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Being a polyglot and its social implications

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Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby TrashTreasurer » Fri 01.18.2008 6:21 am

I just figured I'd start a thread that had nothing to do with heisig's methods, the usage of "ga", pokemon, or politics. ;)

With that out of the way, I found myself being very curious today at work about what it means to be a polyglot in today's society. I just basically wanted to know everyone's opinions, input, or experiences regarding what it means to them, what it has helped them with, and how others have viewed them because of it. Some of the major questions that came to mind are: (and these are hypothetical, not really meant to be answered directly).

Does being a polyglot define who you are? Is it a fact that you like to introduce about yourself rather early when meeting new people, or is it a pleasant surprise to pull out months down the road?

In the past, have others been impressed by your ability to learn new languages, or has it caused you to appear like a "dork" because you spend a lot of your free time doing such things?

Do you agree with the statement "learn a new language, gain a new soul"? Basically, are there spiritual or deeper meanings to being a polyglot than just the functional uses of your peripheral languages such as making a living with them because you have emigrated?

I'd love to hear people's opinions on this, and I apologize if I'm not really clear enough in what I'm trying to express here. Thanks! ;)
Last edited by TrashTreasurer on Fri 01.18.2008 6:48 am, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby keatonatron » Fri 01.18.2008 9:43 am

Hmmm... Those are hard questions to answer, mostly because when I was in America no one really knew that I could speak more than one language because the need to use it never came up. Whenever I told someone, I'd get a "oh, hey, that's cool" and that would be the end of it.

It's really impossible to answer any of those questions in relation to the experiences I've had since coming to Japan, since every interaction is already overwhelmingly tainted by my white skin.
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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby Shirasagi » Fri 01.18.2008 10:17 am

Being multi-lingual doesn't come close to defining who I am, as I had a very strong sense of identity back when I only knew English. Also, I live alone, so I spend a good deal of time without interacting with anyone at all, and yet the essential "Me" is still there. I never bring my Japanese ability up unless it's germane to the conversation. People I meet in the States eventually get an inkling that I may speak Japanese simply because I've lived half of my adult life here. With non-Japanese that I meet here, they typically find out when we go some place to eat and I order, or if we go to karaoke or something. I think they usually find out from someone else who knows me.

The reactions to my Japanese ability have tended along 1 of 3 lines. On one extreme is supreme indifference. On the other extreme is being super-impressed, like I have some magic ability to understand gibberish and respond in kind. That's usually the reaction of people who know me when hearing me have a conversation in Japanese, especially if they don't have any second-language skills themselves. (I also get this from Japanese people when they hear me speak English the first time.) The third is in the middle -- a general appreciation for my level, but not particularly impressed. This is the most common reaction I get these days because most people I talk with have some language ability, so they how tough it is, but it doesn't seem like some kind of magic trick.

For me, personally, "learn a new language, gain a new soul" overstates things by a bit. The way I see it, there's an essential "Me" that's in front of a wall, and in front of that "Me" there are two PAR lights, one labeled "English", and the other labeled "日本語". (There's also a flashlight labeled "Deutsch".) When the English light is turned on, a large, crisp, silhouette of "Me" is reflected on the wall. That's "Josh". When the 日本語 light is turned on, again there's a silhouette of "Me" on the wall -- that's ジョシュ. It's a little more diffuse than the English one, the lighting is a different color, and it's reflecting "Me" from a different angle, but it's nevertheless recognizable as a representation of "Me".

Now, the problem is that for the vast majority of people, only one of those lights is switched on at any given time. So my family, for instance, only see "Josh", and my Japanese friends only see "ジョシュ". But of course, "Me" is most illuminated when both lights are on at the same time. There are a few for whom I can provide primary lighting from one light, and some supplementary lighting (on low power) from the other. And then there are a precious few, greatly treasured, for whom I can turn on both lights full blast.
Last edited by Shirasagi on Fri 01.18.2008 10:20 am, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby TrashTreasurer » Fri 01.18.2008 11:19 am

To Keatonatron: Thank you for that angle of the topic, as it was one I didn't fully think about. I stated in the op that the questions weren't meant to be directly answered, but rather to inspire thought on the topic I was trying to bring about. I hope you didn't feel any pressure to come up with direct responses. ;)

To Shirasagi: Thank you for your very descriptive response. Like you, I live alone, so any studying I do of this nature isn't to impress others, but it's something of a side effect that I try to exploit, most of the time not realizing it. A very large majorty of the people who find out that I speak French aren't at all impressed, the most I get is a "oh, that's neat I guess" and the conversation is steered far away from the topic of languages, even after I try to include that I'm working on Japanese as well. Your analogy with the "lights" really painted a great picture of how to look at the situations a multilingual person can find themselves in.

