“You’re a polyglot? Oh! How many languages are you fluent in?!”
I suspect most who are called or call themselves polyglots usually get this response when they reveal themselves. I certainly do, and it drives me crazy.
It reflects a certain instrumental view of languages as objects or tools to accumulate. Polyglots “pick up” languages quickly and after they “master” a given language, they are justified in including it in their count of tools (and it stays in the box forever, even if it gets buried under a heap of dust). The languages are likely somewhat interchangeable for someone who asks this question, who is more interested in number than character and quality. Being a polyglot, in my experience in the United States, is considered a feat of at least slight genius, a little odd but noteworthy nonetheless—a bit like being a math whiz or winner of the pi recitation contest.
I often consider languages as instruments too: musical instruments. We ask musicians what they play, not how many instruments or (usually) how well. While there is still a strong cultural narrative of child prodigies in piano or violin, when someone tells us they play piano, we understand at some level that they must practice a lot and that they started at the beginning. We wonder how they feel about their instrument, how long they’ve played, when they started and why. We ask about the sort of music they most like to play—jazz, classical, folk, pop?–where they’ve played and for whom. If we are awed at a performance of theirs we probably lean in and not away: we might share how it moved us, ask about a part that particularly struck us, or praise them for the creation they’ve gifted the audience through their mastery. We want to know about their upcoming concerts—which we know will be totally different, even if they are still just playing that same instrument! While we might widen our eyes at someone who plays five instruments, we don’t fret over how many instruments you have to play to attain the coveted status of “real musician.”
In short, we understand that being a musician can be central to someone’s identity at any age or level. We know that mastery builds, that musicianship is a lifelong pursuit, that mastery is a craftsman’s label and not what we win when we beat the big boss. We want musicians’ stories, assuming each is unique.
When I’ve asked musicians I meet about what they play, I’ve heard:
- Clarinet in high school—starting out I wanted to play sax just like everyone else, but all the saxophones were taken when I got to pick my instrument out of the closet in my public middle school
- I love accompanying choirs: singing is way more challenging than people think, and it’s so rewarding to see the process the singers go through, be there at every rehearsal, watch them develop as people
- Well, okay, I don’t know if I would say musician… I mean, we all played recorder in third grade, right? But actually I went further with it! After a year or two I was playing Mozart and folk songs, not that “Hot Cross Buns” stuff you start off with
- I can play chopsticks, haha. No, piano wasn’t for me. But I’ve gotten back into it recently, now that I have kids… I want to expose them to music, you know, and show them what music could do for them. I’m not perfect, but when they were little my kids loved my singing to them at night…I think they still do, secretly.
In my own life, after getting stuck with clarinet and not sax in the band-room-closet scramble, the highlight of eighth grade was a Bach duet I got to play with a flautist classmate at the end-of-year concert. Clarinet brings back memories of watching the sunset from a 4th floor window at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, the crappy pizza place we piled into after concerts, and wanting to disappear whenever my teacher nagged his son, who was often at our lessons, to get his homework done just like I always did. Piano brings memories of listening: my parents both played, though I did so only under duress. I remember Joe Hill, John Henry, Beethoven, Schumann, the streets of Laredo. I remember noodling around on the piano in a back hallway where my a cappella group practiced in high school, and how when I (an atheist Jew) listened in chapel, I wasn’t always sure if it was the music I was falling in love with or the musician—or maybe sprouting some new notion of G-d.
I only got beyond the basics in choral singing, but I have fun with music. I know the struggles of doing two different things with your hands (mostly because that’s when I started giving up) and can feel my way to a chord on piano for tuning and warmup. I play scales to relax and I know that when I tackled Byrd motets and four-part polyphony, I was as much tackling my emotional life. I know how the same problems came up in my piano playing as in life and how it is to get called out on that, to hear “slow down, play through the doubt, and stop trying to be perfect” and take that home with me.
Languages, at least for this polyglot, are instruments in exactly this sense. I have a relationship with each of mine, a history, different loves and joys and persistent demons in each. If I am a collector, it’s not of badges, but as someone who relishes the make of a thing, its character and its long lineage of handlers. It’s about each coin, not the sum total. With Spanish I think of words flying on the yellow school bus as a kid, my delight at helping my best friend in high school with her AP homework even though I’d never taken a class, and how much I learned about what my students really thought before they realized I spoke Spanish. In Latin the author I turn to for comfort most often is still Saint Augustine, the first one I ever read extended passages from, and I felt a sort of mastery not when I could tackle the canon, but when I kept thinking in Latin even when my feelings tackled me.
These are the stories that I tell about knowing different languages when I get a chance. These are the ones that make me feel seen and heard, like the asker really cares about her question and its answer. When I have the chance to share about my languages I want to share love and fun, not curt numbers that distance us. On the off chance there’s still that awkward, unmerited awe, I want it to be the encouraging sort of awesome, the one that lets us continue the conversation.
So next time you meet a polyglot, ask for their story, not their stats.