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.