By now you have no doubt heard about polyglots and their amazing language abilities. Many of these self-titled language masters claim to have a simple solution or “trick” to mastering any given language in an amazingly short amount of time. But is there truth to this claim, or is it well-rehearsed hyperbole? In order to assess the validity of these claims, let us look at what it means to be a master of something.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a “master” is someone who has “Acquire[d] complete knowledge or skill in (an accomplishment, technique, or art).”
Thus, a master is an expert, an individual who has truly mastered their chosen art. Yet, we can look beyond just definitions, since science allows us to quantify expertise! In 1993, Professor Anders Ericsson published a paper titled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Based off extensive research conducted over a number of years, Ericsson concluded that to achieve “expertise requires 10,000 hours” of practice. Psychologists in Berlin tested this Ericson’s hypothesis when they assessed the capabilities of two groups of Violin players. Group A consisted of students who had been playing Violin for the equivalent of 10,000 hours, whereas Group B consisted of students who had played no more than 4,000 hours. Students from Group A were found to be substantially further advanced musically than those of Group B, regardless of the way in which students had been schooled. Thus, their findings reaffirmed that the higher the number of hours devoted to a task (after a certain point)correlated with better ability, or in this case expertise.
Of course, this should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever tried to become an “expert” in anything. The old adage “practice makes perfect” is a phrase that many of us are familiar with. So, if all this is common knowledge based off quantifiable data, then how do polyglots explain their seemingly amazing abilities to learn language quickly? Well, they claim usually claim to have a “language-trick” that we laypeople simply don’t yet know of!
Because learning a language is hard work the idea that a simple trick can transform our language abilities overnight is very appealing. Yet this, like other “shortcut” pseudoscience, plays off our natural inclination to be lazy.
Think about this for a moment or two. What are we more likely to do when we want the definition to a word? Do we Google or use a dictionary? What do people do when they want to lose weight? Do they diet or do they engage in rigorous exercise? Given the choice between cooking and buying food, which option do you think you are likely to opt for? Picking the easy option is human nature. Of course we don’t always subscribe to this rule, but more often than not we do.
Simply put, there is no simple formula to learning language in a short space of time! I will repeat that: There is no simple formula! There are more effective methods to study language (immersion study), and we can also be more productive with our study time (turn off the TV and get off the Internet!). However, no simple X + Y equation will make you a language expert—it takes time, hard work and patience!
This is not to say that some students can’t learn languages more quickly than others, because this is definitely true. Some of us are naturally predisposed to language learning. Take Ioannis Ikonomou for example. He is the official translator for the United Nations and speaks 32 different languages. Yet, he is an exception rather than a norm when it comes to language learning. He is a true polyglot, a member of an elite and gifted few. Which begs the question:
If being a polyglot is merely formulaic, then why aren’t there innumerable others like Ioannis?
I write this not to dissuade you from language learning. On the contrary, I hope that this inspires you to work hard to achieve your language goals. Do not feel ashamed that you cannot speak multiple languages with absolute perfection. Rather, understand that you will need to make many incremental steps before achieving your language goals. It will not be easy, but it can be fun.
The validity of polyglots should be carefully examined by each and every one of us. Some people have given money to these so-called language experts in an attempt to uncover the holy grail of language learning. In my opinion, I encourage you not to do this, for it is unlikely that many realpolyglots actually exist. This is not to say that there are no polyglots on italki, but rather, there are many who claim to be what they simply aren’t.
Good luck with your language learning!