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studychinese

Calling out the polygots

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mungouk
2 hours ago, Lu said:

'I've studied more than fifty' is just as meaningless as 'I speak five languages' if you don't specify what exactly you studied

 

To be fair he is quoted as saying "I have studied more than fifty, and I use about half of them."

 

If you are a lover of languages and enjoy studying/researching/learning them through your own intrinsic motivation, why would you need to take exams unless you intend to use them in your work? 

 

(FWIW I do actually put CEFR levels on my CV, but never feel entirely comfortable with that... my C1 French was 30 years ago but I still understand it comfortably and tell myself I could get back into it quickly if needed. Possibly delusional, and certainly not really C1 any more right now, but it's the only objective measure I have.)

 

Maybe this is a long-standing discussion on the forums (I'm a newcomer), and it's a standing complaint about polyglots that they don't specify what "speaking" actually means, but I thought the discussion in the article on nuances etc. is interesting. Would someone with 7.0 in IELTS be able to understand English spoken with a Newcastle or Glaswegian accent?  Standards only go so far I guess.

 

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Lu

Sure, the full quote is "I have studied more than fifty, and I use about half of them", and then my next complaint is that 'use' is not defined either. How much use does use mean here? Saying 'Danke schön' once a year to yourself in an empty room? Teaching a full MA course load in German after negotiating a contract in it? Something in between?

 

Nobody has to take any exam (I didn't take any for at least half of the languages I studied). But if you want to research polyglots, or write anything meaningful about them, you first need to define what a polyglot is. Unless 'polyglot' becomes something you can just identify as, like 'polyamourous', which I think is not really the way to go. (Or perhaps it is, what do I care. The only horse I have in this race is a hobby horse.) So you have to determine a certain threshold (number of languages, mastery in each) and then check whether someone meets it. Exams can be a useful tool there, but one could also use self-assessments. Anything more specific than 'I speak it' or 'I've studied it' or 'I use it'.

 

For reference, here is the Common European Framework of Reference for learning foreign languages. I thought one of the points was whether the learner can understand non-standard accents, but now I don't see an explicit reference to it.

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mungouk
4 minutes ago, Lu said:

So you have to determine a certain threshold

 

In some contexts, perhaps.  Not in all. Which was my point, and I believe one of the things that the article was, subtly, alluding to. 

 

What's wrong with studying languages in greater or lesser depth purely for the love of it? Without demanding external objective measures?

 

Or is it just the "I speak X languages" claim that gets people wound up?

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Lu
9 minutes ago, mungouk said:

What's wrong with studying languages in greater or lesser depth purely for the love of it? Without demanding external objective measures?

Nothing! Less than nothing! Let everyone who wants to study away! Languages are inherently interesting.

 

But if a serious writer writes a serious article about polyglots, it would be good if she also shed some light on what 'I speak X language' means and what makes someone a polyglot and not just a person who is interested in learning languages.

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Zbigniew

I don't think committed language learners are the intended audience for that article, Lu. The idea is to amaze lay-people by holding up a few examples of supposed prodigies. Some of them may well be prodigies for all we know, but establishing whether they are or not using some kind of objective criteria might ruin a good story. For seriousness, I put it in the same category as news stories about things like skateboarding dogs.

 

On a minor matter, I couldn't help noticing that in an effort to impress us the article quotes titles of academic papers from a recent linguistics conference, among which is one  that uses apparati as a plural of the English word apparatus (rather than the usual apparatus or apparatuses). Given that apparatus as a Latin noun is fourth declension (and so has a nom./acc. plural ending -us) , is pluralizing the English word as apparati a good kind of advert for people with supposedly prodigious polyglottal abilities?

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Lu
11 hours ago, Zbigniew said:

For seriousness, I put it in the same category as news stories about things like skateboarding dogs.

This was from the New Yorker. I have higher expectations of that magazine than skateboarding dogs. Yah perhaps it's some kind of media Dunning-Kruger, where you find everything very informative and interesting except the stuff they write about your field because that is always half wrong.

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imron
15 hours ago, Lu said:

Yah perhaps it's some kind of media Dunning-Kruger, where you find everything very informative and interesting except the stuff they write about your field because that is always half wrong.

 

There is actually a name for this.  It's the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.

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studychinese

I have an interesting update on this.

 

I am not much of a joiner, but one day I was walking about and I got a notification on my phone about a Japanese language meetup just as I was walking past the location (spooky). Anyway, I decided to take a look.

 

What I found there is that there were quite a few people that were self proclaimed "polyglots", studying various languages, as many as ten. Although I wasn't able to test them on most of these languages it was clear that they were in over their heads. You just can't learn 10 languages at once. That reminded me that I had met a "polyglot" about 20 years ago. He was the master of the "meet and greet" in about 15 languages, but at the end of the day he wasn't able to communicate in any of them.

 

I am convinced that "polyglottism" (as opposed to actually being able to communicate in several languages) is harmful to real language acquistion. So when someone says go easy on the polyglots, I say no, attack them even more. They are telling a lie - both about their own capabilities and the method of language acquisition.

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DavyJonesLocker
2 hours ago, studychinese said:

They are telling a lie - both about their own capabilities and the method of language acquisition.

 

I think that isn't even limited to polyglots I seem to read  too many stories and tall tales on the internet forums about people passing HSK 6 in a year, yet I have yet to meet one person in real life that passed HSK5 in year, from scratch .  I'm not suggesting its doesn't happen but it is only a small percentage of language learners in my (albeit limited) experience. The language school I attended loved to make a song and dance about one person who passed HSK 6 in a year. Funny how on his wechat moments nearly all posts were written in good Chinese going back many years. 

