even in some places in the USA. War torn and scrambling to negotiate peace treaties in dozens of languages, much of post WWI Europe was took a liking to the idea of teaching everybody the same second language.

Esperanto Attacked by the Nazis and the Communists

In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler said that Esperanto was the secret language of the Jews and was being used to facilitate their great Jewish conspiracy. As he rose to power Hitler targeted Esperanto speakers, especially Zamenhof’s family. All three of Zamenhof’s children died in the Holocaust. In Russia, Stalin originally liked Esperanto but suddenly changed his mind, declared that it was the language of spies and ordered a large number of Esperanto speakers to be executed. Since a huge number of Esperanto speakers lived in Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe, this was a huge blow to the spread of the language.

Esperanto Today

Esperanto survived the Holocaust and the Cold War and is spoken all over the world. There are about ten million people who know it to one degree or another, about one million of them are highly functional in it and about one thousand of them grew up speaking it along with their regional native language. Many of its speakers are almost religiously devout in speaking and promoting Esperanto. The video below is of one such Esperanto speaker: Claude Piron, a Swiss psychologist who also worked at the UN interpreting Chinese, Russian, English and Spanish into French.

Why Has Esperanto Failed to Become the Main International Language?

Many have criticized Zamenhof’s magnum opus, in fact, two more artificial languages have been constructed in an attempt improve on Esperanto. Both of these languages are about as widely spoken as Klingon and Elvish. One criticism is that Esperanto is not as universal as it claims to be since it was constructed with elements of Romance, Slavic and Germanic languages. This makes it easier for people who speak European languages than it is for those whose native language is Chinese, Arabic or some other unrelated language. Others object to Esperanto’s consonants, many of which are pronounced in uncommon places or are just plain uncommon when compared to many other languages.

There are quite a few other arguments against Esperanto that are even more subjective and less compelling than the two that I have written above but there is at least one very sound reason for why Esperanto has not had more success: lack of support. People learn languages for cultural and practical reasons. Since no culture is linked to Esperanto, which is intentional, no one will ever learn it for cultural reasons. Why read a translation of the Bible, the Koran, The Rig-Veda, Ana Karenina, Othello or Dante’s Inferno in Esperanto when you could just read a translation in your own native language? No government has made Esperanto a mandatory subject of learning so there aren’t many practical reasons to learn it, especially when everyone is already learning English.

The Future of Esperanto

Unless countries like the USA, Great Britain, Japan and China decide to make Esperanto a mandatory subject of study in all public schools, starting at a young age, and then later make it a requirement to graduate from high school it is unlikely that Esperanto will be anything more than the language of few million enthusiasts. Its potential will continue to be unrealized. If, for some reason, it became the international language that Zamenhof dreamed of how long would it take for it to start to split up into partially intelligible dialects or have undesired results like replacing local languages? What would the world sound like in Esperanto? To get an idea I’ve included a clip from an old movie filmed entirely in Esperanto and staring a young William Shatner.

Building an Environment that Teaches You a Language

I once read about a Hungarian woman who worked as an interpreter during the Cold War. She knew sixteen languages, including Russian and Chinese, most of which she taught herself reading novels and watching movies in those languages. This woman obviously had a great interest in learning languages and was born with or developed a knack for it otherwise she wouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble. I think that it is wonderful that language learning is so much more accessible today than it was fifty, or even twenty years ago. While language learning consists of lots of different techniques and strategies, one that bears special mention is that of creating an environment that will teach you the language naturally.

If You Have Access to the Internet You Can Learn a Language

There are a huge number of free or low cost resources online to learn foreign languages. One of my favorites is www.polyglot-learn-language.com. The accounts are free. Once you sign up and identify what languages you want to learn it automatically finds video lessons on youtube.com that will teach you the language and it will make a list of software programs that you can buy to help you learn it. The site has a huge forum where you can post and ask to find a pen pal or a “language exchange partner.” People can then respond to your post, or you can respond to their posts, and then you can pick and choose people that you want to practice your language with online either on Skype, MSN Messenger or at language exchange meetings/parties. All for free! The site also includes a chat room where people from all over the world come to practice many languages. I have seen English, French, Turkish, German, Dutch, Arabic, Russian, Romanian, Italian, Portuguese and a few languages that I couldn’t identify in that chat room. It’s a lot of fun and closely monitored so the conversations don’t become obscene or perverse as they often do in other chat rooms. I have personally used www.polyglot-learn-language.com to find language exchange partners for Portuguese and Mandarin Chinese and it has been a lot of fun and very beneficial.

