Language Incest

About this time last month I wrote a short post about Jorge Fernandez Gates, a young Peruvian who has studied or mastered eleven languages. Since then I’ve heard him criticized for something that I don’t think is entirely worthy of reproach: most of his languages are from the same language family as his own native language. His language list includes Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Portuguese, Romanian, French, Italian, German, Swedish, English, Dutch and Mandarin. The first six are Romance languages and are closely related. The next three are Germanic and not so closely related; then there’s Mandarin. This brings up some interesting questions: Is it easy or unimpressive for someone to learn several languages that are all from the same language family? Are you a true polyglot if you speak four or more languages that are all related or are you simply guilty of language incest?

Learning Related Languages

Learning Spanish and Portuguese, when neither is your native language, is a lot like learning to play the piano and the organ. Once you can play one of them well learning to play basic tunes on the other is very easy, however, learning to play both of them at an advanced level is actually more difficult than you would think. A pianist who can play Rachmaninov (very difficult piano music) usually cannot play an organ piece by Vierne (very difficult organ music) even after a month or two of study.

Learning related languages is similar. Going from Spanish’s gracias to Italian’s grazie is not too difficult but even simple phrases like Quiero comer en el auto and Voglio mangiare nella macchina (I want to eat in the car) sound and look very different. Differences like these make mastering both languages anything but easy. Interestingly enough, the more informally similar languages are expressed the more they usually diverge. An educated Spanish speaker and an educated Portuguese speaker can have a fairly good conversation if each speaks slowly and is patient with the other. It’s in those types of situations where Spanish and Portuguese seem like diverse dialects of the same language. Conversely, I think that it would be the funniest thing in the world to watch two sixteen-year-old street punks, one from Portugal and the other from Colombia, try to communicate at even a very basic level. It is in those types of situations where Spanish and Portuguese are clearly two different languages.

Language Synergy

Stuart Jay Raj moved from Australia to Thailand without learning the language beforehand. He has been there for about a decade now and knows Thai very well. When asked how long it took him to learn the language he responded that it didn’t take long at all; he taught himself to read in an afternoon. Since this doesn’t sound very plausible Stuart then proceeded to explain the similarities between Thai and other languages that he had studied like Cantonese, Mandarin, Ancient Chinese and Sanskrit. Using these similarities, he was able to learn the language quickly.

Knowing several different related languages has a synergistic effect that allows you to understand each language much better than you would have had you only learned one of them. If you learn one then learning the second is easier but learning the third becomes even easier and so on and so forth. Your linguistic confidence will almost certainly be boosted and that’s a good thing. Some people need to learn three languages that are closely related before they have the confidence necessary to master a totally different and exotic one.

Time to Diversify

It is stupid to say that learning many related languages is easy or unimpressive. However, it is undeniably true that learning three unrelated languages is harder and more impressive than learning six related ones. I don’t think it is right for us to really consider ourselves true polyglots unless we have a fairly good knowledge of a language that has very little to do with our own. The ability to function in a language that comes from a culture so radically different from one’s own cultural and linguistic background is a mind opening experience that learning Belorussian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Russian, etc. cannot offer.


8 Responses

  1. I would say that someone is a polyglot when they have acquired native fluency in more than two languages (that’s just my opinion, but I like to stress the idea of having native fluency in more than two languages). I definitely have to agree with the fact that learning 3 unrelated languages, for many people, is more impressive than learning 3 (or more) related languages.

    While I am only in the beginning stages of learning Portuguese, I have already noticed the big differences between Portuguese and Spanish — mainly the pronunciation and intonation. Yes, I can understand most of the Portuguese that I read, and on a lesser level the Portuguese that I hear, but the different sounds are taking me a little longer than I expected to master. Anyway, I’m happy with my Spanish, Portuguese, and English combination — I applaud all those who have learned even more!!

    • Jeff, I have just read your post from 2 years ago. I speak English and Spanish and have just started to learn Portuguese too. How long did it take you to get to a decent level of Portuguese having already learnt Spanish?

