Meet the Language Polygamist

Sister Wives now on TLC

Learning multiple languages simultaneously makes Pat feel like the guy on Sister Wives.

I used to be a serial languagizer. That’s a made-up term but this is a true story. I loved all my languages, you see, but then I would leave them.

I dumped French when I was 17, despite 11 years of straight A’s. I had fallen in love with Latin.

Latin was way too old for me, but for four or five years we had a thing. At the same time I was checking out Ancient Greek. They had two totally different alphabets but it was obvious they had a lot in common, in fact they could have been related. It was poetry for a long time; it was literally epic poetry, but my brain couldn’t handle them both. I needed to cool off. So after university it was Italian, and I took it all the way, to Siena, Italy where I lived about a year.

Italy was heaven, like music 24 hours a day. But it came to an end like every time before. Back in Canada, with work/life drudgery wearing me down, I felt the need for something exotic: I tried to tame Egyptian Arabic in a single 20-hour course, with no knowledge of the alphabet. I regretted my foolishness.

My Arabic fling was sketchy and I’m sure my friends thought I was crazy. In truth, I was never over my Italian affair. But Italian was an ocean away, and maybe that’s why I tried to substitute Spanish for a year—something new but also familiar, almost nostalgic.

It went on like that for a while. Spanish had its thrills, but after Italian and French, was a bit too easy (so I thought). Finally I met my match in German—so strict and demanding, but could we ever truly mesh?

Russian was next, which, frankly, felt dangerous and I’m not quite sure how it happened. I got so mixed up I needed help from a doctor named Pimsleur.

Such tongue-raising misadventures prompt a common question: should languages only be learned serially, a la Benny the Irish Polyglot who focuses on one for three months, or can they be done in parallel? How do you keep all your languages happy? Become an interpreter? Get a job at the UN? Whatever the answer, I’m determined to try. Maybe it’s as simple as spending more time talking with the people of Toronto, who speak almost every language there is.

With Diskuto, I’ve gotten into parallel learning; I’m a more conscientious polyglot. Instead of a love-em-and-leave-em linguist, I’m more like the guy on Sister Wives—a language polygamist. I’m committed to nurturing each language, despite mishaps, miscommunications, and frequent strings of foreign cuss words (courtesy of my Swearport App). I may not be able to spend as much time with each language as I’d like, but I’m finding ways to make it work.

This multilingual mindset is far from traditional. To cope, I need aids, electronic devices, smartphone apps. Rosetta Stone, Mango Languages, Live Mocha. Without Google Translate as a wingman, the whole situation would wear me out in a hurry.

The language lifestyle is not for everyone, but I’ve come full circle: I’m getting back in touch with my old flames (except Latin and Ancient Greek—they are both dead to me); even Spanish, Italian, and German. Through it all I’ve learned how crucial it is to reach out and talk to real live people. They help me re-discover my old languages and appreciate them even more. Maybe I’ll even crawl back to Russian to figure out what the hell happened and if there’s any future for us.

Are my languages jealous of each other? Fortunately, not any more. Each new one truly adds joys to speaking the older ones, and I’m reminded of what I felt the first time I pronounced them.

I get to speak French and Spanish on Thursdays. Now I’ve tried my first Chinese tongue, at Mandarin Corner, Wednesday nights, on the sidewalk. In my spare time, I’m reaching out to Arabic, but through Modern Standard, not its wild Egyptian sister. And I’m taking time to learn the alphabet. Some things are worth doing the old-fashioned way.

About

Pat founded Diskuto so he could keep meeting amazing people and keep speaking new languages he learned. He was born and grew up in Toronto, the most multilingual city on Earth. He speaks one language well (English), two languages passably (French, Italian), three languages badly (German, Spanish, Russian), and six languages hardly at all (Latin, Ancient Greek, Arabic; Mandarin, Japanese, Portuguese). He can read HTML, CSS and PHP but it’s hard to have a conversation in those. He is also the editor of torontolanguages.com.

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  1. […] at the Diskuto Blog I’m comparing the life of a polyglot to the life of the polygamist on Sister Wives. Are you also on the lookout for new tongues to join an existing language […]

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