A polyglot
Thread poster: Noni Gilbert

Noni Gilbert
Spain
Local time: 12:01
Member (2007)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Mar 18, 2012

Did anyone catch this article in the Guardian on Friday? http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/mar/16/i-speak-50-languages-experience

What are your reactions?

Noni


Direct link Reply with quote
 

Manuela Junghans  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:01
Member (2004)
English to German
+ ...
Thanks for sharing, Noni Mar 18, 2012

A very interesting article indeed

Direct link Reply with quote
 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:01
Hebrew to English
Beware of immodest "polyglots" Mar 18, 2012

I'm always a bit wary of these articles and I approach them with more than a pinch of skepticism.
Not that I doubt this guy's passion for languages or his abilities, I just think there's something deeply narcissistic about blathering about how many languages you can speak to anyone who will listen, not to mention that too much importance is placed on headline grabbing numbers "can speak 40,50,60 languages".

I won't re-open the old "what is 'speaking' a language?" or "what is fluency?" debates, but yet again, they would be valid questions in any case of polyglot bragging.

I also think that for non-language people, there is already enough ignorance about what it means to learn/speak another language that we shouldn't revel in articles which perpetuate language myths or that celebrate quantity over quality. (After all, you never see the headline "I can speak Xhosa like a native - clicks and all".

With this article...
I would question his methodology
reading, studying and practising grammar, as well as my own technique called "shadowing", which involves walking briskly outdoors while listening to a recorded language and repeating it out loud

From a pedagogical perspective, that methodology seems awfully non-communicative and it is surprising he had any oral abilities using such methods (we all know of language students who study grammar endlessly yet can't actually string a sentence together when they open their mouths).

All it took was three weeks and I was able to hold my own in complex conversations.

It's statements like these which throw the whole thing into disrepute and make it hard for me to take any of it seriously. Three weeks. From not knowing one word to "holding his own" in "complex" conversations. Yeah, right.

Climbing the mountain – achieving native fluency – is always going to take years.

It's somewhat reassuring to see that the article contains some sense.

Now, I can read about three dozen languages and speak most of them fluently, and I've studied many more.

This contradicts the title. He can't speak 50 languages at all. He can read about 36 languages, speak "most"?? fluently...(so less than 36) and he has only "studied" others.

Unfortunately, the non-critical reader will take the article at face value and think that:
a) speaking 50 languages is feasible
b) speaking 50 languages is desirable
c) learning languages is a nice hobby for über-nerds
(he mentions studying for 16 hours a day yet it doesn't make explicit if he actually uses all this knowledge in his career)

The major problem we have with language learning in this country at least (the UK) is that it lacks prestige, and I just don't think articles like this do much to increase its prestige at all.

[Edited at 2012-03-18 20:23 GMT]


Direct link Reply with quote
 

Noni Gilbert
Spain
Local time: 12:01
Member (2007)
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
My first reaction... Mar 18, 2012

...was to wonder how many people have 16 hours a day available to study a language!! If only...

Direct link Reply with quote
 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:01
Hebrew to English
Clearly... Mar 18, 2012

Noni Gilbert wrote:

...was to wonder how many people have 16 hours a day available to study a language!! If only...


...a man of leisure...I'm thinking rich parents/spoilt rich kid who's never had to work a day in his life.


Direct link Reply with quote
 

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:01
French to English
+ ...
Methodology... Mar 18, 2012

I agree with most of what Ty has said.

Re his methodology, I think the public should generally be more suspicious when somebody tries to sell them "the" language learning method. If a particular method works for a particular person, then great.

If you look at the history of language teaching, pretty much each decade has gone through a new fad, be it "language laboratories" or "foreign language reading schemes" or the "immersive classroom" or the "communicative method"... But suspiciously, no particular generation seems to have come out overall as being the one that was particularly skilled at languages...


Direct link Reply with quote
 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:01
Hebrew to English
The pedagogical community do love fads... Mar 18, 2012

...it's Dogme and CLIL in ELT right now (not that either of these methodologies are new [recency illusion] or particularly innovative).

The main issue I have with this guy's methodology is that it has a serious lack of authenticity / authentic language input.

You invariably never get authentic language when studying grammar, it's always the more stilted "bookish" language - a similar argument can be made for the audio-lingual method (listening and repeating pre-recorded segments), it is not worthless, but it doesn't necessarily prepare the language student for "real" language.

I had a similar problem with Hebrew, I studied the grammar, the ins and outs for years...
Imagine my surprise when I encountered "real" Hebrew, littered with Arabic slang (as well as various words and phrases of Yiddish and Russian origin). I wondered what language I had been studying all those years as it bore little resemblance to the one I was hearing.

Neil's spot on, there is no "holy grail" of teaching methodologies, which is why a lot of teachers prefer an "eclectic" approach and I'm all for pick 'n' mix methodologies, but by essentially focusing solely on Grammar Translation and Audio-lingualism (as this fellow has) I fear certain skills will be left by the wayside (mostly speaking skills, but also thinking skills since Audio-lingualism is more listen and repeat, listen and repeat, without asking the student to really think about what they are saying or how they are saying it, in addition to how to deal with communicative breakdowns, problem-solving etc).

[Edited at 2012-03-18 23:15 GMT]


Direct link Reply with quote
 
Steven F Smith
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:01
Member (2007)
Japanese to English
Quite inspiring Mar 19, 2012

I'm quite surprised at the general level of skepticism towards this man's acheivements. This kind of obsessive devotion - putting in most of one's waking hours over many years - is not particularly uncommon, particularly in other fields such as maths and music, and why should we be suprised if the results are not commensurate with the effort?

