I do admire people like Richard Simcott or Luca Lampariello who speak an incredible amount of languages at an advanced level and keep learning new ones all the time.

However, not everyone has to be a polyglot. A recent trip to Peru taught me that it’s time to be honest with myself.

When learning languages keeps you away from the real world

Learning languages kept me busy in recent years but it also kept me away from the real world. There is a huge language learning community on the internet and there are a lot of language-related events but somehow it’s not the real world. Not for me, at least.

I’m sure that many language learners feel different about this. Perhaps it has something to do with my personality, with the fact that I’m more of a solitary learner.

Too much English

And then there’s also the problem with English. It’s everywhere. Sure, you can practice your target language when you attend a language-related event but workshops, lectures and discussions are normally in English. Most polyglots write their blogs in English, too. I mean, I do the same with this blog. Because it gives me the opportunity to reach a wider audience. Most people who are interested in languages speak English or are at least able to read English texts.

I’ve tackled a lot of languages in the past and would not say that it was a complete waste of time. Knowing how most European languages work makes me a better teacher. Native speakers of Slavic languages struggle with the use of articles, for example, because they don’t exist in their native languages.

When you lose the motivation to learn a certain language

Between 2011 and 2016, I tried to learn some Czech and Hungarian because I often went to Prague and Budapest and it was fun to use the languages with real people in those cities. So it made sense.

However, I’m going to leave Europe now and it seems like a waste of time trying to improve or just maintain those languages. I’ve simply lost my motivation.

Something similar happened with my idea to learn Quechua. Yes, it’s a fascinating language and I love to read about Peruvian culture and watch documentaries but it’s not my world.

I think I realised this when I was in Cuzco. It’s a great city but I would never feel at home in such a touristic place and I have nothing in common with those indigenous women who walk through the streets with their llamas and ask you for a tip when you take pictures. These are different realities.

Perhaps I’ve simply lost the enthusiasm and openness of my youth when I still believed that I could save the world – well, kind of ….

I would actually like do some voluntary work in Peru in the future but surely not in some remote Andean village where people only speak Quechua. I’m not a materialistic person but I need some comfort which includes electricity, hot water, internet access etc. Judge me for that if you want to, that’s fine.

So, summarised, there’s no real reason for me to learn Quechua. In Lima, people who speak Quechua also speak Spanish. Better than I do, logically.

When one language suddenly becomes all-important for your life

While I was in Peru, I felt the urgent need to improve my Spanish significantly. Because I spent time with real people there and had meaningful conversations. Well, I wanted to have meaningful conversations but often felt stuck because of a lack of vocabulary. I also realised that my grammar often sucks.

I want to live in a Spanish-speaking environment and not in an expat community where everyone speaks English. I want people to be comfortable when they talk to me without feeling the need to slow down or having to repeat things several times because I didn’t understand.

I’d also like Brazilian Portuguese to be my second foreign language because I still like Brazilian culture and normally get along very well with Brazilians. And it’s part of my children’s heritage, of course.

So instead of trying to learn a bit of this and a bit of that language, it makes more sense to me to focus on those two languages, Spanish and Portuguese. Together with English, that’s three foreign languages for me. Doesn’t sound very impressive but it fits into my life.

There are some people whose lifestyle is so language-related that they can easily integrate ten or more languages into their lives. However, that’s not the case for me. I want Peru to become my home and that means that my life will take place in Spanish and not in Hungarian, Russian, Chinese or whatever.

I want to have my life back with real friends, not only virtual ones or people I only see once a year (even though some of those people are my closest friends and I wouldn’t want to miss them). I need people around me who have a positive attitude, are spontaneous and simply enjoy life, do normal things.

I had a glimpse of this when I was in Peru and I realised that I’m missing these normal things. Like calling a friend and asking, hey, let’s have a drink together or go to the cinema. I excluded myself from all this, there’s no one to blame, totally my responsibility. Just as it’s now my responsibility to make an effort to get settled in a new country, in a city I immediately fell in love with.

So I don’t need to be a polyglot, I just need to function well in Spanish and have nice people around me.

Language as a means of communication

Despite being a solitary learner, my final goal was always communication. Some people learn a language for a challenge or because they’re going to spend a couple of days in a certain country.

I’ve never really understood that. Let’s take the next Polyglot Conference which is going to take place in Iceland. There’s a group of people who started to learn Icelandic right after the announcement was made that the Conference would take place in Reykjavik.

They have all my admiration for their efforts but really understanding it? Honestly not, I’m afraid. For me, real communication is more than going to a shop and saying some sentences in the local language.

Author: Daniela

Hi! I'm Daniela - a native German who's living in Lima, Peru. Besides making a living teaching German and English, I'm constantly trying to improve my Spanish and Portuguese. On my blog, I write about those four languages which are part of my life and also write articles for (aspiring) language teachers to help them getting started.

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4 thoughts on “Not everyone has to be a polyglot

  1. Best article ever and I am quite sure that every freak languages’ learners out there would read your article and start considering their reasons for learning a language. Now the question, what will you do with your other languages? What will you do with Hungarian and Ukrainian, which as far as I remember, you were investing on them.

    Posted on 19. March 2017 at 20:32
    1. Thanks for your comment, Murillo. What to do with Hungarian was probably the hardest decision for me, but yes, I will quit it. I invested a lot of time studying this language and was quite proud that I was able to communicate somehow last time I was in Budapest. However, it was also obvious that I would never feel as comfortable with Hungarian as with Spanish or Portuguese. And my future is in South America, not in Hungary, this is something which became crystal-clear while I was in Peru.

      Posted on 19. March 2017 at 20:41
      1. Hallo Daniela, das ist aber schade, dass Du deine Bemühungen verlieren musst. Du kannst immer diese Sprachen (Ungarn, ..) als Tandempartnerin durch Sprachaustausch üben. Niemand weiß, was die Zukunft bringen wird. Eines Tages werde diese Kenntnisse brauchbar und für etwas geeignet…

        Posted on 2. April 2017 at 19:36
        1. Hi Tibor! I understand what you mean and giving up Hungarian was not an easy decision for me. However, I just know that my future is in South America and with Spanish being the most important language for me. It’s kind of a circle. I started to learn Spanish as a teenager and had South America on my mind as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I went there, I lived there and now I’m going back to stay. It just feels right.

          Posted on 2. April 2017 at 19:44