Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

My competition?


The NYT ran a story over the weekend about a polyglot 16-year old kid who lists upwards of 20 languages in his repertoire. I’m not sure how I feel about the article or the reporting. For one thing, the term “polyglot” isn’t really precise. “Knowing or using several languages” according to my dictionary. What’s “knowing”? Define “using.” How many is “several”? I “know” and have “used” Italian on many occasions, but I’d never say that I actually speak it. Should I add it to my CV anyway?

Later in the article, a Spanish professor at a Texas university I’d never heard of is quoted saying

I can speak freely in six. I can read freely in 12. And I have some reading knowledge of Chinese, Arabic and Indonesian.

I’ve got the same problem here. What does ” speak freely” mean? What’s “reading freely”? Is this guy able to effectively communicate with native speakers on their level? Does he understand what he’s reading? I can read the hell out of lots of languages, and people might even be able to understand what I’m reading, but if I can’t understand, that language doesn’t count for me.

Michael Erard, the author of Babel No More, an interesting-sounding book about language learning, could offer some insight into my concerns. Sadly, he is namechecked in the story but the reporter didn’t consult him to give any real context so I don’t know how to interpret any of what’s written.

What is a reader to make of all of this? The teen admits that he’s really most interested in getting the structure and the pronunciation down for each language and then moving on. If he doesn’t keep up with his studies, he’s going to lose the skills he developed, so… what good is the effort?

I only wish an expert had actually been consulted about the benefits and long-term prospects to this kind of superficial language study. If nothing else, I need to know if I should be worried about kids like this breathing down my neck and taking jobs away from me, or if I should just applaud their initiative while I go off and speak “freely” with people in only “a few” languages.

Author: le cul en rows

I'm an American Spaniard, living in France. I like to tell stories.

4 thoughts on “My competition?

  1. Hi! I think the problem is that sometimes there is more interest in selling a story than in informing the reader with profound information…

    • Hey there [your]lunchanddinner! I get the selling angle of it, but I just don’t think it’s good journalism to write, edit and publish a story that has no basic value, information-wise. My feeling is that a reader shouldn’t be left with more questions at the end of an article than they started with. What was the point of the story? A straight profile of the kid would have been interesting enough on its own, but the whole thing read kinda like it had been written from the reporter’s bed, without any legwork. Did you find the story illuminating? Am I just way too critical?

      • I don´t think is good journalism either. That is why I sometimes believe that newspapers or even TV news programs are more interested in making money than actually giving true, valuable information to the people. In Mexico, for example, there are serious journalists who question the quality of TV and their actual purpose. Some say it’s just about making money, while others believe is to perpetuate the lack of cultured suffered by many.
        But, going back to the hyperpolyglot article. For one, mastering a language is not just being able to construct a speech, saying it and moving on to the next one. I think that to actually master a language you must have a vast vocabulary and the ability to use it colloquially and professionally. So, what the articles states doesn’t mean much to me.
        Detailed information about the boy might have helped. How he manages to keep all languages fresh and working in his head would have been nice to know… I feel it just looks like cheap advertising of his youtube videos.

      • I’m definitely with you on this. To me, there are too many stories reported in legitimate news outlets (as opposed to the blogosphere which is Cole Porter territory) that fall under the rubric of “I found this cool thing and now I’m going to write about it!” Just because it’s new to the reporter, doesn’t make it news. It is unfortunate that so-called “old media” is suffering so much financially these days, but I just don’t think that’s an excuse to dumb down the product. Sigh.

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