What Is A Polyglot & How Does One Become One?

What Is A Polyglot & How Does One Become One?
“I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!”

I’m Richard Phelps, founder of Language & Luxury and responsible for the language learning element of the experience we offer. People often ask how I came to speak many foreign languages and, while the answer isn’t difficult, it does take some rambling to get through the 40 years or so of life and learning. My particular journey wasn’t at all planned! When I first signed up to study German in high school, I had no idea that my personal life, professional career, pastime, passion, and now business venture would lead me through a process of exploring foreign languages and cultures and becoming somewhat of an expert in them. Although as in many facets of life, there are always those who know more and those who know less, I currently speak four foreign languages well (in addition to my native English) and have studied three others; and, as the Spanish master Francisco Goya proclaimed late in life, “Aun aprendo”, meaning, “I’m still learning”!

Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, literally 60 miles from the geographical center of the US, about as far from an international border as you can get, I wasn’t at all exposed to foreign language or culture as a youngster. Indeed, my family had been in the United States for centuries with no stories of immigrants nor other foreign influences in the family. But yet, I’ve studied some seven foreign languages and speak four fluently. And most of these languages I learned as an adult – studying Mandarin Chinese in my 40’s and Italian in my 50’s – and had a really great time doing so! You could say that language learning is pretty easy for me…but that wasn’t always the case.

The first language I studied was German, for four years in High School, four years at the University of Kansas, and I even participated in group study abroad programs in each of High School and University. But after eight years of study and even a degree in German, I still couldn’t speak the language. I could read and write pretty well and understood quite a bit, but I hadn’t had enough direct contact with German speakers and just hadn’t gotten comfortable enough with conversational German. How could I not be conversant after so much academic exposure to German and even a couple of summer trips to Germany, you ask? It happens all the time in the US! We teach foreign languages just like we teach Mathematics or Biology, that is, we study for a test and a grade and what we retain, we retain….language learning really doesn’t work that way.

After finishing my undergraduate at Kansas and before starting graduate school, my “Wanderlust” got the best of me and I signed up to work as a tour manager for an upscale tour operator from Lawrence, Kansas. I spent a total of five years in the mid-1980’s working in the travel business, traveling to meet my next tour group and leading them through their sightseeing experience. Luckily, in my third and fourth years, I spent the summers in West Germany, traveling throughout the country and even into East Germany, where I actually interacted with the locals on a daily basis, taking in vocabulary and expressions that were not only of interest but were required to do my job. I was thrilled to finally speak German, especially after investing some 10 years into the endeavor!

Years later I realized why the years of academic German study didn’t result in fluency: what I was learning in the classroom had no relevance at all to my daily life as I wasn’t immersed in the German culture but rather in the US culture! Even when I studied abroad in Germany, I interacted mostly with other Americans and thus the German I studied still wasn’t relevant to getting by on a day to day basis; but there were a few exceptions, like when I completed my first transaction in a foreign language.

My first foreign language transaction.

As if it were yesterday, I remember my first complete transaction in German, which happened during my first trip to Europe and my first study abroad program when I was 17 years old. This clearly could have been the point, or at least one of the points, at which I became impassioned by, or perhaps in fact, addicted to, the rush that came over me after successfully completing a transaction 100% in the foreign language.

It happened in the touristic center of Berlin. I had wanted to take home a gift to my mother, and my high school German teacher had recommended a famous German cologne called “4711”, or “Siebenundvierzig elf”, in German (in Truman Capote’s novel, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Holly Golightly wears 4711 cologne!). Long before approaching the kiosk where I suspected I might find it, I went over the dialogue in my head over and over, hoping that whoever was working the kiosk wouldn’t respond in English as they so often do. After getting up enough nerve, I walked up to the kiosk and asked the beautiful blond-haired woman behind the counter, “Haben Sie 4711?” (do you have 4711?). She graciously responded, “Ya, habe ich!” (yes, I do have it). “Wieviel kostet das?” (how much, I asked), and she told me, and I paid, and we said our goodbyes; and walking away I felt like Tarzan or some super hero to have completed the entire transaction in German! (Later I reviewed my diary for the trip and in the words of a 17 year-old Kansas boy, “I felt great after I left. I wish I could have done more of this.”)

Now she certainly spoke English, given that it was a tourist area, but I had practiced enough that she saw that I was confident and that I really wanted it, so she spoke to me only in German! But why did I practice and why was I was I so confident? Because it was relevant and useful if I wanted to take my mother a gift…THAT was the major difference between what I learned while immersed in the culture and what I had learned in school. But sadly, during these study abroad programs, seldom was I truly immersed in the culture but rather I enjoyed a sightseeing tour of Germany with other Americans.

