A paean to polyglots

May 11, 2021 by Alison Tunley

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A paean to polyglots

As a dabbler in just two languages (German and English) I have always admired those who master many and are genuine polyglots. Despite my best efforts at school and university my French, Spanish and Welsh skills never got much beyond very basic comprehension, so I have an appreciation for what it takes to become genuinely multilingual.

This blog has previously discussed differing levels of fluency and reflected on what it means to have truly ‘mastered’ a language, so people’s assessment of their own linguistic skills and how many languages they ‘speak’ will vary widely. From my experience in the predominantly monolingual UK, I have a pet theory that the less exposed to foreign languages you are, the more likely you are to overstate your skills in other languages. It is not hard to find a Brit with GCSE Spanish claiming to “speak Spanish” when they can do little more than order a beer. By contrast, on a family trip to Norway many years back, I fondly recall the mechanic at the garage where we took our ailing camper van apologising profusely for his “bad English”, before explaining in intricate and fluent detail the specific mechanical failings that were afflicting the vehicle. (He also had an excellent cross-cultural understanding of the Norwegian and UK economies. When asked what it would cost to fix the van, he paused slightly and said “you can’t afford it”).

Figures on how many languages people speak are inevitably subject to the same difficulty in pinning down what is meant by fluency. It is widely stated that roughly half the world’s population is bilingual, 13% trilingual, with 3 % speaking more than four languages, and are thus bona fide polyglots (although identifying the source of this oft-repeated fact is nigh on impossible).

The Eurobarometer surveys give us a bit more detail on multilingualism within Europe, with respondents being asked what languages they spoke well enough to hold a conversation. Just over half claimed to speak two languages, 25 % claimed 3 languages and 10 % claimed to be at least quadrilingual. Among the different European countries, Luxembourg tops the polyglot chart with 84 % of the population being bilingual and 61 % trilingual. The Republic of Ireland and the UK languish in the bottom 5 countries, propped up by Portugal, Italy and finally Hungary, where just 13% of the population claimed to be bilingual, and 4 % trilingual.

Finally, for an entertaining and modest account of multilingual prowess, click on the video link in the sources for film director Werner Herzog’s description of his linguistic skills. He describes how he speaks German, Spanish and English, then casually adds Modern Greek – but explains that is only because he learned Ancient Greek and Latin at school. He goes on to confess that he also speaks a bit of Italian and can understand some French but refuses to speak it. He suggests that you would need to point a gun at his head to get him to speak French and then, in an anecdote that surely only Werner Herzog could wheel out, he explains that this literally happened to him when he was kidnapped in Africa and held at gunpoint by French-speaking soldiers. Having reluctantly resorted to French to communicate with his armed captors, he makes the sanguine remark: “I regret it, I shouldn’t have done it”!




Herzog account of his multilingualism

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