Direct link Reply with quote
 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:01
Hebrew to English
What has he achieved? Other than language learning for the sake of language learning? Mar 19, 2012

...which is an achievement...sure....but it makes language learning look a great hobby for über-geeks with too much time on their hands...

I don't think the article promotes language learning very well at all, mostly because it fails to illuminate any practical use for having so many languages (other than being able to speak to his wife in Korean).

And it fails to illustrate any other achievements which have been made possible (other than brief nods to immersion in other cultures - blink and you'll miss it) due to his acquisition of so many languages.

A truly inspiring story should show how languages have created opportunities, opened doors, broken down barriers, opened minds...and I don't see that in this account (other than, as I said, one or two brief nods).

If you re-read the article, it's incredibly self-centered:
"I'm often asked..., I was able to hold a conversation..., I can read three dozen languages...,"
....basically it's full of "I"s and "my"s - which you might expect from a first person account, but for me, it just's mildly interesting at best and does little to inspire, promote or increase prestige for language learning.

The skepticism also comes from seeing this kind of article for the umpteenth time (and there's been a spate of them recently). I'm yet to see one which isn't an exercise in hyperbole and wishful thinking.

I have no doubt that the incredibly gifted among us can easily learn 7,8,9,10 languages 'fluently' (God, I hate that word)....but every account of 30+ languages is ludicrously inflated... especially for someone who, even by his own admission, is not a "natural language learner".

I'm yet to see real evidence of someone with such abilities as to "speak" 30+ languages. I don't think it's a coincidence that such evidence is always anecdotal or unsubstantiated.

As revealed at the end of this article, when someone says "I can speak 30+ languages" what they really mean is "I've studied XX amount of languages and can speak a handful proficiently" - which is true of many, many people and neither special/unique nor worthy of awe.

[Edited at 2012-03-19 09:15 GMT]


Direct link Reply with quote
 
Steven F Smith
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:01
Member (2007)
Japanese to English
Perhaps not truly inspiring, only quite inspiring Mar 19, 2012

[quote]Ty Kendall wrote:

A truly inspiring story should show how languages have created opportunities, opened doors, broken down barriers, opened minds...and I don't see that in this account (other than, as I said, one or two brief nods).
[quote]

Well, he has courageously overcome the disability of not being a natural language learner. I find that quite inspiring. I always find devotion to learning inspiring anyway, and while they could have interviewed any old run-of-the-mill 'I can speak 10 languages fluently' mediocrity to inspire us geeky autodidacts, newspapers naturally focus on the extreme cases.


[Edited at 2012-03-19 10:19 GMT]

[Edited at 2012-03-19 10:19 GMT]


Direct link Reply with quote
 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:01
Hebrew to English
Touché Mar 19, 2012

Yes, there is that, which is quite a positive message hidden under all the fluff.

Again, it's more a case of dodgy journalism more than anything else - language issues just become a casualty of sensationalism.


Direct link Reply with quote
 

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 12:01
Spanish to English
+ ...
Agree Mar 19, 2012

Ty Kendall wrote:

I'm always a bit wary of these articles and I approach them with more than a pinch of skepticism.
The major problem we have with language learning in this country at least (the UK) is that it lacks prestige, and I just don't think articles like this do much to increase its prestige at all.

[Edited at 2012-03-18 20:23 GMT]


I agree with the points put forward in your posts. The article is exaggerated and could create false expectations or aspirations. Was also surprised to hear that Dogme is still being touted in teaching, as I alway considered it a cop out, but maybe that was just me.


Direct link Reply with quote
 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:01
Hebrew to English
O/T - Dogme Mar 19, 2012

I think people are starting to wise up and see it for what it really is, but it still has a sizeable following. I think it hit its zenith after the publication of Thornbury's "Teaching Unplugged".

Direct link Reply with quote
 
kmtext
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:01
English
+ ...
I've met a couple of people like him Mar 21, 2012

It strikes me as being very pretentious to talk about how many languages you can speak and boasting about your abilities in them, and the people I've met who go on about how good they are with other languages seem to overestimate their own abilities. They've certainly been good enough to pass themselves off as near native in various languages to a layman, but not to anyone who knows better.

For example, I know someone who claims to be fluent in French and Spanish, and I'm certainly not fluent enough in either language to assess his abilities, but he was highly embarrassed when showing off to a group of friends when the French person he was talking to asked him to speak in English because she couldn't understand him.


Direct link Reply with quote
 


To report site rules violations or get help, contact a site moderator:


You can also contact site staff by submitting a support request »

A polyglot

Advanced search






Protemos translation business management system
Create your account in minutes, and start working! 3-month trial for agencies, and free for freelancers!

The system lets you keep client/vendor database, with contacts and rates, manage projects and assign jobs to vendors, issue invoices, track payments, store and manage project files, generate business reports on turnover profit per client/manager etc.

More info »
TM-Town
Manage your TMs and Terms ... and boost your translation business

Are you ready for something fresh in the industry? TM-Town is a unique new site for you -- the freelance translator -- to store, manage and share translation memories (TMs) and glossaries...and potentially meet new clients on the basis of your prior work.

More info »



Forums
  • All of ProZ.com
  • Term search
  • Jobs
  • Forums
  • Multiple search