On Being A Polyglot

More about becoming than being one, actually.

A polyglot is someone who knows and uses several languages in the same time. It’s not merely about the ability to translate on word in one language to another. But it’s also about transferring the meaning and the context of every word being used.

Born from a set of parents coming from different tribes, raised in a city which was not their hometown, surrounded by people from diverse backgrounds since an early age, and eventually marrying someone from different culture, have made me apt to the presence of more than one language in my daily life.

My parents speak Bataknese to each other, but they prefer to speak Indonesian to their children. They come from different sub-tribes and they use different vocabularies, but they understand each other well. There were Bibles and books of songs both in Batak Toba and Batak Simalungun languages in our home. They resume their original way of conversing only when they encounter families and relatives who come from the same sub-tribe.

I learned English since I was six, being overly fascinated by Big Bird and the gang from Sesame Street TV Show. At seven years old, I was enrolled in a German course for kids. The lesson didn’t last long because the teacher passed away due to breast cancer, one of a very few cases back in the 90’s, if I may recall. Afterwards I realized that I was using three languages actively, Indonesian, English, and Sundanese, in terms of speaking, writing, listening, and reading.

People say that being, or becoming a polyglot, is a natural gift. We can put a child in an environment speaking other language than the language he’s used to, and we can expect him to be able to speak the said language in no time. Without proper introduction, lesson, or training to master the language.

I disagree with that opinion.

Mastering language is as much hard work as mastering other skills, be it cooking, or sewing, or driving a car, to name a few. We may have the talent, but it will not matter if we don’t work hard to achieve the mastery in that field. Thomas Alva Edison was always right: it’s 1% talent and 99% hard work. What perceived as talent is actually the soft skills ingrained in us over so many aspects and over the years.

To become a polyglot what we need first is the ability to listen. Without it, we won’t know how the other language is spoken and used differently than the one we’re familiar with.

After that comes the demand to memorize the new vocabularies. Back then when I lived in Japan and Switzerland, I depended heavily on how my brain could absorb new words which had the same meanings with the words in the languages I knew. I hadn’t studied about any tenses and grammars both in Japanese and French, but by knowing the right words to convey my intentions, I could get by pretty fairly before I was enrolled in any formal lessons.

We have the key to the gate of mastering new language by doing the previous two steps. What we need now to push the gate open is by familiarizing ourselves with the language, every single possible time. That’s the only way I knew, and that way worked effectively for me.

Taking language lesson twice a week is  far from sufficient. We need to be hungry enough to know the language by utilizing every means we have. Read a book starting from children comprehension level, listen to songs, watch TV programs, converse with the language’s native speakers, those are a few of many steps to be closer to mastering new language.

I must admit that opportunities to learn foreign languages came unexpectedly to me. I was awarded a scholarship to do a research in Japan when I was twenty years old, just because I was fluent in German. The program was more than young scientists participating in research in their respective fields. The program was more about establishing friendship and partnership among the foreign students. Living in Japan had also given me opportunity to learn Japanese firsthand in its natural environment. While I was there, I was determined to learn Korean just because: 1) I made good friends with a few Koreans in Tokyo, and 2) I needed some basics before going backpacking to that neighboring country.

Coming back to Indonesia in 2004 after utilizing 100% English for my research and 100% Japanese for daily life, had made me exposed to various foreign languages which have little to no similarities in terms of origins and structures. It’s easier to learn German if we master English, like it’s easier to understand Korean’s grammar if we have knowledge of Japanese’s beforehand. The knowledges and skills in each respective language collided and were intertwined not always in a good way, that they made me confused many times.

Had I turned into a polyglot?

Absolutely not. I was fluent in Indonesian and English, in intermediate level in German, and in beginner level for Japanese and Korean. It’s hard to maintain the proficiency with too many languages fighting to occupy the little space in my limited brain. From 2004 to 2005 I found it hard to explain myself coherently in one language, without mixing it up with the logics of the other four languages I knew.

Fast forward eight years later and I landed in Neuchatel in Switzerland, the French-speaking part of the country. I wasn’t enrolled in a language school right away. During the first months I had to rely on my German to talk to the locals, who thankfully also spoke German other than French. I was again indebted to my mother for forcing me to learn the language and reach the proficiency I had. Without German, I wouldn’t have gone to Japan, and I wouldn’t have survived the early days in Neuchatel.

In 2013 I was already introduced to six languages and except for Indonesian and English, my proficiency level hadn’t improved much since the first time I took lessons on German, Japanese, Korean, and French.

To become a polyglot, I had to focus. So, restraining my time, energy, and attention to one language at one time was definitely the answer.

The effort started well in 2016 when I had a new neighbor, a French family whose lady of the house was a French teacher in a high school back in Paris. She became my French teacher for over a year. We used the books I got from the language school in Neuchatel, but then she improvised with new materials. The final test I took was a conversation test with her in-laws who just came from France. I was drenched in cold sweat, so nervous that I might have broken down, felt terrified for not using the correct grammars or speaking with correct pronunciation (duh, it’s French), but I passed the test. My teacher’s father and mother in-law were very sweet and kind to talk to. They asked simple things about my background, what I studied, how many children I had, and so on. My teacher showed them a letter I wrote her describing myself, and I knew how proud she was because as her pupil, I worked hard to learn the language.

In the same year I joined a taekwondo dojang led by a Korean and filled with Korean mothers. The only non-Korean people there were I and my French teacher. I was quickly encouraged to learn the language so I could exercise the correct manners, greetings, and basic conversations. My taekwondo seniors became my language teachers, and I was engaged in social events with them two to three times a week to get myself familiar with Korean. Oh, and I also watched lots of Korean dramas with English subtitle and lots of Behind-The-Scenes videos of drama making with Hangeul subtitle. They helped A LOT.

Before there were French and Korean lessons, I was hanging out with an Indonesian woman who married a Japanese and whose daughter went to the same ballet school with mine. We would meet up once or twice a week for tea or coffee, while our children were at school. I still remembered the Japanese grammars, so I only needed help to recall the vocabularies through conversations. Learning Japanese again from her was priceless. She could help me more because she’s fluent in three languages: Indonesian, English, and Japanese. Sadly, she relocated to another city and my lesson had to end.

Five years later in 2021 I realized that want to be a polyglot and to excel in every language I’m employing. Focus is the key, and determination to succeed is the drive. Indonesian, English, and Korean were what I chose for this year. I have made considerable efforts to upgrade my skills by enrolling myself in language courses, and by reading many more books than last year, or even the year before.

I don’t like doing anything halfway. If I want something, I need to make sure that I’ll be good at it. I want to be a good polyglot who is not only sufficient in translating word by word, but also exceptional in conveying the true meaning of a certain language, within the correct context of the speakers’ culture.

I feel that I’m by no means a polyglot right now. I’m just someone who loves learning languages and tries to master them, so that I will be able to communicate with more people, gain more inspirations, and manifest them in quality writings.

So help me, God.

3 thoughts on “On Being A Polyglot

  1. Always a pleasure to read you. I love your descriptions and how you amphise your feelings.
    I apologise for the stress during your exams 😋
    You are a natural curious person, in a good way, open for new experiences and meeting new people.
    For me being polyglot, it is not about how well you master different languages but how you use your knowledge to make the link between different situations and of course to connect with people.
    I am sure new projects will come to you and with it…new languages.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maud, it’s a surprise to see you on WordPress! The writing above is just a bit contemplation on how I got to learn foreign languages. And of course I’ll write about learning French and you, my great teacher 🙂 I hope to read what you have been up to on FB or blog. Stay safe ❤️


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