Motivation and true immersion.

I was thrilled to have become quite fluent during those two summers in Germany, but little did I know that my life was about to change and that soon I would get the chance to learn a second foreign language. Fast forward a year or two and I meet a woman from Mexico City who was later to become my wife. Now motivated and having the German experience under my belt, I moved to Mexico City and learned to speak better Spanish in ten MONTHS than I ever spoke German after ten years.

How? Upon arrival, rather than enrolling in a language program, I hired a private, one on one, experienced Spanish teacher with whom I would meet for two hours a day, Monday through Friday. My teacher, Estela, walked me through the Mexican courtship playbook, the Mexican family playbook, Mexican history and culture, and, of course, the language required to interact in all aspects of life in Mexico City.

In other words, everything we discussed, mostly in Spanish, was relevant, and useful, if not essential, to not only my survival but also to a successful courtship in a culture very different than my own. In other words, her family was not thrilled that her daughter was dating an American guy who she met while on vacation in Hawaii! So, I needed all the ammunition I could muster to win them over, which I did!

But key to the success of the Spanish language experience was the cultural immersion. Had I still lived in the US the language study would not have been relevant and useful and I probably would have eventually quit out of boredom. But in Mexico City, I lived alone in a flat in a real neighborhood, taking care of myself with respect to daily activities, and spending hours with my future wife’s family and friends. Mexicans, of course, like most Latinos, are very social and festive; and fortunately, I am as well, so there were abundant opportunities to practice Spanish. I took a few classes at the local university, in Spanish, as prerequisites for graduate school and a way to challenge my Spanish. I won.

But more than just for survival and courtship, if I wanted the locals to know me, I really had to learn to be myself IN SPANISH, meaning that my wit, my sarcasm, my energy, learning to tell jokes, speaking sincerely with her parents and siblings, building friendships, etc., I had to learn. But this experience really was relatively easy because there’s no more RELEVANT and USEFUL vocabulary and expressions than those that allow your true personality to come through. Oh, and what about the grammar? When you have the need to communicate relevant and useful information you also have the desire to do so correctly, so grammar becomes a necessity and much easier to learn. So, Estela brought out the grammar workbooks and I got to it!

The Spanish language learning and the cultural experience of living in Mexico and marrying a Mexican woman (and family!) changed my life forever. While our marriage wasn’t everlasting, over 30 years later not only do I speak fluent Spanish but I have also traveled and worked throughout Latin America, learning the cultural nuances of the various countries as well as the accents and expressions unique to the various regions. I have three boys who speak Spanish fluently and we often travel back to Mexico for their cousins’ (my nieces’ and nephews’) weddings, as I still make the invitation list!

The boy from Kansas didn’t go away, rather he was further enriched by the experience and became a more worldly and culturally sensitive person. The great French emperor, Charlemagne, was reputed to have said,

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”

But it didn’t stop there…

Languages three through seven, starting with Portuguese.

Again, I wouldn’t have predicted that I would continue learning languages, but the opportunities presented themselves and I took full advantage, knowing now that I was fearless. After getting married I completed my MBA at Thunderbird, Graduate School of International Management, in Glendale, AZ. Here I met Spanish speaking people from all over Latin America and Spain, and started learning all over again since their accents were so much different than my Mexican one. But that was fun, not really work.

At Thunderbird, I passed the general proficiency exams in both German and Spanish, but was required to take another language course so I selected Portuguese. Not only was it pretty close to Spanish from a linguistics perspective, but if I wanted to work in Latin America, the largest market was Brazil and thus Portuguese would be essential for that region. The class was “Portuguese for Spanish Speakers”, so even though the environment wasn’t full immersion, knowing Spanish was a great aid and the course was intensive, with strictly conversation classes five days a week and two breakout sessions per week to focus on grammar.

After graduation and in subsequent jobs I began putting my Portuguese to work, first over the phone and then face to face when traveling on business to Brazil, achieving a level of fluency through practice and use while in Brazil. I spent the better part of the next 10 years traveling and working in Latin America, including a couple of years back in Mexico City as an expat with my wife and two boys (at that time).

Mandarin Chinese

As luck would have it, a full 10 years after my Thunderbird graduation, I was recruited by a former boss to take over as Managing Director for the Asia-Pacific region, based in Singapore. Of course, I saw the opportunity here and chose to study Mandarin Chinese, hiring (and my company paying for) a private Mandarin teacher for 1.5 hours per day, Monday through Friday. Now this was indeed a challenge, not like anything I had known, with little to no similarities with other languages I had studied. In addition, Singapore is very ethnically diverse with English spoken in most of the shops and restaurants, so it’s not easy to practice there, although many Singaporean Chinese know Mandarin to various levels.

