Trial & Expert: Dare to Learn a New Language
A hyperpolyglot tells me his language-learning secrets
“You have to be a daredevil to speak a new language.”
Matias Barmat is a hyperpolyglot. You’ve probably never heard of that term, which means you’re learning an English word in an article about learning foreign languages. A polyglot (poly = many; glot = tongue) is typically someone who speaks 4-6 languages. A hyperpolyglot is someone who speaks significantly more than that. Barmat is the Director of Recruitment of the International Association of Hyperpolyglots, which requires members to speak at least six languages. He speaks about 15 languages to varying degrees of fluency.
The Buenos Aires, Argentina native speaks Spanish (native), English (C1)1, Catalan (C1), Portuguese (C1), Italian (B2), French (B1), Galician (B1), Romanian (B1), Basque (A2), Greek (A2), Turkish (A2), Hebrew (A2), German (A2), Dutch (A2), Macedonian (A2), and others. Yes, I said “and others” because he’s always learning more.
As you can see, Barmat speaks nearly all of the Romance languages, which makes sense as a native Spanish speaker, but his knowledge of such disparate languages as Basque, Greek, Turkish, Hebrew, and Macedonian is astonishing. These languages share no common ancestor with the others he knows, requiring him to digest mass amounts of new vocabulary from scratch, as well as complex conjugations, grammar, and (in the case of Hebrew, Macedonian, and Greek) new alphabets.
It is stunning. His language-learning journey began almost by accident. Besides learning English in school, his first new language was Catalan, the Romance language spoken in the Catalonia region of Spain where Barcelona is located. As a high schooler he met a fellow teenager online who was from Barcelona. When they would chat he noticed that his friend made a lot of mistakes when typing in Spanish. Matias learned that his friend spoke almost exclusively Catalan, so he decided to learn the language himself.
“In six weeks I learned to speak Catalan,” Matias told me during our nearly hour-long Zoom chat where we nerded out about topics like the Indo-European language family and agglutination in Turkish.
Catalan shares significant similarities to Spanish, but that’s still quite an achievement to learn it in less than two months. Over time he learned other languages through watching TV like Italian, French, and Portuguese.
Basque is a language that has long fascinated me. It’s believed to be the oldest European language still being spoken and it’s only spoken by the people in the Basque region of Spain and France (about 750,000 people speak it). It shares no common ancestor with any spoken language today, making it incredibly difficult to learn. He learned Basque for a similar reason, a friend he’d met online spoke it and he wanted to communicate better with her. Instead of six weeks like Catalan, it took him three years to learn Basque. I would imagine it would take a mere mortal like me a decade to learn it.
From my conversation with Matias I gleaned three important language-learning tips that will hopefully help you get over that hump to finally become fluent. That information is only available to paid subscribers of this newsletter. If you haven’t signed up for the T&E Club yet, you can do so now.