This article is a work in progress.
There's something captivating about seeing someone switch with ease from one language to the other, especially because the more language they add, the more unlikely and hence impressive the whole thing gets. Let's talk about what a polyglot is, mention a few truly accomplished folks, and maybe even get a bit philosophical about it...
But, wait, what's a polygot?
Wiktionary defines a polyglot as:
One who has mastered, notably speaks, several languages.
How could someone claim mastery of a language without speaking it? That is absurd, but not unheard of.
Wiktionary, again, defines a hyperpolyglot as:
One who masters or becomes fluent in many different languages (six or more).
What fluency really means is of course a question in its own right. I'll argue that mastery and fluency are far from being the same thing, for I can talk fluently in some languages I don't master – the topic at hand being what makes a huge difference.
The trope of the polyglot video
Recording oneself in a bunch of languages has now become common place. It provides entertainment and, in the best cases, inspiration. As a viewer, it lets you sit in the critique's seat, to see how that aspiring polyglot is doing on whatever language we happen to know or speak ourselves.
Polyglots... and whatnots...
"Your mileage may vary"... While some videos are impressive, interesting and a whole bunch of other positive qualities... Some don't work out so well. Certainly, being able to say "Hi! How are you? My name is Bob." and "Where is the bathroom?" in twenty languages is less newsworthy than, say, being able to read the classics in each major world language. But another reason for their varying degrees of success (as translated in number of views on YouTube) is that it's not enough to speak many languages: one also needs to have something interesting to say.
In my experience, the more accomplished the person, the more humble they are. And they also seem to have the most interesting stories.
There's no doubt a line needs to be drawn between a polyglot (who masters some languages) and a multilingual person (very versed in a couple, or who can get a limited number of things done in several.) Being able to converse unhindered in a language is definitely an accomplishment... But where it gets amazing (especially considering it takes about 10,000 hours to learn one's native language) is when someone has proven to be able to achieve this feat again and again. It makes us reassess just what we've accomplished in life and try to increase our standards.
Depressing YouTube videos
But I'll argue that polyglot videos can also trigger a bit of hopelessness, if not jealousy. “What? They speak all those languages?! But I can barely speak my native language correctly | learn a second one | master the French subjunctive [or whatever you feel applies to your situation]”.
The thing to remember then may be that not everyone started off the language game at the same spot. Growing up multilingual, for example, is a clear headstart. This is not meant to take away any of the accomplishment (learning a language is always an effort, kids have the benefit of age and learning through play, but they still have to put in the hours.) It's just useful to be clear about our situation.
Let's jump into the heart of the matter, with a few polyglot videos and a short biography of each person.
To be continued.