Polyglots are people who can speak at least four (some set the number a little higher, at five or six) languages well enough to hold an everyday conversation in the language. As of the writing of this article, I have not read a novel, poem, or short story, seen a film, or heard a song featuring a polyglot. They may exist, but none instantly spring to mind. Creating a polyglot character would add a unique angle to your work. Here are some features real polyglots seem to share. Use these, or any one of these, as a starting point for your next piece, or all of them as points of reference for a polyglot character.
While many polyglots review language learning programs, none of them wait until they have the money to spend hundreds of dollars on Rosetta Stone or a similar program before starting. Most polyglots seem willing to use everything from tutoring programs to free websites to good old fashioned print books to learn their languages.
Polyglots are not afraid to be beginners and to sound like them.
Nobody is good at something the minute they try it for the first time, and speaking another language is no exception. Polyglots understand this. They aren’t afraid to speak a language, even when they know they’re going to sound a bit rough or even childish to a native speaker or someone more fluent than them.
Most polyglots are not upset when corrected.
We hate to be told we’re not perfect these days. Anyone who suggests the slightest change in any aspect of our lives is labeled “negative” and brushed off. We excuse conflating our opinions with fact by saying “That’s MY truth.” Polyglots don’t do this, at least not when it comes to language learning. When a native speaker says, “No, it’s actually said this way…” the polyglot corrects themselves and tries again rather than arguing.
They respect other cultures and languages.
Polyglots do not make fun of other cultures or other languages, and many English speaking Americans are unfortunately prone to this behavior. I once saw a thread on social media where people were proud to announce that they said “tacos” and “burritos” because they had no idea what the song “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi was about. There’s just no point in doing things like that. It wasn’t original or clever or funny. It just made them sound stupid, and wasted the opportunity to find out what the song is actually about. Most polyglots do not respond to unfamiliar languages in this way, and are often inspired to learn an additional language after hearing it in a song or other piece of art.
Polyglots don’t approach language learning the way we do in school.
For most of us, our language requirement is just another class. We learn how to do the homework and pass the test in the language, but we don’t truly learn the language. In both my Spanish and French classes in high school and college, we didn’t even learn a second tense of a verb until many months into our studies. This renders your skills practically useless. In order to have even the most basic conversation in any language, you’re going to need to know more than one verb tense. Polyglots aim to understand and truly speak the language, not just pass a class in it.
Even when full language immersion is impossible, polyglots surround themselves with the language they are learning.
Most polyglot’s language learning advice includes watching movies or television shows, listening to music, and reading as much as you can in your target language. Polyglots do things like change the language setting on their phones to their target language, or write their grocery lists in the language. The well-known language learning method of labeling things around the house with post-its written in the target language is something a polyglot might do.
Clubs, conferences, and other gatherings for polyglots are a resource for those who can afford to attend.
Polyglots do not necessarily have a lot of money. It is possible to use the internet, books from the library, and free tutoring or language exchange programs to learn a language without spending money. Those who do have some money to devote to their language learning may travel to attend conferences or other gatherings devoted to polyglots.
Polyglots argue over who is and who is not a real polyglot.
While being able to speak four languages, your native language and at least three others, well enough to hold a conversation in those languages is the most common standard, it is not universally accepted. Some insist you must speak at least five. Others demand fluency in each language, not just conversational ability.
Fake polyglots are a problem language learning enthusiasts.
Fake polyglots are people who present themselves as polyglots, while only actually knowing a few words or phrases in the language, or being able to speak just enough to fool non-speakers into thinking they can communicate in that language. Genuine language learning enthusiasts understandably resent this, as anyone who puts in the time and effort needed to learn a skill would resent somebody claiming it without putting in the work. When a fake polyglot is drawing students away from polyglots who teach language, or getting their videos monetized on YouTube while a real polyglot is not paid for their content, this resentment of course intensifies.
A polyglot character will certainly make your work stand out. And they may just inspire you, or someone who reads or hears your work, to learn a whole new language themselves.