Can everyone be a polyglot (speak several languages)?


I first came across the term polyglot when I watched a Youtube video about Tim Doner, who at the young age of 17, can speak nearly 20 languages [1]. That’s more than what 2 hands can count ! But, what really caught my attention was when he claimed that watching TV shows helped in language learning.

Now that’s a great reason to watch more anime, but does it really work on people who are not prodigy hyper-polyglot Tim Doner? A little more digging led me to Steve Kauffman, another polyglot who, unlike Tim, only managed to learn 20 languages when he’s at the age of 74. Steve runs a language learning course and a blog [2], detailing the different techniques utilised. This gives us a good starting point to examine how  polyglots learn and find out if techniques (such as watching TV shows) are credible.

Does watching TV really help?

To my surprise, there is actually academic research that supports Tim’s claim of watching TV being helpful for language learning. Stephen Krashen, an expert in linguistics, came up with the Input Hypothesis [3], which states that language acquisition occurs when we are exposed to understandable messages in the language that we are trying to learn. This can be done either by reading or listening.

The key point to note, is being exposed to “understandable messages”. Watching anime with subtitles for example, does not count (unfortunately) as applying the Input Hypothesis as we are not listening to  understandable dialogue in the language that we are trying to learn. Rather, we are reading subtitles in the language that we already have an excellent command of. An actual example of applying the Input Hypothesis would be how Christine [4], a polyglot who can speak 12 languages and runs the YouTube Channel Polyglot Stories, learns Tagalog (used in the Philippines) by playing Tagalog videos or music in the background when doing chores. This is done despite some of the content not being understood.

Another example of the Input Hypothesis being employed is how Steve Kaufmann managed to get from knowing nothing about the language to being able to translate and interpret Chinese to English (and vice versa) for others in the mere span of 9 months, by reading a wide range of materials that were attached with word lists and ignoring characters that he did not know [5]. He finally built up enough vocabulary to read through his first Chinese novel Luo Tuo Xiang Zi without needing to consult dictionaries or word lists after about 7 to 8 months.

Apart from showing us the importance of exposure, Steve’s example also demonstrates to us an important implication of the Input Hypothesis, which as Krashen himself puts it himself, “we acquire by ‘going for meaning’ first, and as a result, we acquire structure”, instead of the other way round [6]. In more practical terms, what this means is that when picking up a new language, instead of starting of focusing on figuring out the grammar and the syntax, Krashen suggests that we focus more on building our pool of vocabulary. By using vocabulary in reading and listening, “we acquire structure” naturally. This is similar to how Steve freely admits that he has “absolutely no sense of Chinese grammar, or grammar terms, yet he is quite fluent.”

Speaking and Writing

However, there is more to becoming a polyglot than just reading and listening. Other than watching TV shows and movies in the target language, our 17-year-old prodigy hyper-polyglot Tim also states that every time he starts learning a new language, there was always an objective of posting videos of himself speaking to the camera. This is done either by monologuing or trying to have a conversation with the audience. Tim finds that feedback given to him by the audience are invaluable as it is a form of aid that improves his ability of learning the language.

Now, we all know the saying “practice makes perfect”, but how exactly does speaking the language help us master it? Merill Swain, a professor emerita of second-language education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education came up with a few mechanisms to specify how the act of producing language (i.e. speaking and writing, as opposed to taking in language by reading and listening) help us learn better. One of the main mechanisms is the noticing/triggering function [7]. This occurs when we speak and write and start “noticing” gaps in our knowledge and are unable to convey precisely what we desire to communicate. Our attention is then brought to what we need to focus on next in our language learning journey, thereby “triggering” us to fill up this gap of knowledge. Reverting back to Tim’s example, asking the audience for feedback is  an extension of the Swain’s theory of noticing/triggering function. Rather then relying on himself to check for gaps in his knowledge, Tim goes one step further to enlist the help of his audience to help him learn from his mistakes.

There is one more detail in Tim’s method of speaking to the camera that is not covered by Swain’s theory but came up to me as I tried to research on how other polyglots practiced speaking which I would like to highlight here. Steve Kauffmann once shared about his experience in learning Romanian [8] and commented that one of his tutors insisted on correcting his mistakes there and then for every sentence, which did not help him much in learning. Instead, he found that having a whole conversation and  getting a compiled list of mistakes at the end is more helpful in aiding corrections in his language. This draws a surprising parallel with his practice of conversing/monologuing through Youtube videos, which essentially forces him only to be able to receive overall feedback after finishing the entire session rather than learning via instant correction.

The subject of instant correction during the process of speaking/writing vs getting a summarized version of your mistakes after completing a full conversation/essay brings us to the last and final piece of the puzzle in language learning – the question of motivation.

The importance of motivation

Going back to Krashen, apart from the Input Hypothesis, another key pillar in his second language acquisition theory is the Affective Filter Hypothesis, first proposed by Dulay and Burt in 1977 [9]. This theory states that for one to do well in language learning, one should have high motivation, high self-confidence and low levels of anxiety.

Now these may all seem to make common sense. However, the tricky part lies in crafting our language learning techniques such that we can maximize our motivation and self-confidence level while minimizing the amount of anxiety. Tying this with the subject of instant correction vs getting aggregated feedback, we can now see why both Tim and Steve chose the latter when it comes to practicing. This is because being interrupted and corrected on the spot for every mistake we make is more disheartening in comparison to a compilation of our mistakes at the end. After all, it is difficult to notice and learn from our mistakes if we have to dedicate a significant amount of energy to deal with the negative emotions that arise due to the lack of motivation/self-confidence.

It is also noteworthy that taking extra care to maintain our level of motivation/confidence while monitoring our anxiety level does not only apply to the act of speaking and writing. Even when reading and listening, for example, choosing a book or film that is of no interest to us (low motivation) or being too difficult to follow (decreases our self-confidence while raising anxiety) will hamper our efforts to internalize new knowledge. While the negative feedback may not be as apparent during the course of speaking or writing, it would nonetheless still adversely affect our learning efficacy.


In summary, through the personal anecdotes of polyglots like Tim and Steve backed by the research of expert linguists from Krashen and Swain, we have managed to cover quite a few learning strategies that all of us can try the next time we want to learn a new language. When it comes to reading and listening, prioritise on building up your vocabulary instead of focusing on grammar rules. When it comes to speaking and writing, the important thing is to gather feedback and learn from your mistakes. Finally, when doing all of the above, we must consider our level of motivation/ confidence/ anxiety and tailor our strategies accordingly to make our learning process as painless as possible. But can everyone really become polyglots just by applying these techniques? Well they’ve certainly worked for Steve and Tim, but the only way to find out if it works is to try it out yourself.

[3] Comprehensible Input and Krashen’s theory, Robert
[6] Principles and Practice p21, Krashen
[7] The Output Hypothesis: Its History and its Future. Swaine
[9] Principles and Practices p31, Krashen


Robert, P. (2019, July). Comprehensible Input and Krashen’s theory. Retrieved September
28, 2020, from

Kaufmann, S.(2020, Jan). How to learn Chinese:My Top 6 Tips. Retrieved September 27,
2020, from

Swain, M. (2008) The Output Hypothesis: Its History and its Future. Retrieved September
28, 2020, from

Kaufmann, S.(2020, July). Learning Language is a Subconscious Process. Retrieved
September 27, 2020, from

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and Practices of Second Language Acquisition. Retrieved
September 28, 2020, from



About the Author

Shi Qiao

Shi Qiao is a 4th year computer science students at NUS and wishes watching anime helped him more with learning the Japanese language.

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