Creator: ivosar | Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto Copyright: ivosar

While I’m struggling to learn Japanese, and all of you guys are trying your best to learn English, there are some people out there who can speak multiple different languages to a high level of proficiency. Today I want to look at these people, discuss how they can learn languages effectively, and discuss what we can learn form multilingual polyglots!

Interactive Transcript!

You Can Now Read and Listen at the Same Time With an Interactive Transcript!

To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!

Listen Here!


  • Polyglot (n) – someone who can speak or use several different languages.
    • My tutor’s something of a polyglot – she speaks seven languages.
  • Multilingual (adj) – (of people or groups) able to use more than two languages for communication.
    • He is receiving language lessons so he can understand his multi-lingual team-mates.
  • Repertoire (n) – the entire range of skills or aptitudes or devices used in a particular field or occupation.
    • The Royal Shakespeare Company also have many modern plays in their repertoire.
  • Cognitive (adj) – connected with thinking or conscious mental processes.
    • Some of her cognitive functions have been impaired.
  • Maintenance (n) – the process of keeping or continuing something or the work needed to keep something in good condition.
    • Bridges require a lot of maintenance.
  • Aptitude (n) – a natural ability or skill.
    • My son has no/little aptitude for sport.
  • Embrace (v) – to accept something enthusiastically.
    • This was an opportunity that he would embrace.
  • To juggle (v) – to try to do two or more jobs or activities at the same time, because you do not have a lot of time.
    • Flexible working hours help staff juggle work and family life.

Polyglot YouTubers

One of my favourite YouTube channels is XiaomaNYC. I recommend this channel to all of you listening– it features a man from New York city learning and using languages in interesting and surprising situations.

I first watched him a few years ago, when his channel was much smaller, and his videos mainly consisted of him using his language skills to confuse and shock customers in New York’s China Town. Xiaoma (or his real name is Ari) speaks very good Mandarin Chinese, but as a white American few shopkeepers and customers in China town expected he would be able to understand them.

As his channel has grown, Xiaoma has branched out to other languages. He can speak a little Cantonese and Fujianese. He has recorded videos learning and using languages of Africa (like Wolof and Yoruba), indigenous languages including Cherokee and Mayan, and many more.

Xiaoma’s most viewed videos

XiaomaNYC is just one of many YouTube channels featuring multilingual “polyglots.” There seems to be a fascination with people who are able to speak many languages at the same time. Even if many of these channels are fake polyglots (people who just memorise some very common phrases and questions in different languages) a lot of people really would like to be able to communicate in many languages.

And I know that I, myself, would love to be a “polyglot.” My ambition is to achieve a higher level of Japanese proficiency, then move on to Chinese and other languages!

So today, I’d like to take a deeper look at polyglots and multilingual people. We’ll discuss what a polyglot actually is, some examples of famous polyglots throughout history, and think about lessons we could all learn about language learning from those people who speak many languages!


What is a Polyglot?

Let’s begin by defining “polyglot.”

A polyglot is an individual who possesses the ability to speak or understand multiple languages. Some definitions suggest a polyglot must speak 3 different languages while others say 6, but in either case it means someone who can communicate effectively in multiple languages.

Whether they can fluently converse, read, write, or comprehend various languages, polyglots showcase a high level of proficiency. The word itself comes from the Greek words “polus,” meaning “many,” and “glottis,” meaning “tongue” or “language.”

Now, it’s important to distinguish between being multilingual and being a polyglot. While both involve having the ability to communicate in multiple languages, there is a subtle difference between the two.

Multilingual people have acquired the knowledge to communicate in several languages, often out of necessity or cultural background. I have quite a few friends who speak 3 or 4 languages, usually due to growing up in different countries or having multilingual parents. They speak multiple languages because they need or needed to speak multiple languages.

On the other hand, polyglots take language learning to a whole new level. The term polyglot implies language learning is a hobby. Polyglots are learning languages because they like to. And they don’t just love learning one language – they will keep studying and studying. It is their passion rather than something they need to do.

For many people, being a polyglot represents linguistic excellence and great communication between diverse cultures. Polyglots are often ambassadors for rare languages or languages usually not learned by the majority of people.

Do you want to Think in English?