Some other free, or reasonably priced, websites are www.lingq.com, www.spanishpod.com, www.chinesepod.com and www.frenchpod.com. Their basic services are all free and very effective at teaching you a wide variety of languages. They all provide free podcasts that you can put on an MP3 player. That way you can take the language anywhere you want to go. I’ve been using www.chinesepod.com for almost a year and I really like it.

Ebay, Amazon.com and other online stores can be a wonderful resource for finding books, CD’s and DVD’s in your target language for a reasonable price. You can also find actual textbooks online. While looking for a good textbook in Mandarin, I found one that I could use one for free at www.wikibooks.org.

Make Your Community a Resource

Using the internet is great but there are more things that you can do. The library is a wonderful resource. Even if your local library doesn’t have the materials you want, as may be the case if you want to learn not so common languages like Serbian or Gujarati, make sure you ask the librarian where you could find them or find more of them. Universities often have good resources that you can use for a modest fee.

The world community is quite small these days. Most of us live in cities, or near cities, that have sizeable expatriate or immigrant populations. Look for them online or just let yourself wander to those parts of town. They have stores, festivals, parties, sports leagues and religious congregations that are all in the language that you are looking to learn. Make new friends and get involved. Many of them will be excited that you are interested in their language and culture and will be very helpful and encouraging.

Dry Learning

Using the internet, movies, local library and local “ethnic” communities can help you recreate your environment to learn a language through exposure to it but a certain amount of word lists, flash cards, grammar lessons and dictionary searches is unavoidable. Be careful not to make this the main focus of your learning because it’s artificial and often discouraging. Let this just be complimentary to you actually interacting with the language in different ways that are more real and natural.

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Millions of us live in nice, comfy little monolingual bubbles which is why we never learn to speak anything other than our native language. In this case, you can’t let your environment teach you unless you change it. Listen to your podcasts, read your books and meet new people who speak your target language, and hopefully very little of your native language. Do it often, repetition is a wonderful school teacher. If at first all you can do is go to a Chinese New Year Celebration and have a very basic conversation with a dozen people, that’s great! Don’t be lazy and slip into your native language. Push yourself a little. Listen to them speak to each other and see how much you can pick out. If you don’t understand everything, that’s okay. If you don’t speak 100% correctly, that’s okay too. The more you try and the more observant you are the better you will get.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Although the words of this post are my own I have to admit that they are heavily influenced by two great language learners and teachers: Stuart Jay Raj and Steven Kaufmann. Letting your community teach you the language is an idea that I got from Stuart and many of Steve’s ideas about enjoying the language are quite manifest in this post. I willingly acknowledge that I have been standing on their shoulders for the past year as I have been tackling Mandarin Chinese. Thanks guys.

The Unreasonable Part of the Language Barrier

Language barriers are all too familiar to those of us who enjoy learning foreign languages. At first they loom above us like mountains, daring us to break through so that we can make new friends, go to new places, read new books or maybe even get a better job. At first the barrier seems impenetrable but with time and diligence we learn to first breach it and then tear it down all together. Interestingly enough, after communicating easily in the target language with dozens of people, we randomly run into someone who claims not to understand us at all.

Who Sets Up the Unreasonable Barrier?

In my experience this communication break down seems to most often occur with senior citizens and with those who are not used to dealing with foreigners. A fairly typical scenario is the immigrant or expatriate who has been in the country a year or two and has learned to speak pretty well in the local language. He may be at a dinner party where he’s been freely participating in the conversation for an hour or so when the host’s parents drop by.

Host: Mom, let me introduce you to our new friend Mr. Foreigner.

Mr. Foreigner: Please to meet you ma’am.

Host’s mother: What did he say?

