I am not your typical atypical polyglot.
I thrived in traditional language classes in school—so I thought, so my grades and all the adults around me insisted. I also sensed and said, from pre-K to now, “I hate school AND I love learning.” I’ve always had a keen love of hyperbole and stubbornly simple declarations–but there’s a whole lot of real science and personal history wrapped up in this strong, simplistic statement.
All the World at Home on the 7 Train
I grew up in New York City, born and raised. In my four-year-old transportation phase, even as a then-monolingual English speaker, I took in with all my senses Italian, English, German, Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, (Modern) Greek… all audible throughout the day on the MTA’s 7 line deep to Queens (which has the highest density of languages on Earth, each of which you can learn about in this interactive map).
My mundane little trips were a local, public, immersive, experiential education that gave me glimpses of linguistic communities all over the world and oodles of earfuls of the languages themselves.
Yes, that exposure was certainly surface. And yes, one could fairly argue (I have worried about it myself) that this was mere cultural tourism: a steep and slippery slope down to understanding too little of too much.
But I find that it ingrained in my roots not any one culture or language, but the epic, embodied idea that human language, culture, our selves, and the worlds we build and inhabit are all linked, woven, knotted together, utterly inseparably, to form a mosaic whole–one we can still examine by parts if we need to, whether by prism or kaleidoscope.
Singing and The Sound of Silence
Where and when did I internalize my most fluent second language, Spanish? It wasn’t (just) on the 7 train. It’s hard to pinpoint “everywhere” on a city map. It’s true but not useful to respond, “always–the thick city air throbbed and hummed with the tongue.”
It is true and important to my polyglot story to add that those sounds, that music I breathed in, I breathed it out too. I was my most grounded, creative, connected, and joyful–sometimes loudly, sometimes with a fierce, sustained quietness–singing in choirs, which I have done regularly since age 7. I have sung in languages ranging from English to Hungarian through Latin, Hebrew, Yiddish, Italian, French, Russian, and German. In fact, my very first encounter with Latin, as a secular Jew, was in classical choral settings of the Catholic mass I sang in as an 18 year old with orchestra. In a pattern that would repeat itself, I knew and loved Latin’s sounds and was drawn to its sacredness even not knowing what it meant–neither the message of the words, then, nor their gentle but insistent tug on me, towards something like what I understand faith to mean to the faithful. Sanctuary I grasped even then, singing in the church’s: I needed it, was consoled in my own storms of life pronouncing Sweet Honey in the Rock’s haunting sounds of consolation.
Conductors drum into singers the constant and thus ignorable truth that rests–rich silences, not breaks–are just as or more important than the notes. This message resonated with me as I stumbled on my first kid-crush, a Deaf kid with whom I spoke only American Sign Language (incidentally connecting to my Canadian roots: by historical circumstance, American Sign Language is directly descended from French Sign Language not British).
I loved the puzzle, structure and challenge of the languages as I encountered them in choir too, presaging more logical language adventures to come. We learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to be able to enunciate properly even singing in a language we don’t speak. The IPA was even better than Unicode or ASCII, a wondrous script that let me internalize and precisely produce the lilt and cadence of languages whose worlds I did not yet have rational, meaningful access to. Sometimes, though, then and still now, a language is the most significant and sensible to me when I have no access to its messages. The poetry becomes more prose, the mystery resolves itself a little too clearly, after some patient study of the literal meaning. As I walk around flaunting my command of a word whose meaning I already “know,” the real wonder and singularity of my first encounter with it only comes to mind in particularly meditative moments. Most times, I am prone to confuse mastery of craft with command of a subject. Something gained, something forgotten–verloren.
School Days: Thinking Harder is Better (…Right?)
As I entered middle and especially high school, I lost bigger swaths of my language, of that varied rock-out, wild-joy, push-through, hold-on, step-back, breathe, rest… soundtrack. I dropped concert band after sophomore year (I had played clarinet) to double up on math and enter a research competition that I thought I loved and in a real sense did. I didn’t sing in the school choir (though mein Lieblingshobby was an a cappella group, a student-run home-at-school which I attended religiously).
I chose Robotics Team over the sci-fi and fantasy games and literary magazines, because clearly I was “really” a math guy, or clearly it was more serious and taxing, and thus more worthwhile (I went to a specialized magnet high school known for math). I was really smart, so they told me–some threw the word “genius” my way–and so I could and thus should be doing hard things.
(At least, so I heard what they were telling me: the wiser ones, both peers and teacher-mentors, the foretellers of my most fulfilled life meant something different. They spoke it in the most fully human of languages I did not yet comprehend, the joint language of heart, head, study, and a lot of living in this, our world).
Thinking Hard Can Help You Think Well (…Sometimes.)
