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The Myth of the Polyglot TCK

There is an urban legend of sorts that Third Culture Kids are preternaturally gifted with the ability of being fluent in multiple languages. I want to disabuse anyone and everyone of that romantic notion.

I know TCKs who speak only one language — some of them overreach by saying they know several dialects of whichever particular language they speak, but the “dialects” are more like regional accents. (By contrast, I know non-TCKs who do actually speak very different dialects of a particular language, but don’t think of themselves as polyglots.) I also know TCKs who can technically function in two languages — speaking one at home just with their parents (and never formally studied), and completing assignments in another one at school (as a second language, which they always seem to struggle through, so they never feel completely comfortable in their education-language) — they’re not bilingual; they’re half-lingual.

An interlude to deconstruct what it means to be “good at language”:

Four Aspects of Language

Listening: the skill to hear what is being said, and understand both denotation and connotation

Speaking: the skill to verbally, orally express mental thoughts and emotional beliefs

Reading: the skill to look at visual markings, symbols, and/or characters and understand the meanings they signify

Writing: the skill to create (either transcribe spoken word or compose original text) visual markings to convey thoughts

These four skills overlap and entwine, so improvement in any one area significantly increases the odds of improvement in another area — but they are separate skills. Excelling in one does not automatically, magically guarantee excellence in another area. Many unknowingly try to short-circuit the complexity of language fluency and assume that someone speaking well must also mean that person can write well. Another common mistake is witnessing excellence in only one skill and generalizing it to ‘total fluency’.

I don’t know why anyone would insist that children learn a language “faster” than adults because a child would, from birth, hear everyone around him speak said language, then from age 2-5 speak that language (incorrectly) until reaching school-age, then spend a few years learning how to read in that language (sometimes writing, badly), and then not until about age 10 are they really reading to learn and (consistently) writing coherently. That’s a decade. And yet adults are expected to be “Fluent In 3 Months!” from reading a travel/survival guide with accompanying recordings and an appendix full of grammar conjugation charts. And if one happens to be a Third Culture Kid, that entire process is somehow innate?

Oftentimes, if a TCK is a “polyglot” (or “at least” bilingual), there is a great mismatch and gap between skills within at least one of their “fluent” languages. This is why there are grown adults who speak like little children, or have glaring knowledge holes (such as being able to speak intelligently about engineering but unable to order food), or are illiterate even though their speaking is relatively advanced. (I more or less fall into this last category with Japanese: I’ve listened to and spoken Japanese my entire life, but my reading level is finally-maybe, at Grade 2 level — after a year of private tutoring when I was 30 — and I still can’t write.)

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More recently, I spent a month in Jordan to learn Arabic, and I took to it much more smoothly and easily than I thought I would (after hearing and reading for years that it is the most difficult language, or at least one of, in the world). Although I had taught myself to read elementary Spanish and French (see what I did there? I qualify my achievements, because I’m a TCK with impostor syndrome), it wasn’t until I was in a room of people who had proclaimed past experience with the Arabic language and boasted at orientation of their projected language success — and I was picking up language elements faster and retaining more — that I came to terms with my multilingualism. And yet I still would never comfortably proudly proclaim myself a polyglot (unless if I became a hyper-polyglot someday, maybe). 

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t attribute my polyglotism to being a Third Culture Kid. You know how I know? Because everybody else in my family (siblings, parents, grandparents) is a TCK and I’m the only one who can pick up more language in both quantity and nuanced quality than all the others combined. So if I set aside the multicultural factor and analyze what might make me good at languages, the following factors are really the keys to my multilingual aptitude —

I have REALLY sensitive hearing: Sometimes a pin will drop in another room and it will startle me (no joke), so hearing the slight difference between sound-alike words in foreign languages is not a problem for me.

I REALLY value consequential reasoning: It’s very difficult for me to move past any point in conversation if something/anything doesn’t make coherent sense, so if learning a new language I care a lot about how who did what when to whom where.

I REALLY like language (and languages and culture): It would be an understatement to call me a ‘thinker’ because in truth, I think about thinking. But then how, and in what words, would I think? This chicken-or-the-egg quandary of whether language shapes thought or thoughts shape language is super fascinating to me. Same for how or why cultural norms came to be.

I REALLY like learning: I’m always reading about 20 books on as many topics at any given time, and I’ve been like this since age 7.

I REALLY like communicating: Forget translating different languages, sometimes I feel like I need to translate for two people speaking the same exact regionally accented dialect within the same exact language. It’s that logic bit, and also passing along information from the learning bit. Once we get talking, I dare you to get me to shut up! 

Also if anyone wants to dare me to learn a new language, I am always game.

How am I doing? Have I convinced anyone that Third Culture Kids are not born polyglots? None of the reasons I gave that make me a polyglot have anything to do with me living in multiple cultures simultaneously. But they explain why, for example, my Mandarin speaking/listening comprehension is pretty good, considering I don’t even like Chinese and really don’t do any work to improve my language skills. As for the TCKs who overreach and try to qualify somewhat desperately as polyglots — why would they do that? Because they have the pressure to perform, to be the model TCK who can speak multiple languages as proof of being a TCK. Then there are the TCKs who struggle to communicate in every language simply because they haven’t had the time or resources to fully develop language skills. There’s also a third category: monoculturals who can become impressively fluent in foreign languages, and their achievement is not worth any more or less than their TCK counterparts’. The relationship between language fluency and multicultural living can be correlational, but not causal. So if anybody is open to some unsolicited advice on how to manage cross-cultural language-related expectations:

If you’re a TCK, don’t feel like you have to be (equally) fluent in two languages, never mind several.

If you’re not a TCK, don’t expect TCKs to be your translators.

Written by Emi Higashiyama (Instagram: Emihigashiyamastudio)

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