Hey, you there!
Yeah, YOU. Reading this article.
Who are you?
Or rather, what kind of language learner are you?
“Kinds? There are kinds?” you may ask.
Oh, sure. Many kinds. In the age of the Internet, language learning as both a hobby and a professional pursuit is more widespread than ever before. With more language learners, have come more distinctions between those same learners, with a wider range of skill levels and interests.
If you’re new to the language learning community, sorting out exactly who’s who and what’s what with regard to these types of “language people” can be a bit of a headache.
On any given language blog, course, or YouTube channel, you’ll see terms like these:
Language learner, language nerd, language lover, language enthusiast, language fanatic, language nut, language hacker, language buff, linguaphile, polyglot, polyNot, superpolyglot, hyperglot, hyperpolyglot, monolingual, bilingual, trilingual, quadrilingual, pentalingual, (etc.); multilingual, and linguist.
Some of these words share the exact same meaning. Others have completely different meanings. To make matters worse, several of these words have meanings that can change drastically depending on who you are speaking to and the context in which they are being used.
It’s about time that we sort out all the terminology for types of foreign language learners once and for all.
Luckily, all of the terms above can fit neatly into six types of language learners.
In this two-part series, we’re going to take a look at each type, going from least amount of language learning experience to most (at least theoretically).
Once you understand these terms, you’ll be able to orient yourself and know exactly which group (or groups) you currently fit into within the language learning community.
The 6 Types of Language Learner
The 6 types of language learner we will discuss here are as follows:
- Language Enthusiast
- Language Learner
- Bilingual (also Monolingual, Trilingual, Quadrilingual, etc.)
What is a Language Enthusiast?
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, an enthusiast is “a person who is highly interested in a particular activity or subject”. Since our subject of choice is language learning, that gives us this definition:
A person who is highly interested in learning a language.
Quite literally all types of language learners, by definition, are language enthusiasts. You can’t learn a language without having some kind of focused interest in it, after all. So that means everyone, from the kid who thinks languages are kinda cool, to the veteran hyperpolyglot with a linguistic repertoire forty languages deep, is a language enthusiast.
The important differentiator between a language enthusiast and any of the learners in the other categories is that a language enthusiast is not necessarily a language learner.
Just because someone has an interest in something doesn’t mean they actually do it themselves.
Think about it. There are a lot of sports fans in the world, but a very small percentage of sports fans actually play those sports themselves. The same logic applies here.
So, in effect, the true language enthusiasts are people who like the idea of languages or language learning, but have yet to take the step of actually learning one. Essentially, they are non-language learners.
Maybe they know how to count to ten in Farsi, Fijian, French, and Faroese, but otherwise cannot use those languages. Perhaps they know a few odd greetings or salutations in Chinese and Cherokee, but can’t yet string a sentence together.
For these people, the enthusiasm is there, but the true learning has yet to begin.
Under the umbrella of terms that specifically connote a general enthusiasm for languages that does not require language learning experience, I would place the following:
- Language Nerd
- Language Lover
- Language Fan (or Fanatic)
- Language Nut
- Language Buff
What is a Language Learner?
A language learner is, quite simply:
A person who is learning a language.
Unlike true language enthusiasts, the language learner is an individual who has made the jump from wanting to learn a language to actually learning languages.
Though it may seem like an obvious distinction, you’ll find that there are many more language enthusiasts in the world than there are dedicated language learners.
In many cultures, having knowledge of foreign languages is seen as impressive, or otherwise cool. However, learning a language also has a reputation for being a difficult task, so although many people are interested in languages, less actually undertake the challenge with any seriousness.
That being said, if you find yourself in this group, you’re already way ahead of most people — particularly if you live in a monolingual country.
Aside from the non-language learners described above, all groups described in this article are language learners, regardless of their individual experience.
Formal Education vs. Informal Education
All of the world’s language learners fall along a spectrum according to the manner in which their target languages were acquired.
Language learners are either formally educated in foreign languages, informally educated in foreign languages, or some combination of the two.
Formal education is where most people are first introduced to the concept of foreign language learning. Outside the native-speaking anglophone world, this education takes the form of instruction in the English language, which begins at a very young age. Within the anglophone world, language instruction generally begins somewhat later, typically in major European languages like French, German, and Spanish.
In the majority of cases, a language learner’s formal language education will be overseen by certified language teachers.
