Multilingualism: Musings of a Polyglot-to-Be
Updated: Feb 25
Source: Waldemar on Unsplash
I grew up as the daughter of an English teacher and an editor for the local Malay newspaper. It should come as no surprise that there was an emphasis on building a strong bilingual foundation at home. On top of that, they sent me to a preschool with Mandarin classes, and later a madrasah where I had to learn Arabic among other subjects. My brother’s enthusiasm over German classes at university later inspired me to pick up a tiny bit of it, and became part of the reason I ended up studying Korean in university myself.
Language-learning comes as a natural passion to me, and as I’ve come into 2023 with four active languages — English, Malay, Korean and Mandarin — I decided I would start taking myself seriously as a self-declared polyglot in the making.
So why languages, and why so many?
When I think about it, it all seems to boil down to plain fascination. Looking back on my childhood, there was probably something that tickled my young brain to know that I could call a banana by so many different names. Even now, I relish in the fun of finding out which language my mind reaches for first when I look at different things. When I look out the window and see drops falling from the sky, do my thoughts say “hujan” or “bi (비)”? These little answers are what bring me small but certain happiness — or in Korean, sohwakhaeng (소확행).
It’s in the process of learning that we begin to discover completely new worlds and find joy along the way. As cliché as it sounds, the thrill of going into something so unfamiliar hits me the hardest when I’m picking up languages, more so than when I’m learning anything else. I guess this is why languages continue to pique my interest, no matter how much I’ve already learnt.
The great balancing act
One of the most talked-about topics in the polyglot community is how to balance and maintain multiple languages at once. No one likes to hear it, but the honest and simple truth is that the answer is always practice. As language is very much about recognizing new patterns and applying them to different skills — reading, writing, listening and speaking —there’s no way around it but to train your brain in a consistent manner.
An example of a strategy polyglots commonly use to try and strike this balance is language stacking. Instead of constantly using one’s first or native language to learn other languages, polyglots will vary the languages that they learn with as well. A polyglot picking up a sixth language, for example, might use resources and material written in their fifth language. This would allow them to learn the basics of the sixth language while actively maintaining or advancing their skills in their fifth language.
I myself have tried employing this strategy, which has worked out pretty well given that I’m stacking Mandarin onto Korean. While the grammar and general structure of these two languages are significantly distinct, stacking has been extremely useful in learning new vocabulary. This is especially since Korean uses a lot of words derived from Mandarin. For example, the word for “stamp” in Korean is “u-pyo” (우표), deriving from the Mandarin “yóupiào” (邮票). The Hanja system allows me to have fun making connections between Mandarin and Korean, and makes it meaningful for me to stack the former onto the latter.
Basic Hanja that Korean language learners may end up picking up, even if they aren’t learning Mandarin. 1st row (left to right): han (hán), guk (guó), dae (dà), bok (fú); 2nd row (left to right): ryu (liú), eo (yŭ), oe (wài), nae (nèi). | Source: Organic KoreanSome
Perhaps what makes language-learning so tricky is that it’s not just about finding out what kind of learner you are, but what kind of person you are. We are each a blend of our wants, needs, goals, memories, our current circumstances and more — all of which we're forced to confront as we learn how to express them in the languages we're trying to pick up.
I find that effective language learners make the learning relevant to them. While building a wide range of vocabulary is important, it’s equally or maybe even more essential to learn words specific to you. This could range from stating facts about yourself (e.g. your major, line of work, hobbies, etc.) to describing your own personality (e.g. your best and worst traits, philosophy to life, etc.). I memorized words like zhèngzhìxué (政治学; Political Science) and expressions like eungeunhi daebeomhada (은근히 대범하다; quietly bold) even though they were slightly more advanced than the level at which I was learning these languages. Making sure I at least know how to talk about myself becomes a solid foundation for me to express even more complex thoughts later on.
The polyglot brain and mental health
When I tell people that I’m learning a fourth language, I’m often met with amazement and surprise. It seems pretty common to recognize multilingualism as an asset and a very useful tool. But is there a side where the grass isn’t so green, or a dark side at all to learning so many languages?
The real problems come about when language-learning becomes so deeply intertwined with our sense of self-worth. Having devoted so much of our time and energy to studying languages, we cannot help but expect certain results. Not being able to reach our desired language level, or realizing that we’re lacking in a particular skill becomes so-called “proof” of our inadequacy. We may even begin comparing ourselves to others in the language-learning community, and we all know how that ends up — after all, comparison is the thief of joy.
I’ve had my own fair share of mixed feelings and love-hate relationships with languages, and it can be very disorienting to pursue what you love so much while having such low confidence. One of my biggest personal struggles has been trying to overcome the intermediate plateau, which occurs when one has attained intermediate command of a language but finds difficulty in pushing it to an advanced level. I still feel that I’m in this stage for Korean, but I’m managing emotionally by trying to set realistic goals and remembering not to discount the progress I’ve made to this day.
Feeling like you aren't progressing can lead to distress and insecurity. It's important to look back and see how far we've come in moments like these. | Source: Preply
Another struggle I’ve been trying to keep at bay is language attrition — losing one’s command of their native tongue, which can be a side effect of becoming increasingly multilingual! The pressure of upkeeping one’s language stems from the harsh reality that if you don’t use it, you lose it.
While everyday conversations with family and friends help me to maintain my command of spoken Malay, my reading and writing is no longer what it used to be. I’ve been trying to combat this by reading the news in Malay, and stopping to read educational threads written in Malay when I come across them on social media platforms. It’s always a little saddening when I encounter words that I’ve forgotten the meaning of, but definitely knew like the back of my hand in primary or secondary school. Still, I know that the effort I’m putting in now is better than nothing at all, in working towards my goal of maintaining my mother tongue.
Ten, member of K-Pop boy group NCT, forgetting how to speak his native language — Thai being among the four languages he speaks. | Source: NLost21 on Pinterest
On a more amusing and less bleak note, it is rather entertaining when the multilingual brain gets muddled up. I’ve had a few embarrassing moments of getting my languages mixed up, and answering someone in a language I didn’t mean to. I can recall at least three incidents where I've accidentally said yes in Korean although I intended to reply in Malay, leading me to put on a blank face and pretend no one else heard.
While I’ve often faced speculation that I’m probably good at languages because I’ve learnt so many, it feels like the converse is true! Instead of having more coherent thoughts in each language, I often have thoughts that are patched together in different languages. Speaking to people therefore requires a lot more mental effort for me, as I fight the urge to switch to another language. I talk slower, and pause more frequently to replace words from other languages that I’ve used to fill up the gaps in my mind. The more languages I have in common with someone, the more comfortable I feel talking to them, as I can switch whenever I want without disrupting the conversation.
Actual notes I've made for Mandarin (left) and Korean (right). Sometimes it feels like the different languages in my head are little people speaking over one another!
In the end, I don’t think I’ll ever stop being intrigued by languages and their intricacies, no matter how much hardship they put me through. While the path to becoming a polyglot has its twists and turns, the languages I learn end up forming the prettiest mosaic in my mind.