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What is a Polyglot?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term polyglot has several definitions. The term traditionally applies to a person who can both speak and write at least three languages with great fluency, but it can also be applied to translations of works for which there is more than one lingual source. The Bible, for example, is a polyglot in many places because the same text appears in Hebrew, Aramaic, and sometimes Greek.

This word may also refer to a spoken language that mixes several different languages at once. Children who are raised bilingual often communicate in their two native languages at the same time, reaching for whatever word from either language that best fits. It is quite common to hear bilingual children carrying on discussions that switch from one language to another, even within sentences.

There are some cultures that emphasize early polyglot characteristics, although the United States tends not to be one of these cultures. Children may not start to acquire a second language until freshman year in high school in the US, unless English is a second language to them. Unfortunately, those who wait until they are older, unless they have extreme facility for learning other languages, tend not to become perfectly fluent in additional languages. Many experts believe that, without natural genius, true multilingual abilities tend to occur only in those who learn several languages as young children.

In some cultures, several languages are learned because they are necessary. In India, for example, a person might speak some English, Hindi, and Arabic. Languages are also evaluated this way occasionally because they derive words from many different language sources.

In English, for example, there are words that are Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Latin, and about 10,000 French words. The polyglot nature of English as a language makes it quite difficult to learn for non-English speakers. The language sources mean there are several ways to say the same thing, instead of just one or two. In addition, for every rule there are a number of exceptions in usage, spelling, and pronunciation.

The term can also refer to computer programs that are written in several languages so that they can be compatible for different operating systems, or alternately, several languages may be used in one program to produce the same effects. A polyglot program may also respond to commands from another language, even though theoretically it should not. There are many such programs, however, that make use easier for people familiar with different programming languages.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon345819 — On Aug 22, 2013

Polyglots have more fun in life, rarely get upset, and they are often smiling and laughing within their brains translating what they are hearing, especially when listening to others conversing in a language he/she knows, but the party conversing thinks their conversation is private.

By titans62 — On Sep 05, 2012

I think foreign language education is somewhere the US really should improve more. I guess since English is now the global language, it's not critical for people in the US to learn French or Spanish. We just expect everyone else to know English.

I went to grad school with a student from Nepal. In his schools, they taught English from the time they started classes. By the time he came to America, he spoke English better than some people that have lived here their whole lives. I was always impressed by how easy he was to understand.

That being said, they didn't learn a lot of colloquial phrases that we take for granted. I did find it fun to be the one who got to explain things like "beat a dead horse" and "how do you like them apples?"

By cardsfan27 — On Sep 04, 2012

@jmc88 - I know what you mean. I feel the same way. When I have kids, I'm going to encourage them to learn other languages. Besides it just being a good learning experience, being fluent in at least one other language opens up a lot of opportunities as far as jobs and travel goes.

I took Spanish in middle school through high school, so I can speak it well enough to get around. I started teaching myself German once I got into college. I am at a high school level with that, but I still wouldn't consider myself completely fluent. I still have to stop and think about how to say some things, because it didn't learn the language naturally. I learned it from books and computer programs.

By jmc88 — On Sep 03, 2012

I think a lot of native English speakers take for granted how difficult our language really is. When you stop to think about it, no one uses perfect grammar all the time when they are talking or writing. It's just too much to keep up with. Besides that, using perfect grammar all the time usually just sounds weird and makes you sound pretentious, since so many people use the shortcuts.

I really wish that my parents would have forced me to learn at least one other language when I was a kid. Unfortunately, I came from a rural area where there was really no one that spoke anything but English. It wasn't like there were places for kids to go to learn a foreign language if they wanted to. It was all up the parents. Although my mom speaks pretty good Spanish, she's not fluent.

By jcraig — On Sep 02, 2012

@croydon - I have never heard that word before, but I had a roommate in college who I guess would be considered a hyperpolyglot.

He was sort of forced into it in a way. One of his parents was from France and the other was Italian, so he learned both of those languages as a child. Since his parents had moved to the US, he obviously learned English, too. I guess his parents also knew several languages, so by the time I met him he could speak English, French, Italian, German, and Portuguese.

Not surprisingly, he was getting a degree in international studies. More surprising, though, he wanted to work in the Middle East as a translator. Arabic was one language that he didn't know yet. I remember he was taking the classes for it and told me how difficult it was compared to the European languages. He eventually picked it up well enough to move to Egypt for a summer semester in Arabic.

By croydon — On Jul 30, 2012

@browncoat - If she could really speak nine languages fluently, then she would be considered a "hyperpolyglot" and they tend to be quite rare. There are many people who can "get by" in many languages, but few people can truly call themselves fluent in any language they learned as an adult. As it says in the article, it takes a true gift and massive patience to learn a foreign language and most people don't have the time or the skill to get past a certain point.

There are some people who can measure their languages in the dozens, however and they are a truly special breed and often very gifted in many areas of life.

By browncoat — On Jul 29, 2012

It's amazing how easily children are able to pick up languages. It really makes you realize that it must be a particular kind of brain ability that allows them to do it when you see it in action, since anyone else has to struggle but they can do it within a few weeks.

I had a friend in West Africa with a six year old and my friend and I could converse in French because we both spoke it (although I spoke it very poorly!) but the child hadn't started learning it in school yet. When my friend realized I was interested in getting to know her child as well, she promised me the girl would speak French the next time I was in town. I laughed it off, because I was only going away for a few weeks.

When I came back, her girl spoke French better than I did. She also, by the way, spoke two other local languages and her mother spoke at least nine. I am always in awe of people who are able to do this.

By anon22600 — On Dec 07, 2008

came in by accident and will be back to sign up at a later date because it is a fascinating site!

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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