The P-Myth: Misconceptions About Becoming a Polyglot

March 19, 2017

"Please tell me the best way to learn languages A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and H in the next 5 years. My goal is to become a polyglot by the age of X."

I am really tired of seeing questions like this on Quora and elsewhere on the web. They are riddled with the same old misconceptions:

1. "Deciding" to become a polyglot is an effective way to become one.

Becoming a functional polyglot requires a huge time investment. Do you really think that feeling pumped up after watching a few polyglot YouTube videos will provide enough motivation to spend years of your life focused on learning languages?

99% of polyglots did not become so by "deciding" to learn a bunch of languages. They became polyglots by spending a lot of time in communities where different languages are spoken. In fact, the vast majority of them don't belong to any sort of "polyglot community," but simply live in places where speaking 3, 4, 5, or even 7 languages is not uncommon.

If your idea of becoming a polyglot is to be able to make a YouTube video where you talk to yourself for five minutes in a bunch of different languages, then go for it. Personally, I think it's a waste of time. If you want to show off, at least show yourself conversing with natives in those languages. No offense to people like Richard Simcott — I've met him, and he "walks the walk." His videos of this type are basically just afterthoughts.

On a final note, the kind of people who ask other people for their opinion on how to learn X languages in X years are not the kind of people who end up performing superhuman linguistic feats. Such people simply do it instead of talking about it. 

2. Once you learn language X, you can move on to language Y. Your knowledge of X is secure.

Baloney! Your active vocabulary is in a constant state of flux. If you suddenly begin using a language much less than you're used to, you will begin to lose fluency in as little as a week, depending on how long you've been learning/using the language. A few months later, you may be surprised at how things that were on the fringes of your Circle of Command have now slipped out of your grasp. You'll need a few hours or days of intense practice to recover your form.

What good is it to learn all these languages one after the other and forget the previous ones? Just as you cannot get in great physical shape "once and for all," you cannot learn a language, not speak it for months, and expect it to be at the same level as before. Furthermore, the better you know a language, the more practice is generally required to maintain it at the same level of fluency as before.

The only way to maintain fluency in 8 languages at once is to lead a lifestyle that involves speaking all 8 languages on a weekly or monthly basis. Period. The only way to maintain optimal physical fitness is to lead a lifestyle that involves using your body in a variety of challenging ways on a weekly basis. The only way to play the violin at a professional level is to practice a certain number of hours a week, from then on, after you have reached this level. It is a permanent commitment!

3. You can "learn" a language on your own in front of a book or computer screen and become "fluent."

There's nothing too mysterious about "fluency." Fluency means that you can communicate with ease in the spoken language. Ease of communication is possible because of robust neural connections that allow you to quickly make sense of what is being said and just as quickly express what you want to say to the other person. Developing the necessary reaction speed is only possible through lots of practice (typically hundreds of hours). Language learning activities that don't model real-life communication do very little to improve your reaction speed and thus to build fluency.

In other words, unless you're spending lots of time speaking, listening, and communicating with real people, you're probably not doing much for your fluency. If you're investing time in language learning and are not rapidly approaching fluency, you're wasting your time.

Find out how to not waste time in my pocketbook, Frictionless Foreign Language Mastery.

Final words

The E-Myth is a great business book (series of books) whose main point is to build your business from the very beginning in such a way that you'll be able to sell it later. The "E-myth" is that most people who call themselves entrepreneurs are actually people who've created a job for themselves and wouldn't be able to sell their business if they wanted to.

There is a strong parallel here to language learning. From the very beginning, you should approach your language learning in such a way that you'll be able to easily maintain your fluency years down the road. It doesn't matter how effective your language learning method is if you don't have the habits or lifestyle in place to enable you to active use the language. Don't waste your time learning languages that you don't use. It's like going to the gym for 3 months, getting in shape, and quitting.

As soon as you resolve to learn a foreign language, begin creating the lifestyle that will sustain your active use of the language in the future. 

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(c) 2016-2017 Richard DeLong.