Hiking & Hyperpolyglots

Let me introduce you to my fantasy self. She is an avid hiker. Weekends are spent camping under the stars, and she knows the trails in her area better than the roads to work. She can walk with a pack on her back for 20, 30, 40km without tiring. She spends more time outdoors than indoors, and when she is inside, dreams of inhaling fresh air and the light scent of gardenias floating through a field in the middle of nowhere.

I love my fantasy self. The problem is, she is not real. Don’t get me wrong- I have hiked before (500 miles*, in fact), and I spent much of my childhood running through the back woods of Maine: being covered in bug bites and scratches from blackberry bushes just meant it was a great day, filled with adventure and fun. I own a bevy of camping gear, and binge YT documentaries on the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, and Continental Divide from time to time.

But these days, I only hike metaphorically. I search for stories as though they were actual destinations. I notice how certain words weigh down my pack more than others. I collect random phrases in other languages. Each day brings me deeper into the linguistic jungle. Each day brings a new adventure to share. While this is all rooted in experience, the only pack I carry currently is an oversized purse. But let’s back up a few years.

It all started when I was in Spain, and we decided to name the days to organize our thoughts on trail. For instance, there was The Day of the Rainstorm, when we found ourselves atop the Pyrenees Mountains gripping metal hiking sticks during a terrifyingly vicious lightning storm; we were drenched (passports included) but relatively unscathed.

By contrast, The Day of the Cute Lamb & Guitar Lady was saturated with a deep peace: green buds blossomed, an 11-day-old lamb gazed innocently about, and calm seeped through the guitar strings of a 20-something-year-old Spaniard as she sang her heart out on the front porch of that little farm.

We invented silly story after silly story about elves and hobbits on The Day of the Mystical & Enchanted Forest; these playful tales helped bring me strength and peace of mind on The Day We Were Separated (read: actually lost & separated while hiking in a foreign country).

There was even a day when the heat led to a few hours of delirium, in which we made ‘conference calls’ to any body part that was in serious pain. “Um, Feet are on Line Two. They say it’s urgent.” “Can you tell them I’m talking with Knees? I’ll be with them in a moment.” “Just a second. Yes, they will stay on hold but only if you promise to stop walking by 3pm.” “Deal, but only if they tell Blisters to go on vacation ASAP.”

The trail was peppered with silly days and serious days, hard days and easy days, long days and short days. After returning home, I really thought that I would continue hiking. However, work piled up and one afternoon, I realized two things: one, that several years had passed since those unbearably hot but delightful Spanish summer days; and two, that my job and passion in life–teaching Spanish (and exploring other languages on the side)–had become a form of hiking.

You see, language-learning is the ultimate backpacking experience: it is minimalist (your 3-lb. brain suffices as luggage), and each word becomes a memento, a souvenir, a memory of where you’ve traveled and how far you’ve come. It is Camino-esque, a pilgrimage of sorts, except that unlike Le Chemin de Compostelle*, the journey never really ends.

That said, every once in a while, my fantasy self wonders if there is a way to combine the best of both worlds.

In the late 1500’s, a man named Thomas Coryat decided to hike across Europe. He ended up walking over 2,000 miles and “picking up” 14 languages along the way. He was a talented linguist and considered one of the world’s first backpackers and true tourists. With 14 languages under his belt, he is also considered a hyperpolyglot, or “massive language accumulator”.

In the 1800’s, there are legends that a Cardinal named Mezzofanti was fluent in at least 38 languages. According to linguist Michael Erard, when two prisoners were about to be put to death, Mezzofanti even learned the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”) overnight, heard their confessions and offered forgiveness in their language the following day, prior to the executions. Although seemingly impossible, there are numerous accounts of his unbelievable abilities, as well as boxes of flashcards stashed away in the historical archives of a library somewhere in Italy.

Modern-day hyperpolyglots include Timothy Doner, Alex Rawlings, Richard Simcott, Kató Lomb, and Alexander Argüelles, to name a few. All of these hyperpolyglots have different methods and beliefs in terms of how best to learn a language. Some imagine wearing different colored lenses when they study: red-tinted glasses for Chinese, blue for Russian, yellow for Portuguese, and so on and so forth to separate languages and facilitate in code-switching. Others walk through parks shouting unintelligible phrases, over and over again, until far on the horizon, their brain begins to pick apart the sounds, and suddenly, they have discovered a way in the back door.

Some listen to music on loop, ‘downloading’ and memorizing chunks of language, and then searching for translations after the fact, to see what they have learned and where they can apply said lyrics in everyday life. Still others rely on the old standby: the rote, drill and kill grammar of flashcards and verb conjugations. And some don’t necessarily learn the entire language, but have fun playing with accents and imitating foreign sounds (see Diego J. Rivas, SAARA, & Amy Walker). While the latter are not hyperpolyglots, their unique skillsets are certainly admirable.

Whatever the method or final destination, it is clear that language-learning is a journey. When hiking–and by extension, language-learning–becomes tedious, boring, repetitive, and the same old routine, we seek something new, novel, a break from the predictable rhythm. It has been said that no matter your social or financial status, no matter who you are, we all need encouragement.

I am an aspiring hyperpolyglot who recognizes that although I may never reach a high level of fluency in multiple languages, I can still use my hiking metaphor to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and look to these massive language accumulators when I get stuck or need a bit of motivation.

In the end, we can conclude that my past self hiked a fair amount; my fantasy self has achieved the title of Master Hiker; and my present self realizes that whether hiking in actuality or metaphorically, strength remains an imperative component. We must be strong–like the hiker–and just keep walking, no matter what. That is the key, the trick, the secret, the path to mastery and success.

On my journey, I collect words; I amass memories and stories; I stop for encouragement along the way: but at the end of the day, I return to me, myself, and I, and observe as each memory glitters through the facets of a round brilliant cut diamond, as long as I keep walking.

“Happiness is a mosaic, comprised of a thousand little stones.”

Delphine de Girardin

  1. Polyglot Conference 2021
  2. Polyglot Gathering 2021
  3. Concordia Language Villages
  4. Benny the Irish Polyglot
  5. Olly Richards, I Will Teach You A Language
  6. Add1Challenge
  7. Busuu app
  8. FluentU app
  9. Breaking the Language Barrier— Tim Doner
  10. Polyglot: How I Learn Languages– book in PDF, by Kató Lomb