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The secret of polyglots - how easy is it to learn another language?

There are over 7000 languages currently spoken around the world and some people are lucky enough, or should I say gifted, to master several of them! Such people are called polyglots.

The phenomenon and need for speaking a foreign language can be dated back to ancient times. Perhaps the most ancient and most famous polyglot is the beautiful queen Cleopatra who spoke five languages. Apart from her native language, Greek, she had a good command of classic Egyptian, Syrian, and Hebrew, which made her a very effective diplomat. Being able to communicate in a person’s mother tongue immediately helps to bring down borders and build relationships.

Another ruler, queen Elizabeth I, could speak a number of languages such as; Cornish, Scottish, and Irish, as well as French, Spanish and Latin. According to historic sources, she was able to translate lengthy texts written in those languages.

Writer J. R. R. Tolkien was an accomplished polyglot in both ancient and modern languages and even managed to create a new language for his books, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Currently, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world’s greatest living polyglot Ziad Fazah, lives in Brazil (born in Liberia) and claims to speak a total of 59 languages!

So, what is the phenomenon of polyglotism? Is it easier to learn a new foreign language if you already speak one?

There is a lot of research that shows what advantages polyglots may have over people who are fluent only in one language.

First of all, polyglots are more experienced language learners and will know exactly which method of learning works for them best. They are more likely to explore other methods rather than sticking to the traditional method used in traditional classrooms (learn grammar and vocabulary and then speak). They may look into learning through immersion, reading various resources, audio activities, memorisation techniques, or translation.

The other advantage is that they will use a broader lexicon when learning another language. For example, they can relate new structures, new vocabulary to the two or more languages they already know, not just to one of them, as in the case of people who speak only one language. Based on my own experience of learning languages, I can say that fluency in Polish and Russian definitely gives me an advantage whenever I try to speak Ukrainian, which belongs to the same family of languages as Polish and Russian. When I learn Spanish, I note that there are a lot fewer phonetic associations in my lexicon.

For example:

Tengo catarro in Spanish means ‘I have a cold’. In Polish katar also means ‘common cold’. So based on the phonetic association, I am able to understand text in context and memorise new words more easily. It may appear to you that the situation looks different when it comes to so-called ‘false friends’ as they initially can cause errors and misunderstandings.

For example:

Balón in Spanish means ‘a ball’, where in Polish balon means ‘balloon’. Based on the phonetic association at first, I would translate it incorrectly.  However, such words play an important role in the learning process as they in fact help you to memorise new vocabulary. Differences stand out as something unusual that requires more attention and at the same time make it easier to remember.

Many factors contribute to learning a new language. Whether you learn your second or third, be ready - it can be a long and difficult process, but nothing gives you more of an advantage than motivation. Research shows that if you are subconsciously resisting the language, you are afraid, or you do not like the language this in effect will prevent you from learning. On the other hand, if you are attracted to the language, your friend speaks the language, you like the culture associated with that language, all these things can help you to succeed and make a learning process more enjoyable.


Whether you're keen to learn your first foreign language or third, fourth, or fifth (!) This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to see how we can help. We have a number of different options to suit all objectives, levels and individuals.


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