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Possibility?: Polyglot World Championship

  Tags: Polyglot
 Language Learning Forum : General discussion Post Reply
Richard Burton
Joined 2694 days ago

34 posts - 64 votes 
Speaks: Ancient Greek*

 Message 1 of 3
28 August 2015 at 1:14pm | IP Logged 
I have had an interest in and some involvement with the concept of mental competitions/sports for some time. As a classic think for example chess, but also modernly some funny competitions have been organized, such as the World Memory Championship. I believe a Mental Sports Olympiad or thereabouts, exists or have existed.

The idea is that, same that physical faculties can be put to the test by means of competing with other athletes, mental faculties of so-called "mentathletes" can be the object of a contest. I understand extreme polyglottery to be a predominantly mental ability (although the purely physical ability of using the speech organs in no-native fashion is also involved). Intelligence, memory, patience, commitment, cross-cultural abilities are called-for and developed, for the benefit of the individual and society at large.

So the topic in this post, and my wondering, is whether it would be technically possible or not. It is one of those gratuitous discussions, but it could be of some interest and, at any rate, harmless :), although I "warn" that I am a serious dangerous dreamer :) My first impresssion is that, indeed, it would be possible, not without overcoming some difficulties.

Think about the Cambridge English exams, for example. I believe a jury of three examiners team up to evaluate the English language skills of the candidate. Each one of then focus on an aspect or aspect of language skills, such as faithfull reproduction of the phonetic/phonological system (pronunciation), another one keep an eye, or rather ear, into lexical richness, another one syntactic correctness or ease of delivery I dont know. Then you have written texts, and the technical aspect and fairness guarantees of all this is is very well scientifically established. I am not expert in these matters, but the point is that this sort of jury could be constituted for each (most) language/s claimed by participants at the world championship. I bet already existing qualified tester from British Council, Alliance FranÇaise, etc, would volunteer or could be hired at modest allowances.

Now comes the objection that it would take a huge number of juries, making it unfeasable or slipping into unfairness. Discussion of a solution next:

I assume you agree there appears to be around 14 languages that not only are the outstanding languages of the world, they are the most heavily learnt/used as second or foreign language, claimed, etc; most competitors at the championship would claim knowledge of a number of them/ from that set. If you take English, Spanish, Chinese, French, Russian, Arabic, then others such as German, Japanese, etc, you may be covering as much as 97% of language students and learners in the world, as well as the native language of participants, since they are spoken by some 90% of the population of the world.

Then we have less commonly claimed languages, either as native or learnt. My thinking is that, while setting juries for the most commonly claimed languages, alternative ways of evaluating and scoring uncommonly claimed languages should be explored, such as hiring the services of distance interpreting services available. Keep in mind this would be done only at the finalist round. At first round, trust on the sense of honor of the competitor should be relied on, as if a fictious claim on an obscure language is made, it would be scary for the individual to be called his/her bluff later, apart that probably champions would be put to test by natives afterwards everywhere. False claims are very likely to be unveiled.

In addition, participants would provided juries with the official diplomas they have, but still the juries would make their own evaluation of the language competing. Competitors without them should not be at a disadvantage, it would be only a way for people to be even more certain of fairness. With both assesments at hand, I am sure the veredict would be rather fair. A lot of people having attained high levels of proficiency have officially recognized diplomas, therefore I believe levels of fairness and assessment accuracy would be high, though of course never 100% perfect. Participants hopefully would put the fun of participating in this kind of event above the narrow margin of assesment error involved.

The most scientifically difficult last part would be to devise some sort of "diversity score" for the linguistic repertoire of a given competitor. The idea is that someone competing with English, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic at high level should beat someone competing with English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Catalan, as you very well know.
For this, a team of qualified linguists should be put to work on the scores and linguistic repertoire of finalists (not all competitors from the beginning, as there should be more than one round), what probably would cost money. Linguists such as the one who wrote the book on extreme polyglots might be interested in this project.

The native language would be given maximal score for everybody, or ignored, I dont know, but the thing is that competitors would be rated with their scores in all their claimed languages. It would be very interesting for public and followers to watch. A new mental sport would have been born, and a practical real-life relevant one at that, probably without precedent in that respect.

The objection that it would take enormous time to examine lots of people can be answered by saying that if the sport grows to the point of unmanagable numbers of competitors, national championships should be set up so that only champions from there would enter the world championship (countries with only one contender would enter just in virtue of that, provided they appear to have a linguistic repertoir claim at the level of the world championship).

Categories for junior, adult and senior could be set up, as well as specific prizes or recognition for people with astounding skills, such as accent-free delivery, literary-level writing skills, or most varied or obscure linguistic repertoire.

The first World Polyglottery Championship need not be a big thing, because it would be intended as a seed to grow later only. As an example, the first World Memory Championship was organized by a man only, and only 7 competitors came together. Today, memory sport involves hundreds of mentathletes from some 30 countries, and standards, records and ratings are clearly established.

I believe it would be great fun for participants, inspiration for language learners around the world, motivation-boost for extreme polyglots, as well as it would attract media attention, and sponsors, due to the great volume of the language teaching business (think particular competitors being linked to particular learning methods or companies, as showing that "our method is the one the World Polyglot Champion used"), with the result that prizes for winners, media exposure, and the honor to be World Champions would be considerable after the few breakthrough initial years.