Basically, this all makes me wonder how small of a minority us language lovers are. I don't want to sound self-absorbed at all, it's just that I'm somewhat fascinated with the ways people respond to certain situations and when presented with certain information, such as discovering the fact that your acquaintance/friend knows more languages than English. To me, if I meet someone and find out that they know more than 1 language, I instantly want to talk to them more, and hold some kind of odd respect for them. Now that I think about it, it's probably only because I myself have an interest in languages or the idea of knowing more than one, and monolingual folks who view second languages as something they had to deal with in school probably don't find the idea interesting or fascinating at all. You say you've met 3 kinds of people, which is really cool, I've just never met any of those of the "super-impressed" variety, at least not yet.

Well, I'm rambling, so thanks again for other sides of this topic, as it is very interesting to me and its nice to hear other stories.
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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby spin13 » Fri 01.18.2008 1:12 pm

I suppose I'm not qualified to answer your question, as I have yet to grow a second tongue, but I certainly do look forward to meeting a cute little lass who has. Oh! What fun we'll have. Oh! What fun!

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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby Kagemaru » Fri 01.18.2008 3:44 pm

My two bob.

The situations by which we learn (or are forced to learn) languages I believe also factors ways that the learnt language(s) attribute(s) to ones persona.

To elaborate:

Greek is my native language. Junior high school through to university graduation I spent in Australia.

The child of Greek immigrants and being fifteen at the time, I had no particular choice to move to Australia and furthermore, no particular interest in English.

It was sink or swim in so much as initially the language gain served merely as a tool. Being teased for speaking oddly, integrating within social circles accompanied with the inability to understand classes and lectures entirely (and therefore graduate) was extremely challenging.

With the possible enjoyment factor/benefit of learning a new language completely removed, as a result I hated English, did not extend English study further, and worse thirsted not for articulacy, but moreso to survive.

It wasn’t until after tertiary education did I enjoy playing with English. Something which I often regret as I wasted the earlier years, whereby today I could be a far better user of English.

On the contrary with Japanese, the process of learning/integrating has been extremely pleasurable as the base spawned from interest opposed to necessity.

One may argue another language is another language, and that the source and process is secondary to the benefit of gain. This may be very well true, as additional languages I feel are not only simply a means of alternative communication, but with the certain uses of each language, bear other approaches to lateral thinking, cultural differences and philosophical ideals. For sakes say, a Greek person may argue his/her point more colourfully than that of someone Chinese, and vice versa depending on the restrictions of langauge to say a select given article.

However, how this has all attributed to my personality?

It has affected the bar(s) that I raise to analyze/distinguish certain abilities I myself only scrutinize. In this I mean, my Greek overrides my English ability, and that then again over my Japanese ability, therefore the shortcomings to express succinctly becomes fortuitously frustrating, as often I must express what I am able to say, opposed to what I desire to say. This frustration therefore has only led to a never ending dissatisfaction.

To finalise, I would certainly say that additional languages are a not in the slightest a disadvantage, but simply put; (and this I suppose can be extended to many other facets) sometimes the luxury of comparison can often be an enemy in disguise.
Last edited by Kagemaru on Fri 01.18.2008 4:08 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby MinusNick » Fri 01.18.2008 3:59 pm

Personally, I think being able to speak multiple languages is one of the coolest traits one could have (wings, perhaps, being the best). With my friends that speak Spanish, I hold a sense of respect to them, because learning another language takes skill. It's also fun to ask them how to say certain things every now and then, but not too often; I can only imagine how annoying that could get.
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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby Kdar » Sat 01.19.2008 1:24 am

I guess I am kind of like Kagemaru, in some way.

I came to USA when I was 14. Not because I wanted, but just because of circumstance, because of my mother.
So learning English came to me by itself. I was living and studying among English speakers. I don't see that I had to force myself to learn it. Maybe something else was forcing me, but surely not me. It was just something I had to learn and learned over time.

Basically I don't think that I "learned" English. Well, what I mean is that I don't think I learned it by putting my hard effort in to it. I feel not satisfied.......

So maybe 2 years ago, I started to think about learning new language. And started to think it seriously. Not just try this or that. I wanted to learn and be able speak 3rd language. It just started to kind of torment me that I am just "sitting" on those two languages, which I know already. I wanted to progress.

So I ended up learning Japanese :)
Surely would not mind learning some other language later as well.