  2. I think I’m basically in agreement with Jeff here. Without looking into the etymology or dictionary definition of the word “polyglot”, I would say that it’s a person with fluency in three or more languages, regardless of what the languages are. And I’d stress fluency as well.

    And naturally, if someone were fluent in English, Arabic, and Mandarin (or something like that), I would find it more impressive than English, Spanish, and Portuguese (which is what I’m slowly working on). The “advanced” polyglottery is as amazing to me as “regular” polyglottery is to monolinguals, I think.

  3. Jeff and Travis: Okay guys, you got me. It’s true that a polyglot, in the most literal sense, is someone knows lots of languages: polus = many + glotta = tongue or language. The points I wanted to stress in this post were these:

    1. Knowing many related languages is noteworthy and far from easy, especially when it comes to an advanced knowledge of different related languages.
    2. Knowing at least one totally unrelated language to one’s own should be the endeavor any serious language student. That doesn’t mean that I think you two should stop learning Portuguese. I just think that after you’ve got Portuguese more or less down that it would be a good thing to look into Arabic, Korean, Hebrew, Mandarin, Punjabi etc.

  4. The validity of learning related languages, when compared to learning unrelated languages, has been a long-standing issue for me, one I’ve never been able to take a definite stance on.

    I think you are on to a very good point there about the radical experience that learning unrelated languages offers. The cross-cultural aspect of it, as you said, sure is a good reason to take on such endeavor.

    I had Spanish next on my ageda, not less for professional reasons, but after reading this post I’m beginning to have second thoughts…

    This is my first time reading yout blog, Ryan, I’ll defiitely check back soon.

    Kudos for the excellent job!



  5. It seems to me that one would become a polyglot in order to have exposure to more cultures and the opportunities – be they personal or financial – that this affords. Learning languages requires a big investment in time and effort, so the languages you learn should have greater return than looking good on the list of languages you’ve learned.

    If you’re in comparative literature and focused on post-war Eastern Europe, you should maybe learn Polish, Czech, German and Hungarian. If you’re an anthropologist looking for common threads in civilizational development, you’d need to learn widely divergent languages to make sure you were studying unrelated cultures. If you’re learning for fun, pick languages that mean something to you personally.

    As for the question of who’s a polyglot, etymologically someone who speaks three or more languages is a polyglot as far as I can tell. What it takes for other people to be impressed is another matter, but if you’ve picked languages that enable you to live well and enjoy life I imagine most people will find that impressive whether the languages you’re learned are closely related or not.

  6. Of course it still “counts” even if the languages are related, and it’s still impressive. It’s not a competition, and trying to compare language skills is pretty problematic.

    Obviously languages vary tremendously in difficulty. You can reach an equivalent level of fluency in several European languages in the amount of time it would take to learn one more difficult, unrelated language like Chinese or Arabic. A good example of this is the Defense Language Institute’s language programs. They all aim to produce students that reach the same level of fluency. The Spanish basic course takes 25 weeks. The Korean basic course takes 63. Of course, related languages are much easier to learn

    Then there’s the issue of fluency. Saying that someone “knows” a language is a pretty worthless statement. The polyglot in question, Jorge Gates, speaks Mandarin, but I am pretty sure there are Chinese texts that he would not be able to fully understand. I “know” Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, but I could have easily spent all my time continuing to study Chinese. (Then maybe I could read classical Chinese without a dictionary, but I’d be lost in Tokyo or Seoul.) As far as I’m concerned, that would be just as impressive an accomplishment and would have taken just as much work. However, as far as anyone else is concerned I’d only know one language.

    In conclusion, if you’re learning languages to impress other people, learn some European languages to get your numbers up, throw in basic proficiency in one or two exotic, prestige languages so you’ll be well-rounded, then just wait for the accolades to come rolling in.

    Oh, and if you’re learning foreign languages to impress other people, you’re an idiot.

  7. While knowing one language can help with learning another, it can also get in the way. My wife and I are currently learning Dutch, but she finds that her knowledge of German hinders her as the German similar-sounding equivalent often comes out first when she speaks.
    As for polygots, a former colleague of mine who works for the world’s largest translation service knows a guy who is fluent in 33 languages…

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