Probably one of the more painful pieces I’ve had to do “research” for, and another for which no other writings out there existed already. This is, very sadly, a necessary piece.
On Reddit and in many YouTube comments there is often an idea that almost ANYONE who posts videos of him/herself speaking many languages online is almost guaranteed to be a fake and that they “don’t understand how much work goes into a language”.
Benny Lewis seems to get the brunt of a lot of this, but the truth be told is that all of us online polyglots get accused of being fake—it is just that some of us do a better job at hiding it.
It has sometimes gotten so bad that many of my friends just REFUSE to post videos or, if they do, will shut off the comments. What’s worse is the fact that people who are complete outsiders to this craft will say nonsensical things like “you should expect to get criticism if you put yourself out there” (which is just as stupid as an excuse as saying that wearing certain clothing means you were “asking for it”—both serve to absolve the wrongdoer of any fault.)
This toxic energy of internet culture is holding innovation back and it NEEDS TO STOP. IMMEDIATELY.
At first glance it seems that this battle is actually between (1) hyperpolyglots and (2) HATERZ but there are actually two categories in (2). The first one consists of jealous bilinguals and the second one consists of the no-less-jealous struggling language learners.
For the best of the hyperglots (and I’m getting there), we’ve been so desensitized to being called fake and all sorts of names that a lot of just don’t care anymore (and this indifference occurs naturally with age).
But I’m going to reveal something that very few people on both sides realize:
Usually the most admired polyglots online are actually more admired for their ability to act natural in front of a camera AND speak the languages rather than just speak the languages alone.
I in NO WAY mean to say “all polyglots prepare scripts / read from the screen” or ANYTHING OF THAT SORT. But video making is not just a “point and shoot” variety of deal, and some people have had experience making videos and others, not so much. (And experience doesn’t necessarily correlate to the ability to look and speak naturally in front of a camera, although it does help).
When I made my first polyglot video a year ago, I was FRIGHTENED.
Part of me still is frightened to do something like make a Let’s Play video in Tok Pisin even though I would really like to do that in part because of, yes, some people telling me that a white person has no business speaking this language (which is, frankly, ridiculous—because in the contemporary world, all cultures belong to everyone). Even for “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” I was told that maybe some Greenlanders wouldn’t particularly LIKE the fact that I was making a video game set in their country (although everyone I spoke to about it, both inside and outside of Greenland, was enthusiastic about the idea).
Okay, where was I?
There are multiple types of anti-polyglots and each one tends to have different motivations:
- The one who claims “this one internet polyglot is good, but almost all of the others are fake”
What this person doesn’t necessarily realize is that it isn’t the person they’re actually admiring (or not) but actually the presentation of the person.
People accused the 4-year-old hyperglot Bella of being fake and only memorizing a few things but my friends told me that she conversed in all of those languages with other kids readily—something that couldn’t have been captured on video.
There is a lot of sadness in the world, and people can be very good speakers in person but may not show it ideally on the Internet. With a master presentation a lot of the polyglot community would be more “equalized” than most people give them credit for (and when meeting in person, we realize exactly how similar we are to each other skill-wise, something that I’ve seen again and again at polyglot conferences)
- The one who claims that most polyglots overinflate their abilities
I have a feeling this one comes from a misunderstanding that some languages are more easily picked up than others.
Mandarin Chinese may be the work of many years but a Creole Language could be picked up readily in a month.
Those who accused me of being fake when I said in Ari in Beijing’s video that I spoke seventeen to eighteen languages fluently didn’t realize that I had multiple sets of very similar languages (and in the case of the creoles of Melanesia, ones so close that even classifying them as separate languages may be debatable!)
There’s no way you can generalize about a group of so many people, and saying “people can only reach C1-C2 in 2-3 languages tops” is demonstrably false.
This comes with frustration with one’s own progress and the cruel road of projection. Nothing less.
- The one that says that all polyglots memorize a few sentences and judge themselves fluent
What exactly are we supposed to do, then? An eight-hour video?
Also, especially after the whole Ziad Fazah thing, do you really think most of us would be naïve enough to lie about our skills? Especially in this time of human history? Especially when any one of our readers or fans could evaluate our skills in PERSON and write home about it?
I am professionally held accountable for the image of me projected. If I don’t live up to that, it is a liability on my reputation and I’m fully aware of that. Maybe you might want me to downsize my skills so as to upsize your ego, but I am who I am and I intend to OWN IT. My haters (and the haters of other polyglots), not so much, actually…
- Particular Criticism about the “Fluent in 3 Months Thing”
It’s a challenge, not a promise. Even if he fell short in his missions, honestly, who cares? Benny Lewis has inspired millions of people, far more than people who write nasty things about him on the Internet ever will.
- Accusing all polyglots of being a “jack of all trades, master of none”
A simple case of confirmation bias (which is selectively choosing data or experience to suit your conclusion that makes you feel better about yourself / confirm your existing beliefs).
Most hyperpolyglots that I know have a “core” of languages that they know very, very well and others that are all over the map (my core would, no doubt, be the languages of Scandinavia, Yiddish and the Melanesian Creoles. With time I’d like to bring at least some native languages of Oceania into that core as well.)
What people who say this ACTUALLY mean is “I’d like to think that this person is terrible at all of their languages so I can feel better about myself”.
Once you realize that pretty much everyone who espouses the viewpoints on this list does so from a sense of personal insecurity, you actually learn to not take them seriously anymore. In fact, you might actually…have pity on them.
- The one who accuses polyglots of reading from the screen or using translation devices
Again, we polyglots are aware that mis-portraying ourselves or overinflating our skills can get us into trouble in our in-person interactions. If we use a language in one of our videos, we either have to be prepared to use it with other people or explain that we’re learning it or that we forgot it. There is not fourth option
This accusation is just another form of the generalized hate for the polyglot community which is, essentially, a security blanket for insecure people.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. People always have the chance to fulfill their language dreams, whether it be learning one language to near-native fluency or twenty languages okay.
I hope we live to see a day in which this internet toxicity that is holding our community back dies out for good. We all can do our part by putting the effort towards making our OWN dreams a reality.
You can start TODAY! And don’t believe ANY pessimism! Not now, not ever!
Go Go Go!