I enjoy learning languages. And it not just the languages itself. But also ability to learn and understand different culture.
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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby arbalest71 » Sat 01.19.2008 4:19 am

I don't know that I'd call myself a polyglot. I can read, to one degree or another, in a few languages. I can speak one "foreign" (it's an official language of a country I am a citizen of, so foreign is an odd way to put it) language pretty well (at least when I am in practice- I'm not at the moment), and a couple of others well enough to get by in. But I've known quite a few people who spoke five or six languages really well, and quite a few who have more than one native language (though I've noticed that even they tend to have a dominant language).

I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but to some degree your question is a very American question ('twould be very Japanese as well, and actually quite characteristic of most English speaking citizens of Commonwealth nations, if you leave out the older languages of the Isles). Now, there's nothing wrong with that, as you are an American ;) (I am too, for the most part, though I still have instincts that tell me to say that you are from The States, rather than calling you an American). I just think it's worth being aware of.

I've often thought that there are some interesting parallels between Britain and Japan. Do you know the expression '島国根性'? I wouldn't recommend suggesting to the Japanese that they suffer from an island mentality (they're aware of it, but would probably rather not have it pointed out by an outsider) but as an Anglo I think I'm allowed to say that the English speaking peoples exhibit a degree of insularity.

So, while I could be considered a polyglot by American standards (and could be considered one when it comes to reading, even measured by more demanding standards), I'm acutely aware that by, say, Scandinavian standards I'm the moral equivalent of the local color in 'Deliverance'. My responses are conditioned by that.

TrashTreasurer wrote:

Does being a polyglot define who you are? Is it a fact that you like to introduce about yourself rather early when meeting new people, or is it a pleasant surprise to pull out months down the road?


Well, if I can work it into the conversation... actually, it is not something I mention without a good reason. Some people who know me reasonably well probably don't know that I can speak anything other than English (people who have heard me speak Chinese recently are similarly unaware, but the ones that believe in speaking in tongues occasionally seek out my spiritual guidance- every contribution helps). It does tend to come up eventually, and it's hard to miss if you look at my books. But I think you'd be surprised at how unimpressive most people find it. People are usually more interested in how you respond to their achievements than they are in yours. My experience tells me that "Wow, you water-ski? That's really impressive, particularly considering your center of gravity" is a better pickup line than "You know, I speak Swahili."

On the other hand, my sister speaks German better than I will ever speak any language other than English (she was raised there, and went to German schools from the age of seven) and she is impressed... go figure.

I'm a bit careful to not jump on native speakers of a language I speak just for the sake of doing it, particularly if their English is good... I'd feel like a puppy expecting a pat on the head for not peeing on the floor. I can't say I've never done it, but I'm more careful about it now. OTOH, on a couple of occasions I've been able to really help someone out, and I would be lying if I said that their complete shock when I busted out my chops was not a bit gratifying. But.. I was aware that it was not shock at my amazing chops. I mean, if a dog can talk, it's shocking even if he is not the most articulate fellow in the world ;).

I mentioned, in another thread, that I once sorted out a messed up delivery order in Chinese, because the delivery-girl spoke very little English (I don't count this as "really helping someone out", though I suppose it made her night a bit easier). The restaurant was actually only a block from my house (I guess you have to live in NYC to completely understand getting Chinese delivery from a block away). This tipped them that I spoke some Chinese, and I used to go there for take-out pretty regularly, so the staff there (who mostly spoke pretty passable English) started talking to me in Chinese.

The girl who usually worked the counter there was actually pretty flirty, and every time I came in she would tell me, in English, "You're so smart. You must be so smart. You speak Chinese!" (imagine a politically incorrect rendering of accent). I don't know if the Chinese have a special school where they go to learn this phrase, but they all know it, and they all say it with _exactly_ the same intonation. So one day I jokingly said "Well, your English is better than my Chinese so _you_ must be so smart. I think you just think Americans are too stupid to learn Chinese ;)."- that is a literal transcription of a wink, not a smiley. She had a fit of the giggles, because, of course, I had her dead to rights. (Don't get the wrong idea from the text... this was a friendly conversation, and I think we both found it amusing.)

TrashTreasurer wrote:

In the past, have others been impressed by your ability to learn new languages, or has it caused you to appear like a "dork" because you spend a lot of your free time doing such things?


Like I said, I tend to hide vices like language study. I have practice, because I do much dorkier things than study languages. When I proved the Riemann hypothesis my first thought was- how is this going to affect my sex life? I've held off on publishing because I am worried that the (deserved) accolades might erode the air of humility responsible for so much of my personal charm.

