This is the second article in a series about polyglots on the internet (Part 1 here). I sent email to polyglots I found on YouTube, Facebook, and elsewhere on the internet and interviewed them.
This entire article is an interview with a single polyglot, Félix Wang. Felix is ethnic Chinese, but was raised in Belgium. He speaks Mandarin, Teochew, French, Dutch, English, and a number of other languages.
Are most polyglots made or born?
Both cases exist but I still think that a person who knows more than 6 languages is not born with it! Let me give you an example: I have an Italian friend whose dad is Greek. And we speak French at school. So she speaks perfectly 3 languages.
Did most polyglots learn their languages as adults?
A British girl on YouTube started to learn Japanese on her own at 13 and succeeded. But most of us start later. I think in general people start to love language around 17 or more.
Do children actually learn languages faster? And if so, where are these child-polyglots?
I don’t think children learn faster than us. I learnt more Japanese in two years time than a 4 year old baby. Adult brains can absorb faster. The problem is that adults always try to understand everything! Children don’t care about total comprehension.
Felix asks “Do you really think children understand grammar?” If they don’t, why do adults have to learn grammar first?
Were you born into a multilingual family? (Were you raised bi-lingual?)
I spoke Teochew to my mom, Mandarin and Taiwanese to my dad.
When did you start studying languages seriously?
Well I was forced to learn Mandarin Chinese for tests every Saturday morning. So, when I was 10, I started to learn it, but not because I wanted, just because I was forced. I started on my own my first language at the age of 16 with Spanish.
Did you do any of your language study in a formal setting? If so, where and which languages?
I had Spanish class at my school. For Chinese I went to Taiwanese school during 8 years each Saturday morning. English, at school, but I learnt most of my English watching movies and communicating through YouTube! Grammar rules never helped me.
How much of your knowledge is the result of self-study?
Well, most of my Spanish is the result of self-study, but also practice with my Colombian friends. All the Japanese I learnt: read, speak, etc is the result of determination and self-study during a very long process 170h spread throughout 1.5 years.
How many hours do you study per week?
Well, if it’s possible I study 30min per day = 3.5 h a week.
How many hours do you believe one needs to master a language?
You will never master a language. Even in my native language I learn new words everyday. It depends which language you choose, which languages you already know, and how much time you put into your learning process. If you’re Portuguese and learn Spanish, I think you can learn it in 6 months. But if the same guy tries to learn Japanese or Korean, which are completely different, it should take 3 to 4 years to really succeed and have a descent level.
Do you have any goal in learning languages? Are you training to be a professor, teacher, translator…or do you just study for love?
It’s all about passion and culture. I learn it because I love languages and I wish I could speak to any non-English native speaker, in his own language and not in English. English always breaks the emotion, if you’re not talking to an English native speaker. If you go to Paris and speak English you’ll understand what I’m talking about. Knowing the local language changes your view of the society. It also allows you to know people you would never have met otherwise.
Do you learn more than one language at a time?
I tried to learn more than 2 languages at the same time, but for me it’s so disturbing. I get nowhere by doing that. I prefer to concentrate on 2 languages. Concentrating on one is actually the best and fastest.
Do you believe children learn languages faster than adults?
No! There is this believe because most adults focus on grammar and can’t even have a descent conversation. Children don’t pay attention to the grammar and just absorb naturally. But if we adapt our learning process and mimic children we get there faster than them.
Do you, or most polyglots, have some type of mental disorder, such as autism or obsessive compulsive disorder?
I don’t really know for others, but I don’t have that. You don’t have to have a mental problem to be polyglot, actually being polyglot is a choice. If you choose to work hard to be conversational in a language you will be conversational.
Why do the vast majority of people who begin a language fail to learn it?
Several reasons: The biggest one being: they are not motivated enough. As a result, they are hoping that classes will give them everything. Which is actually wrong. We have to learn more outside classrooms. If I just learnt English when I had to, I wouldn’t be able to write you this email right now.
People don’t invest enough time. Language learning requires time, but they want to go fast. You can’t go fast it’s a slow input process. People think they have to speak a lot to be proficient. I don’t think that works. You have to read and listen for about 100h and then speak to natives.
Most people who try to learn a language don’t invest 20 min every day in it? Regular work is very important. People who learn Japanese or other exotic languages leave too early. After 3 months they give up. Never give up.
Any comments on language learning or polyglot life you would like to share with the world would be great.
Being a polyglot, I saw, learnt and know a whole bunch of things people would never discover because they don’t know the language. I’m learning Turkish and I spoke a lot with Erasmus students from Istanbul. I discover so many things about Turkish wedding, society and fooooooood. Man, that’s so interesting! Language learning also allows you to know more people. I made many friends I wouldn’t have made without knowing their Language. This is the case for Japanese and Italian.
Do you have any dream languages; I mean, a language or languages you are dreaming of learning but haven’t started yet? And why?
I’m dreaming to learn many languages ! But I selected some and made a list: 1) Russian, 2) Polish, 3) Thai, 4) Vietnamese, 5) Hindi, 6) Hebrew, and 7) Tagalog. Mostly because I love languages from different geographical areas and which are very different so that I can broaden my vision of the world and make new friends all over the world.