I’m so excited that you found my blog and podcast!! If you don’t want to miss an article or an episode, you can subscribe to my page!

Famous Examples of Polyglots

Throughout history, there have been some well-known multilinguists and polyglots.

For example, Cleopatra, the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, supposedly possessed exceptional language skills. She was known to be fluent in multiple languages, including Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew, and possibly the languages of Ethiopians, Syrians, Armenians and more. Cleopatra’s linguistic prowess played a vital role in her diplomatic engagements, allowing her to communicate effectively with foreign leaders and forge alliances.

A more modern multilingual rule was Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietnamese independence movement and the first President of North Vietnam. He spoke fluently in several languages, including Vietnamese, French, English, Chinese, and Russian. In fact, it is even reported that Ho Chi Minh may have been able to speak Esperanto, a constructed (or invented) language.

Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American inventor and electrical engineer, also possessed an impressive linguistic repertoire. He spoke eight languages fluently, including his native Serbian, as well as English, French, German, Italian, Czech, Latin, and Hungarian. Tesla’s language skills facilitated his communication with scientists, engineers, and investors, contributing to his groundbreaking innovations in the field of electricity and power transmission.

And finally, Queen Elizabeth I of England, known as the “Virgin Queen,” was fluent in multiple languages, including English, French, Spanish, Italian, Ancient Greek and Latin.

For all of these people, language skills helped to shape their lives and careers. Through their multilingualism, they forged alliances and established connections with people from diverse backgrounds.

Can Anyone Become a Polyglot?

The interpretation of what it means to be a polyglot can vary, as you may have different perspectives on language mastery compared to me. Some people would consider being able to have basic conversations in many languages an example of a polyglot, while others would require you to be able to think and use the languages creatively.

For some, being a polyglot means being able to communicate fluently, both orally and in writing, and understanding various dialects and cultural references. Others might consider the ability to understand and read multiple languages at an advanced level as the benchmark for polyglotism.

Achieving polyglot status is influenced by a combination of factors, including natural talent, language aptitude, and dedication. In fact, research suggests that polyglots have both high language aptitude and a high level of language awareness.

Language aptitude encompasses factors such as memory, analytical skills, and the ability to mimic sounds and patterns. Language awareness refers to how well a person knows and understands how words work in different languages. These two factors combined make it much easier for a person to become a polyglot.

However, it’s important to also recognize that dedication and consistent practice are equally essential in the journey to becoming a polyglot.

Never miss an episode

Subscribe wherever you enjoy podcasts:

What Can We Learn from Polyglots?

What can we, as language learners, learn from polyglots? What are the methods they use that allow them to master multiple different languages in a relatively short time span?

Master the Basics

First, the easiest way to improve in a language is to start using it as soon as possible. Many people spend months, maybe even years, studying before they ever try to use their foreign language in a real situation.

I know it can be awkward and scary to use English, for example, but you need to start using it as soon as possible. And this is what polyglots do!

How do they do this? They master the basics of a language first. You may be surprised, but the majority of conversations with new people are very similar. How are you? Where are you from? What do you do?

You can learn these phrases and start using them in conversation straight away. Learn the basic grammar and essential vocabulary for your purposes – get that solid foundation and start using the language!

Social Skills and the Ability to Interpret

Another thing that polyglots have is a high level of language awareness. This includes both social skills and interpretation skills.

One of the most challenging things about using languages like English in the real world is that real world English is probably not the same as you learned in your textbook. Something I’ve realised with students in the past is that knowing the answers to questions is usually not a problem, but understanding the question itself can be an issue.

Here’s a simple example. Maybe you learn the question “What is your job?” and you can answer this question easily. But what if I ask “What do you do for work?” or “What line of work are you in?” ­– these questions have the same meaning but are phrased in different ways.

Language learners who have the social and interpretation skills to understand questions phrased in different ways tend to be much better language learners. You need to be able to understand what is being said or asked even if the language is phrased in an unusual way!

I went to the dentist in Japan recently, and despite knowing almost no dental Japanese, I was able to follow and mostly understand the dentist and answer many of his questions. While I didn’t necessarily understand the vocabulary he was using, as I’d never learned it, social cues and my ability to interpret meant I could understand!