 

The reason why i don't like this kind of bragging is that it makes others unjustifiably feel inferior about their abilities with language acquisition and causes them to quit. 

 

However its common across many disciplines. I have been on forums since the days before AOL chat rooms and it's amazing how many talented and gifted people there are around lol

 

 

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studychinese
28 minutes ago, DavyJonesLocker said:

think that isn't even limited to polyglots I seem to read  too many stories and tall tales on the internet forums about people passing HSK 6 in a year, yet I have yet to meet one person in real life that passed HSK5 in year, from scratch .

 

I think that actually happens quite a lot. Requires immersion and daily study.

 

The problem is the idea that you can juggle a whole lot of languages and not put the effort in. 

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DavyJonesLocker
32 minutes ago, studychinese said:

I think that actually happens quite a lot.

 

 

i really have no data to rely on but my own personal experience. I asked two language teachers with many years experience for some from of statistic. They both independently said 1 in 10 about can pass HSK 5 from scratch in a year. However that is a private language school so universities may well be different. Furthermore many classes are not focused on a HSK route

 

However i think what often gets left out  of the argument is that many people have been trying for a long time through self study etc before they formally get tuition. Hence they already have a base skill and importantly time to adapt to a language as distant from English as Chinese.

 

I would love to see some actual evidence of this topic rather than a pile of hearsay from myself and others

 

Going back to the topic of polyglots, whatever the definition of a polyglot is. You need to take into account similarity of languages. I am a stickler for actual hardcore evidence so unless someone passed a CEFR exam at the very least B2 level I don't pay any attention to such claims. My (lovely) 6yo niece can blab on non stop for hours but is she fluent in English, well of course not. 

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NinjaTurtle
1 hour ago, DavyJonesLocker said:

unless someone passed a CEFR exam at the very least B2 level I don't pay any attention to such claims

 

It is an important question; what does it mean to "speak" a language. My students (who are Chinese) think that just being able to ask three-word questions and give one-word answers means they can speak English. I strongly disagree. I have a very high bar as to what it means to speak English, Chinese, etc. (and anyone who is below that bar, in my opinion, cannot "speak" English, etc.)  Where do people here draw the line, as to being able to speak Chinese, English, etc.? (I will share my answer, but I am curious to first hear what others say.)

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Shelley

When I was in school in Montreal, Canada we we not allowed to graduate High School unless we had a "Working Knowledge" of French. I think was this supposed mean that you could get along in everyday life in French, shopping, travelling, banking, work, and so on. We did have exams but I left Canada before it was time for me to take it and it was while ago so I don't know what was in the exam. 

French students had to have a working knowledge of English.

This would be my line.

 

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Lu
14 hours ago, NinjaTurtle said:

Where do people here draw the line, as to being able to speak Chinese, English, etc.?

I'd say B1 level. Far from perfect mastery, but a working knowledge, being able to explain mostly anything as long as both you and the listener are patient.

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Publius

I'd say B1, the minimum requirement for obtaining a UK work visa.

Or HSK5, equivalent to B1 according to the German and French associations of Chinese language teachers.

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imron

I think both of those require qualifications of "I speak Chinese", e.g. "I speak some Chinese" or "I speak basic Chinese" or similar.  For a no qualifications required "I speak Chinese" I think the standard is higher..... and I was about to list what I thought and then I realised here we go down the "what is definition of fluency" rabbit hole, which I'm going to remove myself from before I get any deeper.

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Lu
1 minute ago, imron said:

I think both of those require qualifications of "I speak Chinese", e.g. "I speak some Chinese" or "I speak basic Chinese" or similar.  For a no qualifications required "I speak Chinese" I think the standard is higher.

There is also context. If the Beijing taxi driver asks you 'Do you speak Chinese?' you can say 会 from about A2-B1 level. If the prime minister's interpreter suddenly falls ill during a visit of Xi Jinping and the organiser asks you 'Do you speak Chinese?', you better have C2 level (and amazing interpreter skills) before you say 'Yes'. I think for the question as NinjaTurtle asked it, I assumed the context of a birthday party: the other guest asks you 'Do you speak Chinese?' and you can say 'Yes' from about B1 level. Below that, you say 'just a few words' or 'I'm learning' or something like that.

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Tomsima

I think an important point to tease out in this debate is that question that language learners get asked all the time, the one that follows 'can you speak...?', namely 'how long have you studied for?'

 

I believe many people on this forum would be embarrassed to say 'I passed HSK 6 in a year' even if it was really true, because we all know that an important marker of your level beyond actually talking to a native speaker is just how long have you seriously dedicated to studying the language. Theres no shortcuts, only good and bad methods right?

 

I feel like the problem is, many of the people I know who are monolingual think learning a language is like magic. The quicker you 'master' it, the more clever you must be, as if its like figuring out how to turn on the switch to a lightbulb.

 

In a hypothetical conversation between three people, two chinese learners, one monolingual bystander, this question often results in the bystander heaping praise on the wrong party. One learner says they have studied for one year and already passed hsk 6, the second learner says they have studied for 5 years and also passed hsk 6. The bystander has no way to judge who is more able in language learning other than 'standardised test results' and 'time'. Naturally the first person is praised as 'gifted in languages', and the second is a 'slow learner'. 

 

Its obviously not true, but is marketed effectively by polyglots. Theres nothing we can do about it except be truthful in our answers when people asks us the 'how long have you studied' question. When people ask me, I reply "I've studied for five years. Its been an amazing adventure, and you dont just learn language, you learn culture, history, a new perspective on life. You would lose so much doing it 'intensively'" 

 

I wouldn't even want to be a polyglot. It just sounds so 浮躁. I envy all those who have managed decades of solely studying chinese, the process and the ability acquired must be so fun.

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