Can one really arrive at fluency without visiting the country whose language one is learning?
I never thought so, until the day I met my first polyglot. Bob was quite a few years older than me and spoke 25 languages. In the short time that I knew him he succeeded in dispelling every myth I ever had about foreign languages and language learning.
Prior to meeting Bob I had always assumed that foreign language fluency could be achieved in just three ways:
- One studied languages at the University for many years (focusing on esoteric grammar points and verb conjugations in obscure tenses in the target language), passed the proficiency examinations and then went on to acquire more specialized knowledge and practice overseas.
- One was fortunate enough to have been born into a multilingual household; or
- You had the good fortune to be raised in a multilingual country, absorbing multiple languages through the pores of your skin.
That’s it. That’s what I was taught, and that’s what I believed. And then one evening, on my way to get a cup of coffee with my new friend, everything changed for me. On the way to the vending machine (there was no Starbucks or espresso culture back then, and vending machine coffee was all a poor student could afford) outside the cafeteria, Bob exchanged a few words with the custodian in a language I had never heard before. That custodian, Bob explained, was newly arrived from Poland.
Thinking more about the coffee than Bob’s recent exchange of pleasantries with a Polish custodian, Bob stopped again moments later to speak to a second custodian. We reached the vending machine, and while I was fumbling with my coins I turned to Bob, casually exclaiming: “You know Bob, I never realized there were so many Polish people working at the school.” What he said to me next changed my entire view of language learning. “The second custodian I spoke to,” Bob patiently explained, “was not Polish. He was Russian.”
No longer thinking at all about my coffee, I began to bombard Bob with questions. “Where did you learn Polish? Where did you learn Russian? Do you speak any other languages? How did you learn them? Are you some kind of savant?”
It turns out that Bob had taught himself Polish and Russian. He had also taught himself the Spanish and Arabic languages. And Afrikaans. And many, many more. Twenty five of them! All of them self-taught. Most of them spoken with near native fluency. Amazing. He even told me how he did it, but I never pressed him for the details of his method—it just never occurred to me at the time (in my defense, I was only seventeen!). How I wish I could go back now, after more than 30 years, to get those details!
Of one thing, however, I am certain: Bob did not travel. He didn’t even own a passport. He had epilepsy, and was always fearful of a seizure. Not only did Bob never leave the country, during the time I knew him he had never been beyond a 100 mile radius of his home.
He learned all of those languages without the benefit of the internet, mp3 players, smart-phones or multilingual DVD’s. He learned them with a lot of hard work and perseverance.
More to the point, he learned them all within 100 miles of his home.