The Polyglot Challenge

How would you like to be able to fluently speak another language?

Growing up in an English speaking society, relatively sheltered from other languages in the middle of the Canadian prairie, I never gave much attention to this question. And I certainly never entertained the ideas of becoming a polyglot.

My only experience with another language had been the mandatory French lessons for 5-6 years in school. Like it is for many, this was a gruelling exercise, not a fun and exciting means of opening a new culture to me.

In short, after receiving this education my abilities were abysmal – just about matching my interest level.

It never occurred to me that in so many places arund the globe, fluently speaking multiple languages is closer to a fact of life than unheard of.

And it never occured to me that beging bilingual – or even a polyglot – could be one of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of my life.

Now, having been to the far-flung corners of the Earth and hearing exemplary English spoken from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Helsinki, Finland, I want in.

After all, I’m going to be traveling the world anyway. It’s only a small logical step to learn the languages of the world as well. Another sort of travel, really.

In brief, the Polyglot Challenge is my journey of self discovery, so see if an ordinary, every-day sort of dude can learn to speak with people – wherever I go – in their native toungue.

Of course, there’s not enough time to learn the world’s 1000s of languages, but I’m not doing this for some arbitrary sense of completion or perfection. It’s about continual growth and development. It’s about communication and relating to people as deeply and honestly as possible. It’s about respect.

Why Become a Polyglot?

In general, I think the endeavor of learning is important for every human being to feel full – or fullfilled. For me, that used to be guitar. Now – it’s languages.

But this reason is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to good reasons for language learning.

At the heart of it, learning languages is all about people. About experiencing a new culture from the inside, about understanding and respect, about the deep thrill and joy of relating to someone half a world away.

But why languages – plural?

I actually think that, in a strange sort of way, it’s easier to learn many languages than to learn just 1 new one.

The advantage of learning many languages is that it forces us to take a really close look at our approach to learning.

If we only want a second language, we can probably afford to take 5 years or more to reach a high level. It’s easier to be satisfied with “adequate” and not push ourselves beyond our comfort zone.

Whereas the comfort zone is enemy #1 of the aspiring polyglot.

To learn many languages, we have to care about the efficiency of our learning process. We have to maximise our ability to use our memory, deconstruct the challenges in a target language, master the mechanics of our speech organ, improve our ear, and so on.

That is, we have to develop the fundamental skills that affect our ability to learn any/every language.

Even if our goal is to only learn 1 other language, I think this mindset can help us achieve much better results than is typical. Why do guys like Benny the Irish Polyglot only need 3-6 months to learn a new language, whereas the averge, everyday language student usually needs 3-6 years?

How Fast Can A Language Be Learned?

Is it really possible to be fluent in 3 months as Benny claims, or in 6 as Chris Lonsdale describes in this TEDx talk?

My answer is yes, but I think that for most people, getting such a result on their first attempt at an additional language is unlikely, because we have so much to discover about the mechanics of learning, and so many of our own fears, doubts, and bad habits to overcome.

For me, I didn’t succeed at speaking native level French or Russian within 3 months.

However, the results I got were encouraging. I read The Da Vinci Code & Game of Thrones in French and regularly conversed with locals in both French and Russian, which are fairly respectable results. Maybe not world-class – yet – but by fine tuning my methods, I have little doubt that such results are achievable.

Which brings me to one of the most important aspects of language learning:

The goal isn’t to achieve some vague idea of “fluency.” That line can always be moved. Even in English, there are words I don’t know and concepts about which I’m not capable of having a deep conversation. And the same goes for everyone. Gaps don’t make us any less fluent speakers of our native language.

This is why, in our target language(s), it’s important to have some concrete targets, or “mini goals.”

For example, reading Game of Thrones in my target language is a lofty goal, as this book is a tough read in English. But it’s concrete, tangible, and verifyable. I know if I’ve done it, and the people around me can vouch for my success or failure. Whereas “fluency” is much harder to verify in the same sense.

So for myself I’ve come up with some general mini-goals to hit in any language:

  • Read The Da Vinci Code (Intermediate) and Game of Thrones (Advanced)
  • Pass the C2 level language exam* (advanced)
  • Give a language-learning presentation in my target language

*The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages has 6 levels, A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2, ranging from beginner through to advanced/native level mastery.

The one problem with these goals is that they don’t translate into acquiring advanced speaking abilities. Thus, these are basically benchmarks to roughly gauge my upper limit abilities in a language.

More important, since my primary objective is to be able to speak with people, is exactly that – mini goals related to speaking. But these are situation dependant, and it’s difficult to make a general, cross-language list.

