For most of my life, being a polyglot has been more of a pain than a joy.
Yes, that’s true. But I am here to explain why it’s important to be multilingual and how being able to speak different languages has changed my life.
For the record, I speak English, Russian, Spanish, French, and Italian fluently and Serbo-Croatian and Portuguese at an intermediate level.
I used to speak basic Hungarian when I lived in Budapest in the fall of 1997, but I have lost most of it. I can still read some Hebrew, but I can’t speak. Two weeks into my Arabic class, my Arabic language instruction CDs broke my stereo and I couldn’t play them anymore. Unfortunately, I only remember a few words in Arabic and can barely read.
I think I may have grasped your attention by now. You’re probably wondering why someone who felt burdened as a polyglot even bothers to convince others to take on the work it takes to be able to speak another language.
I came to the US from the former Soviet Union when I was three. My dad, to this day, speaks little English. At home, I spoke in Russian and outside, I spoke in English.
I didn’t chose to be multilingual. At the beginning, the languages chose me. I also didn’t chose to be burdened as a translator or interpreter, other people (namely my family) tasked me with transforming their words into English or some other tongue.
I was forced to interpret and translate for people because they couldn’t communicate for themselves. The worst was when the person I was interpreting for wasn’t particularly bright or was asking stupid questions. I was embarrassed for being their spokesperson.
Translating and interpreting are my incarnation of hell.
Because I want people to communicate for themselves, without an intermediary, especially if I’m the poor soul stuck being the intermediary.
Language is power. Language is freedom. I want people to be free.
Breaking the Iron Curtain
My family came to the US during the Cold War, when the Communist government of the Soviet Union placed severe restrictions on communication with the outside world.
In 1979, when my parents decided to leave Leningrad, they wanted to contact my mom’s uncle who had left Ukraine in 1922. Her family had lost contact with him since 1937, when Stalin had barred all contact with the outside world. My mom and one of her remaining uncles went to the Leningrad library and got the address of the St Louis City Hall. My parents found someone to write a letter in English to the mayor of St Louis asking to locate my mom’s uncle. The City Hall mail clerk, a passionate stamp collector, was interested in the Soviet stamps on the letter. He opened the letter and passed it on to someone in the Weights and Measurements office who then called several people with my uncle’s last name from the phone book until he found my mom’s uncle’s widowed wife. Then, there was a postal exchange between my mom and her cousins in St Louis and we were able to escape Communism. (My parents had a family friend write the letters in English.) Had my parents spoken better English when they lived in the Soviet Union, it would have been easier for them to locate and correspond with our St Louis family members. Foreign languages are an absolute must!
In today’s era of Internet communication, my story seems like a tale from Medieval times, but it’s not. It happened just over three decades ago.
So what does this have to do with being a polyglot?
I don’t want people to experience life through their own self-imposed Iron Curtain of monolingualism resulting in their inability to communicate with people who speak languages other than their own.
Language is a window to the world. Without being able to communicate, my world would be bland and colorless.
I want other people to be able to experience how their life is enriched by speaking other languages. Communication is much better when YOU are the one directly speaking to and listening to your interlocutor (the person with whom you are conversing) rather than through someone else. I know how hard it is to interpret and interpreters make mistakes, get overwhelmed, don’t understand someone’s train of thought etc.
Still confined by a communication barrier
Seeing my father and many other immigrants struggle with learning English in the United States, I realized that traditional language education was not effective and was usually quite boring. (My dad often fell asleep in his English classes.)
It was sad to see immigrants and refugees who had risked their lives to come to the US be unable to speak English. In the case of immigrants from Communist regimes such as the USSR and Cuba, the family members of those who emigrated/defected/escaped were often punished for our being traitors to the Communist motherland. But many Soviet and Cuban immigrants stayed in their sheltered ghettos in the US where they would barely speak in English. Although they had left the confines of Communism and had sacrificed the safety of their families, they were unable to communicate with the majority of the people in their new country. In my mind, they weren’t totally free because they still couldn’t communicate freely.
Breaking the language barrier with music
Throughout my life, I’ve felt like the lone tour guide in the Tower of Babel as I’ve learned to speak seven languages and am often the only person in a particular place who is able to communicate with various people. If one were looking for a logical thread to explain the trajectory of my life, it would be through languages and my ability to weave in and out of linguistic worlds. Partially inspired through my family’s travails with language and communication, I wrote Language is Music, about how to learn foreign languages using music and the media because I realized that I developed my excellent pronunciation and I remembered words and grammar because of the media I absorbed in my target languages. I want more people to be multilingual and not have to go through the pain my father experienced learning English. I wrote my book to get people to see that language learning is fun and not always hard!
Author of El Idioma es Música, Language is Music and Travel Happy, Budget Low