Mr. Foreigner: I said that it’s pleasure to meet you.

(Host’s mother looks blankly at her son)

Host: He says that it’s a pleasure to meet you.

Host’s mother: Oh! Tell him that I’m delighted to meet him as well.

Why does this happen?

One reason has to do with physical appearance. I have a friend who is highly fluent in Japanese but is very tall and very white skinned. He may be speaking on the phone and get mistaken for being Japanese but then talk to the same person the next day and the same person will say that his Japanese is just “so-so.” Unfortunately, if you look and dress like a foreigner then your accent will often be magnified tremendously in the ears of certain native speakers. There are a few people who may even decide that your speech will be unintelligible before you have actually said anything at all.

Another reason this happens is the person with whom you are speaking is not used to dealing with outsiders. By outsiders I don’t just mean people who are not from the same country, I also mean people who are not from the same region and speak with a different accent. I remember once living in a small Chilean town and going to someone’s house with a Bolivian friend of mine. When we arrived my friend introduced us to the host’s daughter, who we hadn’t met before. She looked at him bewilderedly so I repeated what my friend had said. She nodded, continued to look confused, and said, “You’re from the United States, right?” I said that I was. “Then why do you speak better Spanish than him?” she replied. I certainly didn’t, and don’t, speak better Spanish than my Bolivian friend but I had been living in Southern Chile for quite a bit longer than he had and, to this girl’s ears, I spoke with the regional accent that she was used to.

Breaking through the Barrier Rudely

That last story isn’t meant to be boastful. There were several times when different Chileans, usually older ones, said that they had trouble understanding me. While I was new in the country I took this in stride but after a year of easily communicating with almost I met everyone I would get annoyed with these few who didn’t want to tune their ear a little bit. Occasionally I would get these people to put in a little bit of effort by speaking to them very slowly and over-enunciating, as if I myself were talking to a foreigner, and then return to normal speech when talking to others in the group who understood me with no trouble at all. That may have not been the most polite way to handle the situation but it was effective. I was amazed at how quickly these people would contradict themselves, say that they understood me just fine and then ask me to speak at a normal pace.

A Sad Truth

There is an old adage that goes something like this, “If a man calleth thee an ass, pay him no mind. If a second man calleth thee an ass, pay him no mind. If a third man calleth thee an ass, get thee a saddle.” Sometimes people don’t understand us when we speak a foreign language because we need to improve our pronunciation. The good news is that, although they don’t get rid of their foreign accent completely, studies show that adults who learn to speak a foreign language can, with lots of practice and effort, minimize their accent greatly so that it becomes barely noticeable.

Making the Unreasonable Part of the Language Barrier More Reasonable

A lot of what creates the unreasonable part of the language barrier is our physical appearance. We cannot change our race, nor should we ever want to. We can, however, change our appearance in other ways. If you really want to blend in you can dress and wear your hair more like the locals. Learn about local events, traditions and customs and make reference to them. Focus on the way the locals laugh, how they breathe, their posture, etc. We communicate in many ways other than speech and writing.

Although you may never get rid of your foreign sounding accent all together you can focus on certain parts of speech that give you away. For people learning English, these may be the two “th” sounds. For Spanish learners this may be the “rr” sound. For German learners this could be cutting the diphthongs out of certain vowels. Whatever your target language is, think of someone who speaks it poorly. What is it that person does that really gives him or her away as being foreign? Start by focusing on not doing those things yourself and then move on to other aspects of speech.

The Golden Rule
The next time you come across someone who doesn’t speak your native language and makes you concentrate to understand, be patient and work with him or her instead of rolling your eyes and giving up. You need all the good karma you can get! We all need a lot of encouragement when learning a foreign language because it’s more similar to a marathon than a sprint. If we don’t give up and study our target language every day, we will inevitably learn to speak, read and write in it.

Stories

One of my Portuguese professors in college told me a story about her ex-husband. The man came from Argentina but had lived in Brazil since he was a boy and then Portugal when he was an adult. Needless to say his Portuguese was quite perfect. My professor’s grandmother heard that he had a Hispanic last name and that he was born in Argentina and that was enough. Although he passed as Portuguese in most situations, or at the very least Brazilian, the grandmother always insisted that she couldn’t understand him. Have you ever been confronted with the unreasonable part of the language barrier? Has someone you know smacked their head up against it in a humorous way?