But not all who wander are truly lost. The path of the geometer may be no royal road, but (as I’ve lived) one can journey to math in awe (or to any beautifully powerful corner of our earth), a little too hurried, too green for the quest; can love and hurt in its majestic halls for a long while; and then find that its thought-world and languages still mesh lovingly with one’s new, familiarly human ones.
Thus I passed through math and stepped away from it forged more finely. I moved on but have kept it as a companion for the road–even, now, have it over like an old friend for a now-multilingual encounter into the night.
Wir machen weiter. Continuamos. Progressi sumus. Qualcosa è successo, lo che sia.
I chose Italian in middle school to make friends in the surrounding Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst, a few miles and a whole world away from home–and because it seemed harder than Spanish, which was overly familiar, too close to home. I later sang in Italian knowing not just its lilt but some of its message in voice lessons in college whose memory I still cherish; studied it to advanced overall proficiency with the more creative, personally effective methods I crafted for myself after I immersed in Latin in isolated mountain-town Italy; and now use it to read with joy and fascination both Dante the linguist and Galileo the emotive poet in my PhD research, whose core is actually Latin.
I chose Mandarin Chinese in high school because it seemed fascinatingly hard and worthy of deep study (I was totally right–with wrong-headed teenaged motivations). My parents worried about me taking a language at all: maybe I would fail the speaking test in the exit exam because of my speech impediment–but I was adamant.
Chinese is one of the few languages I have studied in formal classes and one of the only ones I have studied hard and almost completely lost, though I surprise myself once in a while by recognizing the words on storefront shops in heavily Cantonese-speaking Chinatowns. Chinese was an excellent choice: it was easier for me than other languages with my particular speech impediment, since mixing s and sh sounds, a dis-ability in English and an occasion for the arching of eyebrows in Italian, can be a simple matter of regional differences in Chinese.
In class I loved the grammar, structure, writing system, the creative calligraphy with strict rules for stroke order. I loved learning directional adverbs, memorizing radicals, analyzing sentences, and the comparative ease of learning verbs, which I now understand is true of many analytic languages. I got bored when we elite AP students were finally granted access to Chinese literature and culture. (I, now a polyglot aspiring historian of science, thought history was just a collection of old facts, mere souvenir collecting, not yet knowing that souvenir is “to remember” in its original French, not to gather tourist trinkets). While I haven’t touched Chinese in a few years, I would use my skills in analyzing language and attraction to the ancient and classical later on to study Latin, taught quite mathematically, and classical Arabic, which beautifully binds structure and sanctity, laws and contemplative philosophy, revelation and study.
We End Where We Began, But Different
“Omnia tempus habent et suis spatiis transeunt universa sub caelo.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:1, Latin Vulgate Bible)
“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.”
(ibid., King James Version)
I stretched myself with organic chemistry and AP History courses in high school, took two acting courses, loaded up on English electives, and wrote creatively all along in a STEM magnet school whose second, secret treasure was and is its English department. I learned that I knew Spanish, somehow, when I could help my best friend in robotics and physics–also a linguistics, constructed languages (conlang) and Esperanto geek–with her AP Spanish class.
I finished a math major and applied math to physics in my master’s work, alongside intensive choir and slam poetry commitments and more classes in the English department than most majors). In the filler summer between graduation and my first full-time teaching gig teaching both science and world literature (but not math), I found linguistics through grammar-based Latin. Over the next few years, I added Ancient Greek and relearned Latin as a living language (introduced to that world by the student president of my college choir). The spoken fluency I now enjoy makes possible my doctoral work on creative, multilingual communities of knowledge-makers in the Early Modern world, focused on Kepler and other mathematical astronomers writing in Latin (both technical scholarship and popular science fiction). These Latin writers (and maybe speakers?) also wrote to home and homeland in various vernacular languages, like Spanish, Italian and German. Without revivifying the Latin language for myself, I would not be able to study these particular dead as I do.
All of this background–my scattered life’s history thus far formed into words–all this contradiction, irony, love, confusion, conflict, and clarity, got me exactly where I am–fulfilled and eager for what’s next–in my life and my professional vocations. I was a polyglot, a writer, a creative all along, I think. I didn’t notice the polyglottery at all, felt rather ashamed of taking time from serious subjects for the fierce and unexpected joy of my writing craft, and noticed my creativity mostly in how I proved new theorems in mathematics (or, as I would now express it, defined and described an unexplored corner of a simulated world). I am still a mathematician–a lover of critique and a subject of criticism, someone who looks at a sunset and notes in memory all the following at once: a photograph, emotional power, existential beauty, and the physical explanation for the color gradients.
Where to? We’ll make this way together!
I’m so excited and grateful to share our multilingual worlds and form our unique polyglot identities-–because I do believe polyglottery can be a fundamental identity, not just a collection of everyday tools, mysterious feats of intellect, or conversation starters for geeks at parties.