One of the secret ambitions I’ve not had the raw resources—time, attention or energy—to accomplish is becoming a polyglot. A polyglot, traditionally, is someone who can speak at least five languages. This is not a vain ambition, but a pragmatic one.

First, it seems that speaking one language is equivalent to having access to only one culture, and thus creates a certain poverty of mind. If a language and the symbols it contains are merely frames for thought, then speaking only one language means a severe limit on the variety of thoughts a person can have.

Second, limits on the languages you speak also place bounds on the friends you can have. An English-only speaker can only be friends with other English speakers. A polyglot has access to a greater potential pool of friends, and thus, has more chance of engaging in better friendships.

Third is the fact that I’d love to read literature in its original language. For instance, I adore the Essays of Montaigne. In their English translation, they sizzle in my mind and set my thoughts afire. I would love to read them in French. The same goes for the work of Dostoyevsky. In English, his novels are glorious. In Russian? They must be magnificent.

Finally, speaking multiple languages is an aide to adventure. For example, one thing I hope to do in the next few years is cycle through France alone. Hop off the ferry at Dover and pedal one thousand kilometres down to the Midi-Pyrénées region. But that is made very difficult because I don’t speak French. How can I be alone, for weeks, in places I’ve never been before, if I can’t converse with locals or ask for assistance? That is asking for trouble. So, raincheck.

But one thing I have come to realise is that being a polyglot doesn’t necessarily involve speaking multiple foreign languages. I remember reading somewhere that, if one wants to become adept at mathematics, it is easier to approach math as a language, as a collection of symbols to be learnt and interpreted rather than a collection of concepts and ideas to be rote-learnt. To get a visceral appreciation for this approach, consider this picture of the inimitable Richard Feynman giving a lecture:

feynman math as language

Consider the symbols on the board behind him. To understand them, would it be better to try and learn the concepts they are derived from, or to try and grok the symbols so that you have a sense of what’s going on? In my mind, the latter.

Second example. A piano recently made its way into our home. We didn’t buy it; someone was giving it away. We said, “Yes, please”, and now Molly can play the piano again, like she did when she was younger. As a consequence, we’re starting to accumulate music books. Flicking through their pages leaves me confused. Consider the following:

bach sheet music

That’s a generic piece of Bach’s music that I pulled from Google. If, like me, you have no familiarity with musical theory or have never played an instrument, it reads like gobbledygook. But once you understand a few critical elements, interpreting it is easier. Once you have basic comprehension of elements like staffs, bass clef, treble clef, measure lines, ties, dots et al., it becomes possible to read the language of music.

Finally, consider programming. Programming is a catch-all term for the discipline of writing software. Seems simple enough. Yet there are a lot of languages in which it is possible to program, all with their own peculiar structures and semantics. Here’s an example from a Microsoft web page.

microsoft code

All those tabs. All those brackets. All that stuff. Nonsensical to me. Perfectly legible to someone who speaks whatever language this particular example of code happens to exist in.

By now, you are probably wondering what my point is. It’s this: the label of “polyglot” should stretch to include speakers of those things we don’t typically class as foreign languages. To me, mathematicians and musicians are multi-linguists just as much as a person who speaks English, French and Italian fluently. And what about people who can speak in sign language, or read Braille? Are they not on the road to becoming polyglots too?