TrashTreasurer wrote:

Do you agree with the statement "learn a new language, gain a new soul"? Basically, are there spiritual or deeper meanings to being a polyglot than just the functional uses of your peripheral languages such as making a living with them because you have emigrated?


Well, smack me on the *** and call me Horatio ;). I'd find this easier to answer if I had ever been able to locate the original. The truth is that there is at least one semi-intangible that I value a great deal. Every once in a while my synapses light up like a Christmas tree. At least, I have that impression- I'm not sure an EEG would bear that out.

Beyond that, the ability to read certain things in the original is something I value a great deal. I'm not sure how that compares with a new soul, but it's enough for me.
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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby keatonatron » Sat 01.19.2008 1:21 pm

I have noticed a phenomenon where people will try to "prove" that they can speak English when they are around me-- in all fairness, I too have on occasion thought things like "I hope this guy can see that I'm typing Japanese on my cellphone so he doesn't think I'm an illiterate immigrant" (although I never acted on those thoughts any more than... typing on my cell phone like normal).

But back to the first one, once I was riding the elevator down from my Japanese language school, and two high school girls got on from the English School floor. It was really obvious that they wanted to prove to me that they could speak "cool" English. Their conversation instantly turned to English as they stepped onto the elevator, full of slang and not really having a lot of meaning. The best was when we got to the bottom floor and one said "Oh sh*t, I forgot my f**king umbrella! I gotta go get it"

And just today when I got on the crowded train, the guy next to me whipped out his English textbook and started reading it in a position that made it very hard for me to not see what it was.
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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Sat 01.19.2008 1:32 pm

Honestly I find it hard to criticize that because I've done that too. When I worked at Apple, there were two Japanese women there, and I would often read Asahi Shinbun articles at lunch, and sometimes I tried to be more conspicuous about it in the hopes they would pass by and ask me about it. They never did, though.
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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby skrhgh3b » Sat 01.19.2008 7:19 pm

Yudan Taiteki wrote:
Honestly I find it hard to criticize that because I've done that too. When I worked at Apple, there were two Japanese women there, and I would often read Asahi Shinbun articles at lunch, and sometimes I tried to be more conspicuous about it in the hopes they would pass by and ask me about it. They never did, though.


I often study Japanese in cafes in America, and every so often a native Japanese will be there by chance, and although I hope they'll notice me studying Japanese and say something to me, I very rarely will bother a random Japanese person. I used to, of course, but I don't anymore. I couldn't quite say why, though. I guess because I've never actually made a friend that way. Maybe I should be more outgoing?
On the other hand, I was using my laptop in a starbucks in Japan, and a woman at the table next to me was studying English. I believe she was reading a novel and taking notes, so her English must have been fairly advanced, and I kept waiting for her to say something to me, but she never did. And yet, when you walk down a suburban street in Japan, 5 and 8 year old kids will run up to you in groups and say "Hello!"
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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby kayuu » Sat 01.19.2008 8:04 pm

I wouldn't consider myself anywhere near a polyglot but I could probably 'get by' in a few languages, I'm going to answer your questions quite directly, because it's too late here for me to write out a deeply considered article :P

Does being a polyglot define who you are? Is it a fact that you like to introduce about yourself rather early when meeting new people, or is it a pleasant surprise to pull out months down the road?


I don't make a huge deal of it in person because I would hate for people to ask me how to say such and such a thing in such a such a language or ask me to teach them, for some strange reason it feels like it's not my place to. However, in online community profiles I tend to list it under my hobbies/skills or whatever because it is quite a major part of my life (similar to most people putting down that they like computer games or watching anime, I just happen to spend the majority of my free time learning languages) and it would be silly to try and hide it.

In the past, have others been impressed by your ability to learn new languages, or has it caused you to appear like a "dork" because you spend a lot of your free time doing such things?


I was sat in the car once and a friend walked by and tapped on the window. I chucked the Japanese textbook I was reading to the floor quickly in hopes she might not see. Unfortunately, I was slow, she had seen, and she told me, "Katy, are you reading a geek book again?"

Yes, people consider me to be a geek. Some are impressed, but most people just think me dorky as far as I can tell.

Do you agree with the statement "learn a new language, gain a new soul"? Basically, are there spiritual or deeper meanings to being a polyglot than just the functional uses of your peripheral languages such as making a living with them because you have emigrated?


No, not really. It's just a hobby, there's nothing deep to it, it's just my idea of fun :)
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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby Hatori » Sat 01.19.2008 10:16 pm

Polygot? What?
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RE: Being a polyglot and its social implications

Postby Wakannai » Sun 01.20.2008 12:00 am

Poly got a cracker.
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