Imprecise Polyglots

There were five other linguists that I wanted to add to my previous two posts but I didn’t feel comfortable doing so because of a lack of information. I found multiple sources stating that the polyglots listed in my last two posts could actually speak those languages but these five only had partial information about the number or names of the languages that they knew. I would appreciate it if anyone with good information on these men could tell me which languages they spoke.

  1. Teseo Ambrosio (1469 – 1539). This man was the precursor and, who knows, perhaps even the inspiration behind Mezzofanti learning more than 70 languages. Ambrosio was also an Italian priest who studied many languages and promoted learning Middle Eastern languages.

  1. Sir John Bowring (1792 – 1872). Sir Bowring was a member of the British Parliament, a colonial governor and a diplomat. He also claimed to speak 100 languages and be familiar with another 100. The fact that he had a Chinese name, in addition to his true European one, and was often negotiating and speaking with foreign leaders from many places in Europe and Asia suggests that there may be some truth to this claim.

  1. Hans Conon von der Gabelentz (1807 – 1874). He was a German linguist and authority on the Manchu language. Although he did a lot for German linguistics and is considered on par with Mezzofanti I can’t find a list of how many or which languages he spoke.

  1. Paul Robeson (1898 – 1976). I was amazed to find out about this American singer and political activist. Amazed because I find him so impressive and yet this was the first that I’d heard of him. He was an accomplished singer of many genres, a true bass without an ounce of baritone in him, and an obviously well read and intelligent man. There are some cool videos of him on youtube. He also knew around 20 languages but I can’t find a comprehensive list of them.

  1. Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao (1921 – 2004). The tenth prime minister of India was fluent in over 13 languages. That must have been helpful in a country that is so linguistically diverse. What languages were they?

Polyglottery can be imprecise for other reasons. What does it mean to speak a language? At what point can you claim that you are fluent? Some people read these lists of polyglots and mistakenly think that these superlinguists know all of their languages as well as their native tongue. I believe this to be untrue because of my association with some of the “Polyglots of the Present” and because of my own linguistic experience. This, however, does not mean that it is worthless to learn a foreign language simply because it is unlikely to gain a mastery of it that is exactly equal to one’s own native language. I have full confidence that if some, or all, of these people were stranded in a country where they had to speak one of their weaker languages that they would be highly functional in a week and very fluent in a year. Isn’t that worth something?

Polyglots of the Present

Maya Angelou – I remember being in grade school and reading some of her poems and short stories. I liked her work then and I like it now. I was surprised to find that this fantastic American writer was also a polyglot. She speaks English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti.

Barry Farber – This conservative radio talk show host has a very good way to describe his knowledge of languages. He says that he marries the languages that he has studied the most and speaks the best and that he dates the ones that he has only studied a bit. These languages include Albanian, Bulgarian, Bengali, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Swedish, Tibetan and Yiddish. I wasn’t originally going to include him because I can’t find the exact number of languages he knows but I felt that his description of language learning was too good to not include in this post.

Steve Kaufmann – A former diplomat and a businessman, Steve Kaufmann has become an avid language enthusiast on the World Wide Web. His website and his book are both free and share with others the methods that he himself has used to learn the languages which he knows, these being English, French, Mandarin, Japanese, Cantonese, German, Swedish, Spanish, Italian and some Russian and Portuguese as well.

Ziad Fazah – He is one of the most advanced polyglots in recorded history. Fascinated by languages and intrigued by the idea of becoming an interpreter at the UN, Ziad made the decision to learn all the world’s languages as a boy growing up in Lebanon. When Ziad entered early adulthood he found that an interpreter’s life was not as glamorous as he had thought when he was a boy and all but stopped learning new languages after that. One wonders what would have happened if he had been given the proper stimulus because he learned most of the languages included in the list below by his early twenties:

Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Azeri, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Cambodian, Cantonese, Czech, Cypriot, Danish, Dutch, Dzongkha, English, Fijian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Kyrgyz, Lao, Malagasy, Malay, Maltese, Mandarin, Mongolian, Nepali, Norwegian, Papiamento, Pashto, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Singapore Colloquial English, Sinhalese, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tajik, Thai, Tibetan, Turkish, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese and Wu Chinese.