Next, attitude is really important. Polyglots are people who love learning languages, and this makes it so much easier for them to be motivated to learn and study.

Having a positive attitude, thinking about learning positively, and positively seeking out opportunities to practice and study can make language learning more enjoyable and efficient!

“Someone who doesn’t like language learning but still wants to learn the language doesn’t really want to learn the language.” Steve Kaufmann

I think this quote is quite useful and related to the idea of attitude. Let me try to explain.

Why do you want to learn English? Polyglots want to learn languages because they enjoy the process of learning – it is an enjoyable challenge. How about you?

If you don’t like language learning, if you find learning English boring or annoying, then the chances are you don’t really want to learn English. You want the benefits of the skill –  maybe a better job or a place at a university – rather than the skill itself.

And this can make it much harder for you to learn English. If you enjoy the process of studying, if you like learning and practicing, then learning a language will be much easier!

Pros and Cons of Being Multilingual

To end this episode, I think we should examine the pros and cons of being multilingual. Being able to communicate in multiple languages brings both advantages and challenges. Let’s start with the pros.

Benefits of being multilingual are numerous and extend beyond simply being able to converse in different languages. Here are some key advantages:

  1. Improved cognitive abilities: Multilingualism has been linked to enhanced cognitive functions, such as better problem-solving skills, increased attention span, and improved memory. Switching between languages exercises the brain, leading to cognitive flexibility and mental agility.
  2. Increased job opportunities: In today’s globalized world, being multilingual is a valuable asset in the job market. Many employers seek individuals who can communicate with diverse customers, clients, or colleagues in different languages. Multilingual individuals often have a competitive edge and access to a wider range of career opportunities.
  3. Cultural understanding and empathy: Language is deeply intertwined with culture. By learning different languages, you gain a deeper understanding of other cultures, traditions, and perspectives. Multilingualism fosters cultural empathy and helps break down barriers between individuals from different linguistic backgrounds.
  4. Enhanced travel experiences: When you can speak the language of the country you are visiting, it opens up a world of opportunities for meaningful interactions and immersive experiences. You can engage with locals, navigate through unfamiliar places with ease, and gain a deeper appreciation for the local culture.

While the benefits of being multilingual are often great, there are also challenges that multilingual individuals may encounter:

  1. Language maintenance: Learning multiple languages requires ongoing practice and maintenance. Without consistent use, language skills can deteriorate over time. Multilingual individuals need to allocate time and effort to maintain proficiency in each language they speak.
  2. Identity struggles: Speaking multiple languages can sometimes lead to identity complexities. Multilingual individuals may navigate between different cultural identities associated with each language they speak. Finding a balance and embracing one’s cultural and linguistic diversity can be a personal journey.
  3. Balancing multiple languages: Juggling multiple languages can be demanding, especially when each language requires attention and practice. Multilingual individuals may need to switch between languages depending on the context, which can require mental effort and adaptability.

I know this from personal experience. I loved my time learning Chinese; it was an incredible language… but my Japanese definitely suffered. I struggled to balance and understand the two different languages in my head. And I know many of you will feel the same.

If you are planning on studying multiple languages at the same time, you need to remember what your goals are and make sure you allocate enough time to maintaining your different skills!

Final Thought

Polyglots, who possess the ability to speak and understand multiple languages, offer valuable insights to normal language learners. They emphasize the importance of mastering the basics, developing social and interpretation skills, and maintaining a positive attitude towards language learning.

While being multilingual has numerous benefits, such as improved cognitive abilities and increased job opportunities, it also comes with challenges like language maintenance and identity struggles. Therefore, we should be mindful of our goals and allocate sufficient time to each language we study.

What do you think? How many languages can you speak? How many languages do you want to speak?

Extended Vocabulary List

To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!

Vocabulary Games and Activities!

Learn and practice vocabulary from this Thinking in English episode.
Practice using 5 different study games and activities – including writing, listening, and memorisation techniques!

To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!
Matching Game
To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!
Learning Game
To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!
Test Yourself
To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!
Listening and Spelling
To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!

Donate to Thinking in English!


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly
Liked it? Take a second to support Thinking in English on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

Leave a Reply