An Accidental Polyglot

pol·y·glot (/ˈpälēˌɡlät/)

Noun: a person who knows and is able to use several languages. Ex: “Slovenians, being surrounded by many countries, are mostly polyglots”

ac·ci·dent (/ˈaksədənt/)

Noun: a whoopsie-daisy, oops

As Groucho Marx said, “I was born at a very early age.” But maybe that’s going back too far.

I am a polyglot. At the time of writing this article, I speak about ten languages ranging from conversational to fluent and everywhere in between. I’ve noticed that quite often when people find this out for the first time they assume that I have always been “good at language”. That I was born with some special gift handed down from heaven that they don’t have and therefore they could never achieve what I’ve done. But nothing could be further from the truth.

My Origin Story

I grew up in Buckley, Washington in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Buckley is an old logging town that sits in the shadow of beautiful Mt. Rainier and is about one hour southeast of Seattle. When I was growing up there, the population was around 4,000 and the most exposure I ever got to a foreign language was when we would very occasionally go to the next town over to a Mexican restaurant. I would read their menu and discover all sorts of exotic words such as TACO, and CHIMICHANGA! A truly thrilling experience for this small-town boy.

When I was about 11, my mother in a valiant attempt to expand my horizons, enrolled me in a Spanish course at a public library (again, in the next town over). The teacher was a very sweet Hispanic woman who really seemed to love children. I was too shy to ask where she was from and too naïve to understand that she was probably from another country.

While I didn’t fail the class, I didn’t do particularly well either. I learned that another way to say “apple” is “manzana”, and another way to count to ten is “uno, dos, tres, etc.” and that another way to say “speak” is “hablar”, but that you can’t just say “yo hablar, tu hablar”, you need to conjuga- um… conjugin-, er… conjufica-, eh… you need to CHANGE the word! But I never really understood that somewhere else in the world (and even somewhere else in my own country!) there were families, communities of people saying things this way; joking with these words, singing with them, reading them, hearing them on TV, loving, hating, joking, expressing their innermost feelings with these words. But for me, Spanish was “¡Hola! Manzana. Uno, dos, tres. Hablo, hablas, habla.”

Fastforward to my teenage years, Blockbuster Video, and Batman. Thanks to Blockbuster Video (a now extinct video rental store) and my older brother’s comic books, I started to learn that there was a big huge world beyond the boundaries of Pierce County. And people in this world spoke in strange, mysterious tongues. In movies and comic books where the hero travels to a foreign country to bring a bad guy to justice, I would often see the hero speak the local language flawlessly, thus establishing that he is an amazing detective/genius. Batman is said to speak around 40 languages, including Kryptonian!

All of these factors combined gave me the impression that as a mere mortal with average grades in school, learning a language was never going to be possible for me. After all, I’m not the Dark Knight! I’ve never met Superman!

Radioactive Matryoshka Bite

Then something happened when I was 18. I was going to a technical college in Tacoma, which meant that for the first time in my life I was around people who spoke other languages and occasionally I was mistaken for a Russian-speaker. On a whim, I looked up Russian phrase recordings online just to see how the language sounded. Wow, that sounds weird! Then I started researching Russian history and culture. Then I saw the alphabet. Whoa! That looks so cool! I was falling in love with everything Russia.

I was 18, so I was starting to want some adventure; a life beyond Buckley. And I wanted to understand this crazy language. But I “knew” I wasn’t smart enough to learn a language. But my curiosity got the best of me. So I went to Borders (a now extinct book store) and bought Teach Yourself Russian. I had no idea which book I should buy, but this one had a cool picture of a scuba diver on the cover. I took it home and started reading it, but I didn’t talk to any of my family or friends about it at first, because I fully expected to fail. Then something incredible happened.

I didn’t fail. The book started with the alphabet. My progress was slow, but soon I was reading all the pictures of street signs in the opening chapter of the book. СТОП (stop), РЕСТОРАН (restoran), ФИЛЬМ (film), ВОДКА (vodka). Pretty soon I realized, I could read Russian! And if I could learn to read Russian, maybe I could learn to speak it.

I found a local study group that was held entirely in Russian. There was a mix of native speakers and learners. At first I understood nothing. I would prepare answers to the printed study questions in Russian. My pronunciation was terrible. Sometimes people didn’t understand me. Sometimes they very politely bit their lips to hold back from laughing uproariously. But I didn’t care. I was learning! I was going to be like Batman! And each week I understood at least one thing more than I had understood the week before.

In the years since then I’ve come to learn much better methods and resources for learning a language. But I can tell you why I didn’t fail, even though I was using less effective methods back then. I loved Russian. And because I loved Russian, I kept putting one foot in front of the other, and I kept seeking out Russian-speakers to hang out with.

Why I Started This Blog

I started this blog to help demystify language learning. I don’t call myself an accidental polyglot because learning languages was easy. It was and is a mountain of hard work. I call myself an accidental polyglot because as far as I knew, I was not supposed to learn languages. I was supposed to be a monolingual American. It was inevitable; it was my destiny.

But by a mixture of chance and curiosity, I stumbled into this world of language-learning and came to see that any person CAN learn any language from anywhere in the world, and they do. You just need to find the right motives to drive you and the right attitude to keep you going. I want to use this blog to help people do that. And I want to add to the fantastic work being done to set the record straight about language acquisition by people in the polyglot community such as John Fotheringham, Benny Lewis, Steve Kaufmann, Gabriel Wyner, Chris Broholm, and many others.

But most of all I hope this blog will help people feel positive about their own language journey. I see too much negativity among my friends and students when it comes to their progress in whatever language they’re learning. You’re not too dumb. You’re not too old. Your memory is not too bad. If you have an emotional connection to the people who speak the language and if you’re putting in the work to use it every day, you are succeeding, and you should feel good about it. In future posts, I’ll share more about why that’s the case.

Language is about people. I hope the ones who read this blog enjoy it.

4 thoughts on “An Accidental Polyglot

  1. Your story has given me courage! I turned 70 this year and ready to learn a new language! When I saw you drinking from your “Egypt ” cup at Pioneer School I knew you were an interesting fella!

    Like

  2. Hey Micah! Thank you so much for telling your experience, it’s very encouraging!
    I’ll definitely give learning a language a try 🙂

    Like

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