Alexander Arguelles – Dr. Arguelles was raised as a fairly typical monolingual American. It wasn’t until college that he learned to love languages and even so it wasn’t until he was in his thirties that he decided to become a true polyglot. He has been a researcher and a professor on a number of continents and is competent in about three dozen languages, both living and dead. He currently dedicates his time to diverse linguistic activities such as translating, consulting and encouraging polyglottery throughout the world. As a part of this final effort he moderates an online forum about learning languages. His languages are listed below.

German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Afrikaans, Icelandic, Frisian, Old Norse, Middle English, Middle High German, Old English, Old High German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, Romanian, Latin, Old French, Russian, Polish, Serbocroatian, Czech, Bulgarian, Esperanto, Irish, Persian, Greek, Irish, Arabic, Hindi-Urdu and Korean.

Stuart Jay Raj – Mr. Raj’s yearly activities include being a business consultant, lecturer, language teacher, interpreter, translator and composer. Allowing himself to be influenced by his polyglot grandfather, Mr. Raj grew up in Sydney, Australia and was quite proficient in a rather wide array of languages by the time he started university. Having lived and worked in Thailand for close to a decade, Mr. Raj uses his languages to facilitate communication and cooperation between many different cultures from all over the world. His languages are listed below.

English, Indonesian, Malay, Thai, Lao, Mandarin, Spanish, Cantonese, Danish, Australian Sign Language, Norwegian, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Swedish, Urdu, Sanskrit, Korean, Arabic, Burmese, Karen, Tagalog, Tibetan, Vietnamese.

Wendy Vo – She is the hope of the polyglot future. The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, eight-year-old Wendy lives in America and has many different tutors that teach her language and music, among other subjects no doubt. In addition to playing and composing music on the piano, Wendy speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, French, Arabic, Russian and Vietnamese. To see her speaking these languages and playing the piano, see this previous post.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso – An accomplished sociologist and economist, university lecturer and former president of Brazil, Pres. Cardoso speaks fluent Portuguese, English, Spanish and French.

Sam Sullivan – Mr. Sullivan is the inventor of a number of items for the handicap, the founder of several non-profit organizations and the current mayor of Vancouver, where the 2010 Winter Olympics will be held. He also speaks English, French, Cantonese and Punjabi.

Celebrity Polyglots

Aishvarya Rai – English, Tulu, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Hindi

Andrew Divoff: English, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Romanian, Catalan, Portuguese and Russian

Christopher Lee – French, Italian, Spanish and German and a basic knowledge of Russian, Swedish, and Greek

Dolph Lundgren – Swedish, English, German and some Japanese and Spanish

Eddie Izzard – English, French and German

Famke Janssen – Dutch, German, French and English

Jackie Chan – English, Mandarin and Cantonese

Jennifer Connelly – English, French and Italian

Joaquim de Almeida – Portuguese, English, Spanish, French and German

Lucy Liu – English, Mandarin, Italian, Spanish and some Japanese

Maria de Madeiros – French, English, Portuguese and Italian

Masayori “Masi” Oka – Japanese, English, German and Spanish

Milla Jovovich – Russian, French, English and Serbian

Mira Sorvino – English, Mandarin and French

Natalie Portman – English and Hebrew and some German, French, Japanese and Spanish

Penélope Cruz – Spanish, English, French and Italian

Sarah Chalke – French, German and English

Sigourney Weaver – English, French and German

Takeshi Kaneshiro – English, Taiwanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese

Viggo Mortensen – Spanish, English and Danish

William Shatner – English, French, ASL and Esperanto

Honorable Mention

These two men are only bilingual but since neither was raised in a bilingual family and both are quite famous for accomplishments that are unrelated to their foreign language skills it seems amiss to overlook them completely.

Kevin Rudd – English and Mandarin

Tommy Lee Jones – English and Spanish