Interdisciplinary Collaborations with Polyglottery

Written: June 20, 2012

The term polyglottery, the study of multiple languages, has come to best describe those who use languages in their daily life and passionately study in their free time.  The following people, some of the most influential thinkers in this discipline, could also be thought of as professional polyglots:

Dr. Alexander Arguelles, Language Specialist at SEAMEO RELC in Singapore
Luca Lampariello, studying to be a conference interpreter at ISTI in Paris
Richard Simcott, Language Consultant at eModeration Limited
Moses McCormick, runs a private tutoring business, Foreign Language Roadrunning
Benny Lewis, independent blogger of Fluent in 3 Months
Steve Kaufmann. Although Steve has indeed started a language learning site, LingQ, his main profession seems to be international trading company, KP Wood Ltd.

For those whose endeavor is not specifically the advancement of polyglottery itself, there are a number of interdisciplinary outlets wherein language learning plays an integral role.

#1: E-Learning Startups
#2: Accents and Entertainment
#3: Skepticism
#4: Ethnobotany and Endangered Languages

#1: E-Learning Startups

E-Learning startups can benefit significantly from general learning skills acquired through self-directed foreign language acquisition.

The most recent launch (as of 19 June 2012), Duolingo.com, claims that you can learn a language for free while you help translate the web.  Started by Dr. Luis van Ahn, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Duolingo began as a PhD student project to turn language translation into a fun and desirable task by “solving the problem of lack of bilinguals” (TechCruch 12 April 2011).

Free web translation is not a new concept.  You can do this for Wikipedia articles and for TED videos, but what makes Duolingo unque is that it creates motivation by letting you easily track your progress as you handle increasingly more difficult tasks.

The same thinking can be applied to any E-learning concept, be it games for children or smartphone apps for busy adults.  Independent language learners are in-tune with the learning process, and the knowledge of the challenges and hacks can certainly be applied to other learning endeavors.

#2: Accents and Entertainment

I have often thought that language learners with a sense of humor would make make good comedians, and vice-versa.  There is, however, some anecdotal evidence to the contrary, including this guy “pretending” to speak a number of foreign languages he doesn’t even know:

Both foreign language speakers and comedians seek to precisely imitate the voice and mannerisms of others in order to more effectively communicate.  Both endeavors require an integrated approach of careful observation, out-loud practice, and imagination.  How is that these disciplines have become divided?

One reason may be the perception that language learning is, in general, a serious and private endeavor undertaken alone to expand one’s horizons, while comedy is meant to be performed for the entertainment of others.

Another reason may be the difference in attitude toward accents.  Here there is little consensus even among language learners: some are proud to sound like native speakers, many shy and sensitive about sounding foreign, some comfortable remaining even barely understandable.  But for comedians, accents are finely-tuned tools with the clear purpose of making people laugh (standard accents are not as funny less intelligent accents).  Ultimately, imitating a foreign accent well on The Office can be hilarious, but imitating a coworker’s foreign accent at work may be seen as politically incorrect.

Nevertheless, singer/actress Amy Walker and polyglot Richard Simcott are already starting to bridge the gap.

On her website, Amy Walker claims to know intermediate French and basic Spanish and Italian, and like polyglots Dr. Arguelles here  and Luca below, she has made videos about how to learn accents, from this Russian Accent Tip of the Day to the “How to Learn Any Accent” masterclass below.

#3: Skepticism

As an intro to skepticism, consider its intersection with martial arts explored here by neuroscientist and co-founder of Project Reason, Sam Harris, who wrote recently of his renewed interest in self-defense and Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ):

I am convinced, however, that training in BJJ offers a powerful lens through which to examine some primary human concerns—truth v. delusion, self knowledge, ethics, and overcoming fear.

On the same note, Strange Frequencies has interviewed mixed martial artists (MMA) Matt Thornton about the recent “intersection of skepticism with MMA”:

Q.  Why have people in the skeptical community and the martial arts community been talking about mixed martial arts lately?

A.  …With martial arts,…you can’t fake being good..anymore than you can fake being able to speak Spanish or play the guitar…it’s a skill that’s testable and provable.  There’s a reality to that that draws skeptics…

Q.  Isn’t it true, though, that some sects of martial arts [are] very spiritual?

A….The ironic part is that if we define spiritual as an altered state of consciousness which is pleasurable or meaningful, you’re going to get to it from combat sports, and you’re not going to get to it from traditional martial arts.

