Month: October 2015

Dispatches from my sick bed #2: the Grumpy Language Learner exists

I wrote this almost a month ago, but then didn’t have the focus or brain presence to post it. Surgery seems to be like that: I’m recovering well physically, but my energy levels are still pretty erratic and I don’t always manage to focus on tasks as much as I wish I did, sigh… Anyway: have some vintage thoughts from my head!

You know how now and then language bloggers will ask readers what they struggle with in their own learning? What their biggest problems are on the road to fluency? I’ve replied several times to different bloggers with some variant of: mental illness (depression and anxiety) and physical limitations/illness. I have seen, in return, precious little about these issues on any of these blogs. I’m sure they receive hundreds of replies, and it makes sense to focus their response posts on the ones that they think will speak to the most people. And yet it’s kind of infuriating that this stuff rarely gets a mention.

Hello, we’re here. People who are sick in all kinds of ways exist and we learn languages and we deserve attention and advice too. You can’t just apply all your “get up 15 minutes earlier! Just think positive! If you’re not doing it, it’s because you don’t want it enough!” advice to our situations. No, being ill isn’t sexy, it’s not something you can write a super-positive post about, it’s not something your one-size-fits-all advice is going to work for. We’re not cool. We don’t fit into your narrative of winners who just need the right productivity tip to turn everything around; we exist in other ways than just as your inspiration pr0n.

People who are ill or who are disabled exist. Some of them have even achieved the vaunted polyglot status! Others of us might yet! But you know, it’d be nice if some of that language learning community cameraderie recognized us as we are too. Sure, you can sometimes adapt more general advice about making time for study when life is hectic or stressful, but there are also specific things that relate to illness/ability that could be addressed — and recovering from surgery made me very keenly aware of this lack.

It’d just be nice to feel seen, you know?

Dispatches from My Sick Bed #1: Polyglot vs. Multilingual

Hello everyone! Thanks for all your good wishes. I’m now a couple of weeks out from my surgery, and (knock on wood) so far seem to be recovering well. In fact, boredom is becoming a bigger problem than almost anything else — conveniently, italki is having another Language Challenge in the second half of October, and as I’ll still be on sick leave then, I’ve signed up! Last time felt good to me, and naturally so did earning some italki credits…

Anyway — last week, while my mobility was much more limited, I was listening to a lot of podcasts, especially because I had a ton of upper back pain when standing up and even when sitting upright in bed or on the couch. But podcasts, obviously I can put them on and just lie down and listen. One of the ones I’ve been catching up on is the Creative Language Learning Podcast, from two of my favorite language bloggers, Kerstin Hammes Cable and Lindsay Dow.

A recent episode recaps the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin this past May. In one talk there, it was suggested that the word “polyglot” should mean someone who learns languages just for the fun of it. This is meant to be a more inclusive and friendly definition; many people question whether they know enough languages (or know them well enough) to belong at an event with the word “polyglot” in the title. That’s great. I’m down with that, because I do feel like a lot of polyglot stuff is super-elitist. I’m totally in favor of expanding the term so that you don’t feel like you need to speak seven languages at C2 level or whatever to be legit and included.

But this definition of a polyglot, as someone who learns languages because they just want to, is contrasted with a “multilingual,” that is, someone who learns languages because they have to: because of the realities of their family or community or country or economic situation.

This strikes me as an absurd, muddy, and useless distinction to make. (I did see a blog post a while ago that mentioned this, and went on a brief tweet rant — now is the time for the Extended Rant Remix, I guess!) Way to talk like you’re making things less elite and more welcoming on the one hand, and then pull something like this on the other. Polyglots: we learn languages for the love of it! Our motives aren’t tainted like multilinguals’: you’re learning them for commerce, because that’s just how people in your country grow up, for some other reason other than our pure thirst for knowledge! Many polyglots do learn languages for some of these same reasons, and ‘multilinguals’ might equally enjoy learning languages also for their own sake, which makes this distinction even more hilarious to me. It’s so ivory tower: we, the intellectuals! With our holy love for languages! Everyone else: with their crass low cultural reasons! It reminds me of people sneering at students studying something to improve their employment prospects — accounting or nursing or education or whatever — while the genuine, untainted intellectuals swan off, noses in the air, to study philosophy.

Seriously, what the hell? To me this just smacks of people still wanting to give themselves a glow of superiority. Which is, again, hilarious because in vast parts of the world, speaking more than one language is utterly unremarkable; it’s just how you get on; it’s just what you have to do. Both my parents are polyglots — or maybe you’d downgrade them to multlinguals, since multiple languages were something they needed to learn for cultural and economic reasons — but anyway, I don’t even know if they’d consider themselves as having an aptitude or special interest in languages; it’s just what they did.

This polyglot/multilingual dichotomy strikes me as even less useful because… it’s not like multilinguals don’t have experiences and techniques of learning languages that wouldn’t be relevant or helpful to polyglots! What is served by separating out these two groups? (Except, perhaps, the lofty ego of some polyglots.) For example, I’ve seen so many polyglot blogs talk about how motivation can be a problem, just getting down to studying and finding the time to study, etc. Well, who might have solid advice on productivity and buckling down to really get some face time with a language? People who have no choice but to learn one: those multilinguals again. (Yes, many multilinguals grow up speaking multiple languages without necessarily a lot of deliberate study, although I think even in those cases they might have something useful to say about how to keep languages separate and not mix them up, etc.)

There are probably some functional differences between those who learn languages for fun (and perhaps without an opportunity to live in a setting where they need to use the language as a main method of communication) and those who are impelled by other reasons do things — there must be some academic research on it somewhere. Call the latter ‘involuntary polyglots’ or ‘situational polyglots’ or some other term to distinguish things, sure. But they’re all still polyglots. Or multilinguals. They’re all both terms! On an equal basis!

I do think it’s really good to demystify what being a polyglot means and to broaden the definition and make it less of an elite club (as it stands I still wouldn’t feel particularly comfortable going to any polyglot-branded event). But it’s rubbish to say you’re doing that while setting up another divide that is also false and elitist in itself.