Depth v Breadth

Depth v Breadth

Yesterday I saw a post on Facebook saying that some polyglots “are just jumping from one language to another, only reaching beginner or at most intermediate level” and “They’re learning bits of many languages but mastering none of them.”

The person who wrote this states that he would prefer to focus on one or two languages and become really competent, learn them in depth, and learn about the culture, literature, poetry, and so.

If you learn many languages at a lower level, “[…] your language efforts make you nothing more than a glorified party trick. You can make people smile at a party when you can introduce yourself in 5 languages. But your language skills have no depth or breadth.”

There are as many ways to learn languages as there are language learners. Some prefer to focus on one or two languages and learn them to a high level, others prefer to learn more languages to a lower level. Some combine both approaches – they may learn some languages to a high level, and others to a lower level.

I can focus on one language or other interest, at least for a while, but usually have several projects on the go at the same time. As a result, it takes me quite a while to learn and improve my skills and knowledge, and I accept that I’m unlikely to become fluent in all my languages, or a virtuoso on any of my instruments, or a great singer or composer, or an amazing juggler / circus performer.

Are you a specialist, able to focus on one language, or other project / interest / hobby?

Or are you more of a generalist, flitting between different languages and interests?

4 thoughts on “Depth v Breadth

  1. I’m both a specialist and a generalist. I’m a native English speaker and have a pretty good reading knowledge of Spanish, but my ability to speak and understand it is only so-so. I continue to work on my Spanish skills. I have been studying Esperanto for 7 months and hope to work up to fluency. As a generalist, I have studied Russian, Old English, Basque, Korean, Latin and Koine Greek. I never advanced beyond beginner level in any of these languages, but I have gotten a lot out of studying them. I still know the Cyrillic, Greek and Korean alphabets and can sound out words and sometimes recognize them.

  2. I enjoy learning a language on my own primarily for the challenge and fun of it. I have had enough courses to have learned how to carry on a decent conversation in several but the broad spectrum of all the languages one can study by oneself is the most rewarding, especially if I learn just enough phrases to say a few words of welcome to visitors. I work as the guide trainer for my cathedral and it is wonderful to see the delight on a tourist’s face if I can greet him or her in something like Finnish or Hebrew. Good for tourism to boot!

  3. There’s a graphic showing a multi-lane highway with a road sign saying “Working on Your Target Language.” And there’s an exit ramp with a sign, “Starting a New Language.” And a car that has made a sharp enough turn onto the ramp to leave the tires smoking.

  4. Some people do crossword puzzles, I do languages – no specific goals, just fun. Over the years I find there are those I keep coming back to, and I’ve gotten to the point where I can read intermediate to advanced texts in perhaps 15 of them. I was brought up speaking English and Spanish, which remain my principal languages for most things.

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