Different Kinds of Polyglots: Lectoglots

An international science convention in Tokyo is over for the day. A South African Theoretical Physicist sits at his hotel bar stirring his drink and trying to strike up a conversation with the lovely lady on his left. He struggles to tell her about himself, where he’s from, etc. in Japanese and English but gives up after a few minutes. She leaves; he faces forward, dejected, and orders another drink. Smiling, a colleague on his right says to him, You know, I think I know what went wrong there.

Oh yeah, what?

I think she got confused when you said you were from Africa.

Well, I am. Born and raised.

Yes, but you are white. You cannot be truly African unless you are black like me. Am I not right? He asks a colleague sitting to his right who is also presumably from Africa.

Well, I don’t know. He says to him, winking. You speak French and Arabic, the languages of invaders. You can’t even speak an African language like me. Your family moved to France when you were fifteen and now you live in Switzerland. Are you really an African either?

Just as it seems a little silly for three grown men who were born and raised in Africa to argue over what an African is, it is silly for Polyglots to try to exclude one another by narrowing the definition of a word that has a broad definition. Polyglots come in different in many different varieties but can be generally grouped into three main categories: Dispersoglots, Perfectoglots and Lectoglots.

Lectoglots: Polyglot Bookworms

These Polyglots are very often academics and it is not unusual for quite a few of their languages to be dead. There are also a good number of Lectoglots who work in different government jobs reading newspapers and other texts in foreign languages and then making summaries in their native tongues for their superiors to read. Lectoglots are often translators but prefer to avoid reading translations whenever possible. Many think that anything worth reading is worth reading in the original language.

Cons to being a Lectoglot: Lectoglots have a tendency to be horrible at conversing in their languages. They focus so much on good input skills (i.e. reading and listening) that their output skills (i.e. speaking and writing) are woefully underdeveloped. They can read the Koran in Classical Arabic and the New Testament in Classical Greek but they generally only discuss what they read in their native tongue.

There are those that say that Lectoglots have no business calling themselves Polyglots because of their over emphasis on the poly (many) but lack of emphasis on the glot (tongue). I once saw a professor who was the son of Greek immigrants and was a specialist in Ancient Greek texts not dare to respond in Greek to a student who addressed him in that language. Again, this calls into question how well the Lectoglot knows the language.

Pros to being a Lectoglot: Lectoglots are not usually social butterflies anyway and don’t feel that they are missing out because they can’t speak fluent Phoenician. The reason a certain Lectoglot may not be fluent French, even though he loves reading Victor Hugo and Proust, is that he rarely goes to Francophone countries. Now, drop him in France for a month and just see how long it takes for him to become fluent. He’ll already have a HUGE vocabulary and know how the language works.

Not focusing on speaking and writing skills allow Lectoglots to learn languages quickly. These Polyglots are transported through time and space in ways that few people are or can be. Their connection with Rome, Egypt, India, China, etc. through these peoples’ texts is one of the reasons we have become aware of the Indo-European language and other such relevant and important aspects of the human experience.

Examples of Lectoglots: Dr. Alexander Arguelles, Sir William Jones.

It’s been fun writing about these three types of Polyglots. Between people who have left comments and people who I’ve spoken with, it seems that we’re having a hard time telling whether or not we are one, the other, or all three. I’m going to try and squeeze in another post about this before Thanksgiving that should clear a few things up. In the meantime, what do you think about the Lectoglots? Are you a Lectoglot or an aspiring Lectoglot?

Different Kinds of Polyglots: Perfectoglots

Cloggers, ballroom dancers and break dancers put on very different shows. At a professional level, you are bound to be very entertained even if clogging isn’t necessarily your cup of tea. Break dancing fans also have to admit that there are some real posers out there who are not very good. Wouldn’t it feel just plain rude if you saw a clogger walk out of a professional ball room performance saying, “Well, it was a nice show but I just don’t understand how they can call themselves dancers.”

That is exactly the kind of thing I’ve heard many Polyglots and aspiring Polyglots say. What many of us fail to realize is that we often have different goals when we start learning languages. A ball room dancer is trying to do something different than what a break dancer is doing but they are both dancers. From what I can tell, there are three main types of Polyglots: Dispersoglots, Perfectoglots and Lectoglots.

Perfectoglots: Polyglottery’s Committed Polygamists

Many Perfectoglots are raised speaking two or three languages. It is not unusual for them to have lived in several countries or for them to have spouses and friends that speak several languages. Their jobs also usually include several languages. Being a Polyglot is a way of life for them. Perfectoglots generally know between four and six languages at a very high level. To them, any language worth learning is worth learning well. They are often so good that it is difficult to tell what the Perfectoglots’ native languages are or where they are from.

