Tuesday 22 September 2009

O to be a polyglot

Here is an impressive video of an Englishman going by the name of Torbyrne, who can speak sixteen languages. (Thanks to Giridhar Rao for this.) He says
This is a video with me speaking some of the languages I have learnt over the years with captions in English. In this video I speak English, French, Spanish, Welsh, German, Macedonian, Swedish, Italian, Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian, Portuguese, Czech, Catalan, Russian, Dutch, Romanian and Albanian.

As far as I can judge from the languages I know myself, his pronunciation is excellent, in that he definitely achieves the goal of sounding native-like. However his general ability to speak clearly and articulately does arguably leave room for improvement.
Nevertheless, this should be an inspiration to us all: particularly on the day that the Guardian reports on the closure of UK university language departments.
UCL’s professor of German says
Monolingualism radically diminishes Britain's ability to compete in the international marketplace and disqualifies the British from many high-level posts that require linguistic fluency. It threatens our ability to look beyond our front doors. Foreign culture can only truly be accessed through a foreign language. Not having that exposure results in an inability to be a global citizen and limits otherwise intelligent people to cultural parochialism. At that point, we have abandoned, paradoxically in the age of globalisation, the desire to reach a certain level of intellectual development and the wish to truly count as world citizens.


  1. Wow! What a man! Thanks for sharing an amazing video.

  2. As a native German I must say that this polyglot gentleman has an impeccable German accent. The only tiny blemish I detected is the stress pattern on "au pair" in the sentence: "Ich war dort au pair" (I was an au pair there). He stresses "au" whereas "pair" should have the main stress.

  3. You have to listen very carefully to realise his Welsh is not native, and I spotted one gender mistake, but it's pretty good. Perhaps the most impressive thing is the speed and ease with which he slips between languages, and the stamina necessary to breeze through no fewer than 15 in one take (apparently he has some command over several others, including BSL). It's one thing to keep two or three up to speed while others quietly rust away till you brush them up, but he has them all at his fingertips. I wonder if he has any special technique for that.

  4. His Dutch pronunciation is almost native like, but his grammar is off on some points. Defintely impressive though! I wish I had command of more languages.

  5. He's good. A lot of ums though. I mark him down on intonation; that's what mars his Welsh and Russian more than anything else. Having said that, "picking up" Russian on the fly (I presume on foot of already knowing Macedonian) is impressive. Learning Albanian is praiseworthy indeed!

    As a polyglot myself (English, German, Danish, Spanish, French, Irish are my good languages), I enjoyed his performance; clearly he has a natural gift for "foreign" phonology—a gift which seems to be rather rare. (I do have it.)

  6. Oh, not only is his Russian quite good, just a bit exaggerated (the /o/s aren't opening diphthongs in all positions with a native speaker), but I'd say this is in spite of his knowledge of Makedonian. It's not about remembering cognate words, it's about pronunciation, and there, students and native speakers of Slavic languages seldom get rid of their first (Slavic) language's phonetics.

    He's really impressive, though in many languages, there's at least one telltale thing he doesn't get entirely convincing (Czech /e/'s too open sometimes, Serbocroat tones &c.)

    But it's still excellent. Rare to have somebody get the difference between the |ch|s of German, Makedonian, Czech, Russian and Dutch and inside these languages, or the differently "dark" ls.

  7. His Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian grammar and pronunciation aren't really native-like, ande definitely leave room for improvement.
    I'd say they're pretty much what you'd expect from a native speaker of English who's spent some months intensely absorbing the language.

  8. As a native of speaker of Spanish, I'd say he's really achieved native-like pronunciation. However, I'd say he still needs some polishing in terms of clarity. I had to listen more than twice to understand part of what he said. Sometimes, his vowels are too short (although we don't distinguish between short and long vowels in Spanish) e. g. /u/ in "ciudad".


  9. Out of interest, at what point does one become a hyperpolyglot (rather than just a polyglot)?

    And how well do you have to be able to speak a language to consider it one of the languages that you speak. I can say "My name is ... and I come from ..." (plus various other not very useful phrases) in probably 10 languages or more ... but can only hold a conversation (with varying degrees of fluency) in about 4.

    I used to be very fluent in German but am much less fluent now ... does this still count as one of the languages I 'speak'?

  10. I bet Torbyrne can spell 'Oh!'. The word 'O' is a vocative word used in addressing someone spoken to as in 'O God' or 'O Romeo'.

  11. The name of the man is Richard Simcott.
    There's another impressive language learner called 'Luca' on youtube.

  12. David Marjanović3 October 2009 at 18:43

    Czech /e/'s too open sometimes

    Depends on which kind of Czech it is. The youth of Prague (and BTW Belgrade), I'm told, tends pretty far toward [æ].


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