These teachers will guide instruction in a wide variety of settings. These range from classrooms in public and private primary and secondary schools, to lecture halls in colleges and universities. Certain learners may also receive private one-on-one tutoring from professional tutors both online and in-person.
Informal education lies at the other end of the language learning spectrum.
Unlike its formal counterpart, informal education does not require that a learner be educated by a teacher. Instead, the informally educated learner seeks to educate himself.
According to the Oxford definition, when a learner is “educated largely through one’s own efforts, rather than by formal instruction” he or she can be described as self-educated, self-taught, or as an autodidact.
Take note that the above definition says that the self-taught person is educated “largely” through one’s own efforts, and not “entirely”. This distinction is important, because it is practically impossible to educate yourself without some input from outside sources.
In fact, even if you’re not relying on a professional teacher or tutor to learn from, you will certainly have to refer to a range of language learning resources to grow your skills. This means that, in some sense, you will always have a “teacher”—whether it be a textbook, a course, or even a native-speaking language partner!
So, the point of self-driven, informal education is not that you’re learning without a teacher, but that you—and no one else—are the one deciding what to learn, and when and how to learn it.
In addition to all of the terms in the Language Enthusiast section of this post, I want to add a single term that is used to describe a specific type of language learner: the language hacker.
This is a a term popularized by language blogger Benny Lewis, that is used to refer to someone who engages in Language Hacking, his particular style of language learning.
According to Benny, Language Hacking is the use of “shortcuts that get you fluent faster” and “get you speaking right from day one”.
Ok, so we’ve described groups of people who haven’t started learning a language (language enthusiasts) and those who have (language learners).
With our next term, bilingual, is where things get a bit more complicated.
What Does it Mean to Be Bilingual?
We’ve reached our first term with several radically different definitions. This is where a lot of confusion begins, so let’s examine the terms carefully.
Oxford tells us that a bilingual person is one who “[speaks] two languages fluently.”
For a dictionary definition, this is surprisingly unhelpful, as any real understanding of this definition would rely on a common, universal understanding of what the word “fluently” (or fluency) means—an understanding which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, does not exist.
Since fluency means vastly different things to different people, the common usage of the term bilingual has three separate definitions:
1. Someone who speaks two languages – This is the undisputed general definition that all uses of bilingual have in common. This is because bilingual is an adjective that comes from Latin “bi” (meaning “two”) and “lingua” (meaning “tongue”, or “language”).
2. Someone who speaks two languages well – If you take fluency to simply mean “with ease, or facility”, anyone who speaks a single foreign language reasonably well can be said to be bilingual in this way.
3. Someone who speaks two languages natively – This definition does not imply any mastery of a foreign language, but instead that a given individual has two mother tongues, two native languages, or two “first languages” (L1s). According to this definition, if you did not acquire two native languages as a child (or before the Critical Period, as some claim), you cannot become bilingual. For example, almost anything written about bilingual children is using this definition of the term.
Anytime you see the word bilingual used or mentioned, seek out clarification in order to identify which of these three definitions are being implied.
A Note on Multilingualism
As I mentioned above (in definition #1) , the word bilingual is simply a word that refers to the number of languages that one speaks (in this case, two.)
Following the same morphological patterns, you may often see references to a whole host of other “-linguals”, including:
- Monolingual (Speaks 1 language)
- Bilingual (Speaks 2 languages)
- Trilingual (Speaks 3 Languages)
- Quadrilingual (Speaks 4 Languages)
- Pentalingual (Speaks 5 Languages)
The above pattern can be continued indefinitely (any centilinguals out there?), but typically anything past trilingual is pretty rarely used, even among language learners.
Another similar term is multilingual, which means someone who speaks many languages.
For any term ending in “-lingual”, the meanings can range from simply being able to use those languages to being a native speaker of them, and anywhere in between. As above, if you see these terms used in writing or speech, be sure to double-check which of these meanings is intended.
Coming Up Next
By now, you should have a good grasp of our first three types of language learner: the language enthusiast, the language learner, and the bilingual person.
Which do you belong to? Just one? Two? All three?
Remember: wherever you fall within these groups, you can always progress in your skills and join the others, too. It’s just a matter of time, effort, and dedication, but you will get there.
Stay tuned for our next post, in which we explore the remaining three types of language learner—the linguist, the polyglot, and the hyperpolyglot!