Cons to being a Perfectoglot: Perfectoglots run the risk of being bland and playing it safe. For many, their self-esteem is based on how well they can learn a language so they may avoid languages that are unrelated to those they already know. They are often only interested in Far Eastern, Indic, European, etc. languages but not usually a mix of them. Consequently, they wind up missing out on what many other cultures have to offer.

It’s not unusual for Perfectoglots to appear a little snobby. They expect a lot from themselves and that often transfers to their expectations of other self-proclaimed Polyglots. If you want to gain a Perfectoglot’s respect it’s best to stick to your strengths.

Pros to being a Perfectoglot: Perfectoglots really master their languages; they don’t let their languages master them. They leave few, if any, communication barriers between them and others who speak their languages. In fact, they almost always know more about the languages they speak than native speakers. If they don’t get showered with praise for how well they know a certain language it’s because people believe that it is their native language and it would be silly to praise someone for how well they speak their native tongue.

These formidable skills give them richly profound professional and cultural experiences. They feel that a cultural knowledge, in addition to a linguistic knowledge, is necessary to really understand a language. They can usually understand and tell jokes, make literary and pop-culture references and use special sayings and refrains very well. There are those who feel that Perfectoglots are the only real Polyglots because they think that the only worthwhile language learning goal is native like mastery.

Examples of Perfectoglots: Joaquim de Alameida, the UN interpreters.

Are you a Perfectoglot? Do you know one? Do you want to be one? Are you more of a Dispersoglot or are you reserving your judgement until you find out what a Lectoglot is? I’ll be back with another post about that in a few days.

Different Kinds of Polyglots: Dispersoglots

What is an athlete? What do you have to do to be athletic? Are the only “true” athletes the Olympic decathlon competitors or can you be considered an athlete if you only run the 100 meter dash. How about football players? What about volleyball players? Do you have to be professional in order to be an athlete? That would exclude the best high school and university athletes. Do you even have to necessarily compete in a sport in order to be athletic?

I hope those questions feel like hair splitting to you because they certainly do to me. Different types of athletes have different types of goals but they are all athletes. Just like the word “athlete” the word “polyglot” is a broad term that includes many different types of language enthusiasts and professionals. Just like the different objectives are what make athletes different, a Polyglot’s main goals are what distinguish him/her from other Polyglots. As far as I can tell, these different types of polyglots fall into three major groups: the Dispersoglots, the Perfectoglots and the Lectoglots.

Dispersoglots: The Don Juans and Casanovas of Polyglottery

Dispersoglots usually love the Teach Yourself language series and every other decent audio/text language course out there. They are usually fluent in the basics of at least seven languages but it is not at all uncommon for them to tell you that they know as many as thirty languages. They are usually appalled at the idea of “only” studying ten languages and are often quite confident in their abilities to communicate with people from all over the world, which they often do with great confidence and pleasure.

Cons to being a Dispersoglot: Dispersoglots generally never master more than one or two of the languages they study. They typically learn how the writing system works, the main grammar points and how to use 300 to 1,000 words. After that they move on to flirt with and conquest a new language, quickly forgetting much of what they learned.

When most people hear the words “fluent” and “know” when applied to a language they suppose that the Dispersoglot has a near native command of his/her languages and are then heartily disappointed when he/she cannot say things like, “The Wall of China is the only man-made building that can be seen from space.” with near flawless pronunciation. Experiences like these often discredit not only the Dispersoglots but all other Polyglots as well.

Pros to being a Dispersoglot: Nobody knows more about how humans use language than the Dispersoglots. To some, the Dispersoglots are the only “true” polyglots because they don’t just learn languages, they learn entire language families. Their lives are enriched in ways that few people understand by being able to communicate with Moroccans, Romanians, Fijian Indians, Mongolians, etc.

The Dispersoglots don’t wait for ideal circumstances to come along for them to learn a language. They climb the mountain simply because it is there. If all they have is a dictionary from the nineteenth century and a janitor who works at their supermarket and speaks the language, these passionate language enthusiasts become fascinated and determined.

Examples of Dispersoglots: Dr. Carlos Freire, Ziad Fazah.

This is all I have for now. I’ll come back later and talk about the Perfectoglots and Lectoglots. In the meantime, what are your thoughts about Dispersoglots? Have you ever met any Dispersoglots? Do you think that you might be a Dispersoglot?