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?


10 Responses

  1. Well I’m definitely not a lectoglot; I straddle between dispersoglot and perfectoglot, only I don’t show any of the negative ‘con’ characteristics (haha).

    Anyway, I’m not sure if I’m a polyglot to your blog’s standards, as my language count is too low. I’ve studied a bunch of languages, but I’m only above the intermediate level in four of them. I’ve flirted with fluency in all four of those languages at various times in my career, but right now I consider myself to be “fluent” in… well, less than four. What the heckis fluent, anyway…

  2. “Now, drop him in France for a month and just see how long it takes for him to become fluent.”

    Actually, this depends a lot on the person, Some people are so worried about choosing the right word from their huge lexicon that they never develop good fluency however long they are there

  3. Lectoglots are rather unusual to find in my country, because all of them live and work in an academic environment and sadly my country has bad indicators in education.

    Although, I have my own lectoglot in my house: My wife is philologue and professional in classical humanities and made some translation from ancient latin and greek while she was student. She can discuss why any translation of Euripides’ tragedies is better than other one helped only for her memory and perhaps and ancient greek dictionary, and I love that.

    I must to confes that i would like to be a lectoglot, and perhaps i have de right disposition and motivation, (try to imagine us in a romantic dinner: Wine, candles, and a poem in coptic language), but I consider that I’m more than 60% dispersoglot.

    To summarize: Nowadays I’m 75% dispersoglot, 20% perfectoglot and 5% lectoglot. I would like to be: 33% of each one.

  4. Now that I’ve read all of these posts I guess I would say that I aim to have the breadth a dispersoglot, gaining fluency (what I have determined fluency to be anyways) in as many as I can, but I would like to be a “perfectoglot” in only a handful of languages. After all, some languages are just more to my personality than others. It’s those that are that I wish to find deep fluency in.

    For the rest, either until I learn them sufficiently or because they are dead, I swing between disperso- and lectoglot. Several languages I want to learn are ancient: Old English, Koine Greek, Biblical Aramaic and Hebrew, Middle Egyptian, and so forth. However, even with these ancient languages I still have a desire to be able to use them actively with as close to accurate verbal skills as possible. Not because it is necessarily practical to be able to converse in the language of Beowulf, but because it would be fun to.

  5. I have the same desire, Tristán, but how can we talk about modern concepts without this words in the ancient language?

    How can you say in Biblical Aramaic or Middle egyptian: “I tried to comment your post in that blog, but I have a low width band intertet conection and the entire site didn’t charge”?

  6. El Forestaro,

    That’s a good point. I think modern concepts like that would simply have to either be circum-described or more likely just ignored altogether.

    But really, it’s possible to talk about very human things without specifically naming modern society things like movies, blogs, email, etc.

  7. Your categorization is relevant and interesting,
    still, I m not sure I can put myself is one of your 3 boxes.

    I m a french native and I ended up knowing enough English
    to enjoy the Internet
    (the great stuff was “English-only” some years ago).
    Was I a Lectoglot ? Not really, I did a lot
    of public radio listening as well as reading
    newspapers on line. I was kind of a « mediaglot »…
    So, strangely enough, I could
    understand an English native on the street when going
    abroad, but I couldn’t speak much better than a complete
    beginner. How frustrating… The same was going on
    for my writing skills. So at one point I had to take action,
    and I’ve been working on my speaking and writing since then.

    Still, that ill state of “mediaglot” is a constant temptation on me…
    I see myself treating Spanish the same way, reading a lot
    in that language and enjoying that, but doing really bad
    when engaging with people…
    Why is that so ?
    Do I need to feel strong when « passive »
    (listening/ reading) before feeling like getting « active » (speaking / writing) ?
    That would make me a wannabe Perfectoglot.

    Or am I a mediaglot / lectoglot, feeling good about himself
    when browsing the internet, listening on radios all over the world
    because unchallenged by real life people ?
    (it s funny how you won’t meet anyone talking like people on a NPR show…)

  8. Your categories are quite insightful and I’ve observed the characteristic traits you describe in a lot of people who like (to learn) languages, though I haven’t consciously made this kind of distinction.
    As for my own aspirations, I guess I’m a bit of a disperso-lectoglot (or /-mediaglot, I like Nicolas’ term) with regards to most languages I have learned or those I study right now. I don’t care that much for dead languages, though I took a latin course at High School and attended Ancient Hebrew classes – for me, being able to read Beowolf is not a skill I’ll ever need. I can easily read a Spanish or French book with almost 100% comprehension, and I’ve familiarized myself with technical expressions, but I couldn’t even describe my living room using one of these languages, as I simply haven’t had a single conversation with a native speaker my whole life. Chinese and Japanese are different, again, reading comes very easily, but this time, I’m focusing more on active skills and despite getting input most of the time, proper conversations are perfectly possible. There are some more languages I will take on eventually, and, with the exception of Russian and Arabic, I’d be fine with having a good listening and reading comprehension of them.
    Of course, one might argue that it all boils down to what you might need your languages skills for (learning for your own enjoyment may result in a completely different attitude since there’s no definite goal like being able to discuss business or science with your peers), but I don’t NEED (neither in my professional life nor for my leisure activities) any of the languages mentioned above apart from English (not my mother tongue) and Spanish. Yet, I wouldn’t consider them as more important to me than, say, Japanese.

    @nicolas What exactly were you referring to when you mentioned the way people talk on an NPR show?

  9. I’m an internet lectoglot, sight-reading Teutonic and Romance languages. It’s much easier for me to read the Romance ones. I go to Wikipedia for the lesser languages.
    I’ve learned some Slavic ones. I find that all others are impossible for me!
    Are there others like me who use the internet,? Are there others who cannot venture beyond certain languages?
    I can stumble in French, German and Spanish as I do that anyway sometimes in English.
    And I listen to Spanish television.

  10. […] of posts over at The Linguist Blogger where Ryan divides polyglots into three different categories Lectoglots, Dispersoglots and Perfectoglots.His descriptions of the different types of polyglots are quite […]

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