The effort to learn Mandarin would take several years as the formal study and cultural immersion would take place over time, and not necessarily at the same time. From my private tutor I learned the basics, and one of the secrets of Chinese is that the grammar is incredibly simple, almost non-existent. So, while the pronunciation of the tones is very difficult, you escape the burden of memorizing verb conjugations, since there are none, no plural tenses, articles, prepositions, etc., absolutely nothing that could be seen as redundant (for example, if you have one glass, it’s not necessary to change the word to plural because the number “two” makes that clear; that’s how Chinese works). This became quite refreshing over time and it’s actually quite fun to speak Chinese, although I’ve never gotten the chance to live in a Chinese speaking country, only visit. But I make the most of those visits and practice as much as I’m can while I’m in Taiwan or China.

Japanese, French, and Italian

These are the languages I’m still hoping to improve on, in addition to my Mandarin Chinese. In 2002, when the technology stocks had hit rock bottom, there was a serious consolidation in the technology workforce of which I was a victim. As more of a defensive move, I decided to incorporate and start my own corporation, offering my experience in the Asia-Pacific markets and my skills in sales and business development on a consulting basis to companies wanting to penetrate or expand into the Asian markets. Curiously, my first client was a Japanese company that had been my distributor in Japan. A strategic initiative of theirs was to expand into other parts of Asia and they needed my help to do so. While negotiating the contract, I told them that I would start learning Japanese upon execution of the contract, which indeed I did. I consulted for that Japanese company for 1.5 years and studied Japanese roughly for that same time period, contracting a private Japanese language instructor at home and then practicing my Japanese during my many visits to Tokyo and Nagoya, where the company was based. I learned a lot of Japanese but never lived there and stopped studying when the contract period expired. I still know quite a bit but never became fully conversant, but I may still someday!

I studied French in university for three semesters, ‘not much of a story here. My sister was a French teacher at Kansas University so I actually sat in on her classes for a year and a half and retained quite a bit. When I’m in France I can understand a lot, sometime fitting the words and sentences together like pieces of a puzzle due to the Latin roots and my experience with romance languages. On my own bucket list is living in France for a few months – a la Language & Luxury – to dramatically improve my French skills in region. I can imagine the taste of the great foods and wines just thinking about it!

In the years after learning Spanish I often thought about studying Italian as I knew it was pretty similar to Spanish, but I just never committed myself to moving forward. I got that chance when I decided to take a girlfriend to Italy in the Fall of 2015 and had a good nine months in which to come up to speed. Once again, I didn’t have the optimal environment of cultural immersion, rather I would have to count on my Spanish fluency to give me the advantage and then learn and practice in preparation for the brief immersion I would have once in Italy. I found a private Italian teacher, with whom I would meet once a week for two hours, then of course I practiced at home. But I added a new trick to the method, one I had learned while studying Mandarin, and that was listening to Italian radio using an iPhone app called “TunedIn Radio ”. “TunedIn” allows you to listen to live radio stations from anywhere in the world through your smartphone, something I highly recommend for language learners. Whenever I had the chance I would plug in my earphones and listen to spoken Italian!

One advantage of having a private teacher is the chance to focus on vocabulary and expressions that are most important to you. In this case, it was Italian food and wine. By the time we arrived in Italy, not only could I understand a lot, but I could also ask recommendations for the best local restaurants, ask recommendations from the waiter on the best food and wines, and, well, overall it was a huge success!


Many people say that I have a gift for foreign languages, but the truth is that I suffered to learn my first foreign language, just like everyone else, and couldn’t speak it well even after receiving a degree in the language. For the most part, in the US, when it comes to learning foreign languages, we just don’t do it right. Becoming a polyglot through recordings, like Rosetta Stone, just doesn’t work! Group study is too slow and you get very little practice. You can always travel to a foreign country on a group tour…you will make a lot friends but you’ll speak English 95% of the time.

What worked for me will work for you as it has for many Americans. Personal language instruction, one on one, with a professional language instructor experienced in teaching adults, living in an actual neighborhood in one of the world’s great cities; and cultural interaction, fun and interesting activities that will ensure that you get immersed and actually practice the language. While living like a local, you will also live those unique experiences and create those lifelong memories.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
‒Nelson Mandela


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