In general, skepticism refers to the questioning of knowledge, facts, beliefs, traditions, and any claims without evidence.  It is an attitude and philosophical position that is used to positively encourage reason, critical thinking, and the scientific method as well as debunk the pseudoscience (the mission of The Skeptic Society) that often lies at the core of religious faith (the mission of The Four Horsemen of New Atheism, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and the late Hitchens).

Like mixed martial arts, polyglottery naturally intersects with skepticism. Here are three reasons why:

1.  Learning a new language really means accepting a language without questions

Have you ever heard someone say, “Why does X language have this stupid grammar rule?!  It makes no sense!”  Common among people learning their first foreign languages, this feeling of frustration comes from the abrupt and arbitrary change of rules without explanation.  To be successful, you will eventually learn to accept things “as they are” (“it is what it is”, “c’est la vie”, しょうがない…), but you yourself will never be the same.  Learning a new language will always entail a period of obedient and quasi-masochistic submission to another set of rules, the alternative to which – somewhat more mature skepticism – will naturally become increasingly delineated and liberating when applied to that which may not be not arbitrary.

2.  Communicating effectively in another language forces you to think differently 

I have been in many situations where Spanish-speakers and Brazilian Portuguese-speakers communicate with one another in either their native language or a blend of the two called Portuñol, (or Portunhol, depending on which you futbol team you favor).  Although they can indeed communicate, the differences in how they communicate often leave a “foreign” impression exaggerated by strong underlying cultural differences between Spanish-speaking Latin America and Brazil.

Communicating effectively means more than just message transmission by any means possible. It means changing the way you think, speak, and ultimately behave.  Becoming like a native speaker is the stretch goal, the subordinate of which is getting things done in the best, most wholesome way possible.

Changing the way think, and choosing to do so, are essential for skepticism where one must question, above all, one’s own motives and activities.

3.  Successful polyglots want to get better at learning and maintaining their languages

Here is where I think a collaboration between skeptics and polyglots could do the most damage: What is the best tested-method for effective language learning?

The following learning methods and claims, in my view, have an onerous burden of proof and need to be openly criticized in a mature and serious way:

–  Traditional language classroom, where number of semesters/years is used to indicate “fluency”
– Fluent in 3 Months by total immersion and speaking from Day 1 (Benny Lewis)
– Polyglot brains are different (Michael Erard, author of Babel No More)

Many serious polyglots, at one time or another, have presented ideas about learning methods and the polyglot phenomenon.  What is now needed is a more dedicated collaboration between skeptics and polyglots with the goal of not pointing fingers at anyone, but rather getting closer to a more objective, evidence-based approach to learning languages.

#4: Ethnobotany and Endangered Languages

According to UNESCO’s Endangered languages website, there are plans for a working paper entitled ‘Indigenous languages as tools for understanding and preserving biodiversity’.

The sub-theme “maintaining indigenous languages, conserving biodiversity” is based on deeply ingrained positive feedback system (vicious cycle) in which the loss of biodiversity, often through large-scale environmental destruction, results in the loss of cultural heritage and traditional knowledge, including but not limited to that embedded in endangered languages, which then results in further loss of biodiversity.

Conversely, there is also, in theory, a fruitful symbiotic relationship between environment and language, where the diversity of one encourages the diversity of the other.


Most sources recognize that the fundamental linkage between biodiversity and linguistic diversity lies in the preservation and documentation of indigenous classification systems, which often exist in the form of local names, folk taxonomies, and oral traditions.

But, aside from being the pieces of another interesting example of how humans and the environment are interconnected, why are biodiversity and linguistic diversity, as separate issues, even important at all?


Biodiversity (short for biological diversity) emerged as an international political topic in the 1980s, although there is probably literature from long before that.  In 1988, American biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson edited and partially wrote Biodiversity, an important work treating what was then identified as “the most urgent global problem: the rapidly accelerating loss of plant and animal species to increasing human population pressure and the demands of economic development.”

Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter entitled “The Current State of Biological Diversity” written by E.O. Wilson:

“Biological diversity must be treated more seriously as a global resource, to be indexed, used, and above all, preserved. Three circumstances conspire to give this matter an unprecedented urgency. First, exploding human populations are degrading the environment at an accelerating rate, especially in tropical countries. Second, science is discovering new uses for biological diversity in ways that can relieve both human suffering and environmental destruction. Third, much of the diversity is being irreversibly lost through extinction caused by the destruction of natural habitats, again especially in the tropics. Overall, we are locked into a race. We must hurry to acquire the knowledge on which a wise policy of conservation and development can be based for centuries to come.”