For instance, in Russia I might set a mini goal of being able to discuss the Russian education system with my professor. I’d have to learn a particular set of vocabulary and master of some basic concepts in order to have this conversation. But this exact situation wouldn’t have made sense for me in France, where I lived on a farm. There, my mini-goals were different.

Anyway, I’ll get deeper into the mechanics of language learning later. For now, suffice to say that in my Polyglot Challenge, I’ll be using the previously stated benchmarks as measuring sticks, because for now they’re the best measuring sticks in my toolbox.

My Languages

Here, I will keep an account of where I’m at in my various languages. And more than that, we’ll be able to see over time how my ability to learn languages has improved – or not.

So far, I can say I’m a reasonably effective communicator in 3 languages: English, French, and Russian. I’ve very briefly dabbled in Portuguese, Thai and Malay/Indonesian.

Current Language – Russian (Intermediate)

Russian, the most challenging least familiar language I’ve really dug into so far. With a different alphabet and lexical roots for many words, it was a fun challenge to get my ear/brain in tune with the harmony and melody of Russian. Mercifully there are still a boatload of latin cognates.

Grammatically, Russian has a lot of sticky spots for native speakers of Romance languages – namely, the case system, whereby the endings of nouns change depending on the role they play in a sentence.

For example, the word “dog” in: “I see a dog” and “The dog sees me” and “I give a cookie to the dog” will have a different form each time.

However, the grammatical difficulties are worth the effort, for Russian is a beautiful language which will open up the culture of the old-Soviet world Russian is either spoken, or a close relative to, the languages spoken in Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Czech-Republic and many countries ending in -stan.

According to the practice tests I’ve taken, I’m at a B1 or B2 level (Intermediate or Advanced Intermediate)

French (Intermediate)

French was familiar to me growing up, as all Canadians learn French for 5 or 6 years in school. Like most adults, my ability to use the language was effectively nonexistant. 6 months in France (3 in 2010, and again in 2014) took care of that.

Like a lot of language learners, my speaking ability lags behind everything else in French, but when this was an active language for me, I had conversations with friends and strangers alike with a large degree of success. When I went to Malaysia, for example, my first conversation was with a woman from France – who would’ve thought! I probably ended up speaking almost as much French as Malay due to some friendships I developed there.

When this language was in active use, I could read adult level literature. I often use French in order to study additional languages.

I definitely have room to improve, to learn more expressions/idiomatic phrases and to improve my speaking.

Achievements: Read The Da Vinci Code, and Game of Thrones

Portuguese (Beginner)

One week I decided to challenge myself and see how long it would take to learn to read the Portuguese newspaper. Given as I already knew a great deal of French (this was after my 1st sojourn in France) and English, the grammar and vocabulary weren’t to hard to pick up. I only needed to learn sever hundred common (and therefore easy to learn) words in order to have the similarities between these languages to take over.

3 days was all I needed, and I could read the Portuguese news and tell you what was going on in the world.

Naturally, disuse has left me without much ability left, but when I focus on Portuguese again, I will have a basis similar to when I really took an interest in French.

Malay/Indonesian (Beginner)

Unfortunately, I only started learning Malay towards the end of my time in Malaysia. As my first stop in Asia, I was constantly checking out new sights and sounds, and I never really took an interest in the language of a country where everyone seemed to speak excellent English.

Several hundred words allowed me to have basic conversations with people at markets or restaurants, but it never got more sophicticated than that.

English (Native)

English is my native language, which I’m only including in this list for the sake of completeness. I guess you could say that some of my crowning achievements in the language are having my writing read by over half a million people and being a guest English professor.

Have you ever wanted to learn another language, but not known how to get started? Or have you learned another language, but want to add more? Then join me in this journey! Let me know in the comments about your own language learning experiences and goals.

The following two tabs change content below.

AJ Walton

AJ Walton will show you how to travel the world on your budget, how to make money on the road, and why you don't have to live the way others expect. Get the free guide: 101 Ways To Make Money While Traveling

One thought on “The Polyglot Challenge”

  1. Hello! I’m from Malaysia and I love what you wrote about setting mini-goals in order to achieve a certain degree in a language. I myself am learning Russian and French. I will certainly try out your tips. Thank you for giving me a good read! :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge


Currently in Saint Petersburg , Russia

  • Get Exclusive Tips!

    Get exclusive travel tips and insights that I only share with my private newsletter subscribers.

  • Categories

  • Follow on Facebook!

  • Our Awesome Partners