Thirty-two years ago when I was a sophomore in college I found myself sitting in the student lounge one evening with little to do. It was after 8 PM and I was hoping that a certain young lady (whom I had my eye on at the time) would make an appearance and join me for a drink. Alas, she was a no-show. In fact, there was no one in the lounge aside from Bob, an accounting student whom I had only spoken to superficially in the past. Bob appeared to be about 10 years older than me, wore a beat up army jacket, and carried a black messenger bag full of books and loose papers.
As Bob seemed to be in no particular hurry to go anywhere either, we struck up a conversation and before we knew it an hour and a half had passed. I have no recollection of what it was we talked about, but I do remember that we decided to continue our chat over a cup of coffee. In those days, there wasn’t a Starbucks conveniently located on every college campus, and our only option was a vending machine located in the cafeteria (by now closed for hours), which dispensed a vile concoction which was coffee in name only. The cafeteria was located at the other end of the hall from the student lounge. We gathered our things and began walking. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was a walk that would change my life.
By this time, the hallways were deserted except for the cleaning staff. We came upon a classroom where a woman was straightening out the desks. I remember thinking about how her dyed, red hair clashed with her light green uniform. As we walked by, she recognized Bob immediately and gave him a warm greeting. He answered her back and they carried on for a few moments. I had no idea what it was they were saying to each other because they were speaking in a language that I had never heard before. After they said goodbye, we continued on our way.
“Bob, what language was that?” I asked him.
“That was Polish,” he replied casually.
I don’t remember saying anything after that, but as we continued on our walk down the empty corridor, we came upon another classroom being cleaned, this time by an elderly man wearing the same light green uniform as the Polish woman. The same scene as before played itself out. The old man lit up at the sight of Bob, spoke to him in the same type of gibberish, and afterward seemed genuinely sad to see him go.
We finally reached our destination, inserted our coins into the machine and received our beverages. As expected, the coffee tasted like swill, but at least it was hot. Attempting to ease us back into conversation, I remarked to Bob that I was not aware that there were so many Polish people employed as cleaning staff by the school. He seemed somewhat puzzled. “The woman,” he said, “was Polish. The man was Russian.”
Did I just hear him correctly?
“Wait a moment. You’re telling me that you spoke to the first woman in Polish, and then to the man in Russian?” I asked.
“That’s right.” He said.
“Are you Polish, or Russian?” I countered.
“No. Actually I grew up about 10 miles from the school and have never been out of the country.”
I had met people before who were multilingual. In fact, I was bilingual myself. But I sensed somehow that Bob was different. Bob grew up speaking English. His parents did not speak a foreign language. He had never traveled. And yet, here he was carrying on conversations in both Polish and Russian. The answer to my next question hit me right between the eyes: “Tell me, Bob. Exactly how many languages can you speak?”
Bob seemed to hesitate for a moment. His response was unbelievable: “Twenty-three.”
A jumble of thoughts and ideas began to go on in my head at once. This was impossible. Not only was this man telling me that he could speak twenty-three languages — which I found to be totally beyond the realm of possibility — but he was able to speak languages that were totally unrelated to each other. Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, Finnish — the list went on and on. As remarkable as this was, the one concept that was really beyond my comprehension at the time was that: he had taught himself all of those languages.
Speaking a second language because one grew up in a bilingual household (as I did) was one thing. Learning a third language in school after years of study was also, in my mind, within the realm of possibility. This was the first time, however, that I had ever come across someone who had taught himself so many languages. I didn’t know it at the time (and would not have known the definition of the word had I even heard it used back then), but I had just met a polyglot.
What I want to do now is to tell you, my dear readers, how I pressed Bob to discover his secret. I want to tell you how I spent the rest of that night getting Bob to explain exactly how he was able to accomplish such a magnificent feat. I want to tell you how I pressed him to divulge his methodology, so that I could also teach myself to speak multiple languages. I want to tell you about his exact study methods and about all of the wonderful resources he used. I want to, but I can’t.
I can’t, because I never asked Bob any of those questions. Perhaps it was just too much for me to take in that night, but I never asked him one question as to how he worked at actually acquiring a foreign language. Not one! I never asked! That fact has bothered me ever since.
I didn’t see much of Bob after that night, and I lost track of him altogether long before graduation. What Bob did that night was to instill in me a fascination with polyglots that has continued to this day. I enjoy reading biographies of historical figures, and I especially enjoy them if the subjects also happen to be polyglots. The lives of people like Cleopatra, Capt. Sir Richard Francis Burton (the explorer, not the actor), Cardinal Mezzofanti, Kato Lomb, and Champollion have held endless fascination for me.
Last year I started thinking about Bob again. I was thinking about what I would ask him if I were able to go back in time. So many years have passed, and yet I am still obsessed with the questions I never asked him. That’s when it hit me: I may not be able to go back in time, but I can utilize a resource which was unavailable back then — the Internet!
A YouTube search uncovered an entire community of polyglots, whom I would have had no way of knowing about otherwise. Some of them were truly impressive. Now I got to thinking: I can’t ask Bob, but maybe I can ask some of these people how they are doing it. I watched hundreds of videos and began to correspond with some of the people posting them. I now knew what I would do next: I would compile a book! I would invite any language learner and polyglot who wanted to participate, to write about how they learn languages. I made a YouTube channel, filmed some videos announcing the project, and waited. It wasn’t long before the submissions began to come in.
The book is my attempt at atoning for the sin of not having asked Bob those key questions so many years ago. It is called The Polyglot Project, and although there is a paperback version available on Amazon for those who wish to purchase it, I have made the entire text of the book available free of charge in PDF format. It contains over 500 pages of first-hand accounts from people all over the world who have one thing in common: their love of learning multiple foreign languages. Download it here, and let me know what you think.