Around the same time, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) began exploring the need for an international legal treat, and by 1991, in one of the early UNEP negotiating sessions for a Convention on Biological Diversity held in Nairobi, the convention already declared its objective

“…to conserve the maximum possible biological diversity for the benefit of present and future generations and for its intrinsic value, [and to provide for the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits of research in biotechnology arising out of conservation of the biological diversity.  This is to be achieved] by ensuring that the use of biological resources is sustainable; [by providing adequate, new and additional funding to the developing countries) [by taking account of the need to share costs and benefits between developed and developing countries,) and by [securing] [providing] economic and legal conditions favourable for the transfer of technology [to them on preferential and non commercial terms) necessary to accomplish this objective.]”

(from the Second Revised Draft Convention on Biological Diversity)

Today, on the UNEP Convention on Biological Diversity website, you can read the history of the convention as well as the the text of convention itself (in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish) which was opened for signature in June 1992 at the Rio “Earth Summit” and entered into force on 29 December 1993.  The three objectives of the current CBD are: 1) conservation of biodiversity, 2) sustainable use of biodiversity, and 3) fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.

After the first International Year of Biodiversity in 2010, the UN General Assembly declared 2011-2010 the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity and has adopted five collective strategic “Aichi Targets”:   A) address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society, B) reduce  the direct pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use, C) improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity, D) enhance the benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystem services, and E) enhance implementation through participatory planning, knowledge management and capacity building.

Furthermore, the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre specifies three levels of biological diversity:

1.  Genetic
Genetic diversity refers to the heritable variations in the sequence of the four base-pairs which constitute the genetic code.

2.  Species
Species diversity, or species “richness”, is usually what people mean when they say “biodiversity”, and this would refer to the number of species in different taxonomic groups. About 1.8 million species have been described to date, but it is estimated that between 5 and 100 million species exist on earth at present (most are probably insects and microorganisms).

Regarding plants, in particular, the Botanical Gardens Conservation International estimates that the number of plant species currently in existence is probably around 400,000, although accurate calculations are complicated by various factors, including even the different names used for plants in different areas.  Moreover, more than 13,000 plant species have been identified by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, where over 9,000 species are listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.

3.  Ecosystem
The quantitative assessment of diversity at the ecosystem, habitat or community level remains problematic. Currently there is no unique definition and classification of ecosystems at the global level, and it is thus difficult in practice to assess ecosystem diversity other than on a local or regional basis and then only largely in terms of vegetation.


Language diversity is also a relatively recent political topic focused on protecting languages as living representations of cultural heritage, including traditional knowledge and other intangible and unwritten sources of environmental understanding.  UNESCO, in its Action Plan of its 2001 UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, set objectives for:

– safeguarding the linguistic heritage of humanity and giving support to expression, creation and dissemination in the greatest possible number of languages;

– encouraging linguistic diversity – while respecting the mother tongue – at all levels of education, wherever possible, and fostering the learning of several languages from the earliest age; and

– promoting linguistic diversity in cyberspace and encouraging universal access through the global network to all information in the public domain.

But why we should we care about the heritage of a language, much less that of many diverse human languages? UNESCO’s Endangered Languages Programme explains that

“every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value systems, philosophy and particular cultural features. The extinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others.”

Is the loss of linguistic diversity a rampant problem?  Exact numbers of languages are probably impossible to measure (due to the lack of definitions of things like dialects vs. languages, living vs. dead, etc).  Nevertheless, various sources, including UNESCO  and SIL’s Ethnologue, indicate that there over 6,000 living human languages in the world, and that over 2,000 of these are either vulnerable or endangered.

On this interactive UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, you can search for endangered languages by area, name, number of speakers, and vitality.  Below I have copied the six degrees of vitality/endangerment based on various factors, most importantly intergenerational transmission, with the current numbers of languages in bold.

safe language is spoken by all generations; intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted
>> not included in the Atlas
vulnerable vulnerable most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home) ~ 601
definitely endangered definitely endangered children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home ~648
severely endangered severely endangered language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves ~ 526
critically endangered critically endangered the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently ~576
extinct extinct there are no speakers left ~231
>> included in the Atlas if presumably extinct since the 1950s

There is much progress to made in the exploration of plants and languages in search of botanical and knowledge sources, somewhat of a mix between Chris Kilham, the Medicine Hunter and polyglot Mike Campbell (“Glossika”), the latter of which can be found here talking about his study of the aboriginal languages of Taiwan.


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