Not in my wildest dream I would have a chance of being top, because I divide my energies in several matters, but it is the rule that great ideas often come from peripherally-involved people. I leave the idea out there in the mindscape for the benefit of all. Dont let interfere the person with the idea, which belongs to anyone capable of being enthused by it.

Seems to me that the most gung-ho polyglots in terms of organizing gatherings are Richard and Luca. Richard and Luca: if ever this idea gets to you, think about it. Although, they themselves being so in for the title, probably after the first impulse, organization effort should be left to other people who are good at that sort of job, but probably language learning enthusiast themselves, linguists, or people involved in the language teaching industy. I bet my life getting support from major private language teaching companies is a very real possibility, let me insist.

Let's dream together, toy with the idea, because when many people dream about something, they say it becomes true.

Welcome to the first World Polyglottery Championship!, imagine that!

Edited by Richard Burton on 28 August 2015 at 1:49pm

1 person has voted this message useful

holly heels
United States
Joined 2248 days ago

47 posts - 107 votes 
Studies: Mandarin

 Message 2 of 3
29 August 2015 at 3:29am | IP Logged 
Not vying for a place in polyglot history myself, but when you're talking about to "accent-free delivery", the polyglot Vladimir Skultety comes to mind. I'm not a native Mandarin speaker, but as far as native-like accent, in my opinion, he's nailed it.

In the USA, there are nationally-televised geography and spelling bees, so some sort of polyglot competition isn't too far-fetched if sponsors could be found. Participants could be tested on the clarity and grammatical correctness of their responses to unplanned questions on complicated subjects.

But unlike knowledge of geography and spelling, language ability/proficiency cannot easily be reduced to a system of points. I have my favorite polyglots, and watching them is like watching the great figure skaters--it's the overall presentation that is conveyed which cannot always be measured quantitatively by judges, how someone interpets a song on the ice or how someone puts their thoughts into words in colloquial Albanian, even if I can't understand it.

So the competition would have inherent entertainment value for me, and could be a useful tool for self-assessment as well if contestants could actually demonstrate their ability to accurately comprehend native material, the most rigorous test of all.
1 person has voted this message useful

Super Polyglot
Joined 5065 days ago

9078 posts - 16471 votes 
Speaks: Danish*, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Esperanto, Romanian, Catalan
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 Message 3 of 3
29 August 2015 at 9:05am | IP Logged 
According to Michel Erard's book about hyperpolyglots ("Babel no more", pp. 248) "the neural tribe of hyperpolyglots has been gathered only twice, both times in Belgium. (...) The man who brought them together (...) was Eugeen Hermans. (...) After finding a bank to cosponsor the contest, Hermans held a press conference to call for contetants who had oral skills in at least seven languages. He set some thorough, if not ingenuous rules: none could be dialects; all had to ones a government would wouch for. No dead languages allowed. None could be artificial languages (Esperanto was out) (...) Even with these restrictions, Hermans had to telephone-screen all the people who wanted to participate in order to pare down the entries to twenty-six contestants who where to be tested in a pool of forty-seven languages"

The winner of the first (local) competition in 1987 was Johan Vandewalle, who when Erard met him was the head of the Turkish language department of the Ghent University, where he was about to finish a PhD in Turkish, Uzbek and Russian grammar (p. 250). On the list he presented to Hermans he listed 31 languages, but seven were dead, and he had to train to be fluent in as many as possible at the moment where the competition took place. At the competition the contestants went from table to table and had conversations with native language speakers, and Vandevalle was accepted as having communicative competences in 19 languages, amounting to 251 points. The runner-up had 181 points, so it was a clear win.

The second competition (1990) was open to all citizens of the EU union, and now you had to prove through diplomas, certificates or letters from professors that you had studied the languages in question (p. 253). Nearly two hundred persons competed (but Vandevalle weren't among them), and the winner was "Derrick Herning, a Scotsman who grew up North of Edinburgh and now lives in the small town of Lerwick on the Shetland Islands (...) after being tested in twenty-two languages". Like Vandevalle he had to study his languages for a month up to the contest to make them fluent at that precise point in time. Erard asked him how many language he could speak fluently 'right now' - "well, twelwe. Twelwe, let's say" "Without any crash course?" "Oh, we'll say ten. I don't try to keep up with these languages - it's impossible." (p. 257).

OK, that was the information I have gleaned from Erard's book. My personal stance is that I hate competitions, I don't accept Herman's rules concerning presumed dead and articifial languages and even if I participated I wouldn't win so I can't see any reasons to participate in a potential new event of the same kind as the two mentioned by Erard. But it does interest me to see which languages the hyperpolyglots of this world speak and how they learnt them. It's making it a competition that repels me.

I have participated in two Berlin gatherings and two polyglot conferences, and there I have almost the same possibilities to test my languages as I would have during a competition - but without any limitations on the kind of languages of dialects I use and without any formal grading. And I have of course found that some of my languages needed a gentle prodding in order to get halfway functional again, while I didn't even get a chance to try out others, but you do get a feeling for your linguistic range, and I prefer the imperfect conditions of such anarchistic events to the strictly organized, competitive and condemnatory atmosphere of a competition.

Edited by Iversen on 29 August 2015 at 9:42am

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