By Christopher G. Moore at

A polyglot is defined as someone who is fluent in at least three languages. By that definition, Tim Keeley is a super-polyglot, speaking “30 plus languages.” The question is, what motivates a person to desire to learn more than two dozen languages? Keeley provides the answer to the value of speaking multiple languages in this compelling and powerful memoir.

Keeley grew up in Florida and had a perfectly ordinary childhood and schooling. His exposure to Spanish was the first language. As a teenager, he spent an extended period in Colombia. That adventure abroad opened up his world. Once he passed through that door, he found a mansion with a nearly infinite number of language rooms inviting him to enter. He soon added Portuguese, French, and German to the languages he had mastered. He built a language-based career as a distinguished cross-cultural management professor in Japan.

In short, when you travel to a country where you speak the language like a native, you experience a world that is otherwise screened from the language-challenged tourists. Anyone who has traveled to another country and didn’t speak the language will understand, after reading this account, how little they understood of what was going on around them. Their experience as non-speakers of the language was little more than a crude postcard of the culture they visited. As Keeley confirms, it is the experience inside a culture that delivers a deep understanding of the political, historical, and social relationships. The local language is the passport to enter that world.

The thesis of Tim Keeley’s memoir is best summarized in this passage: “Language is a tool that directs attention to different aspects of reality. Take an intense journey through multiple languages and cultures. You will most likely become aware of the degree to which our perception and interpretation of phenomena are deeply embedded in our cultural and linguistic experiences.”

Thomas Berger and Ian McGilchrist came to the same conclusion: that another language opens a new frame for seeing and experiencing the world. Having lived and traveled throughout Southeast Asia for the best part of 35 years, Keeley’s view is one that I personally share.

Did you ever wonder what the pre-Internet world offered to someone with a curious mind and an appetite to learn a new language and culture? This masterful book is a testament to an age that has sadly passed. The author’s language acquisition is a case study in learning a language: the history, the food, the religion, shops, markets, and restaurants provided the perspective not only to speak and understand the language but to comprehend the culture from which the language emerged and the forces that shaped and continued to shape its development.

We are reminded that there are currently more than 6,000 languages in the world. But the future looks gloomy for such diversity to continue, and in less than a hundred years, there will be between 200 to 600 languages spoken around the world. We are witnessing language extinction on an epic scale. These estimates are from a pre-internet era. The brave new world of the Internet and artificial intelligence may hasten that demise.

Reading Keeley’s book is an insight into a vanished world. It is doubtful we will find such a book in the future. ChatGPT and social media have changed the landscape of travel, language acquisition, and use. Online translation gives the appearance of a shortcut to understanding. Keeley’s nearly 40-year journey makes him a modern-day Homer, and this memoir is his Odyssey. He has used his language skills and keen observations on the ground and as a student of history to recreate the pre-Internet world in its grandeur and the worldview of the people who inhabited the analog world.

What factors explain Keeley’s ability to learn so many languages? The answer is a complex combination of personality, attitude, and determination that reveal an appetite for adaptation, openness, concentration, discipline, and a deep curiosity about other people and their cultures and history. An important element is the learner’s degree of empathy. Keeley emphasizes that a key to language acquisition requires emotional sensitivity and social cognition. If you can read the emotional state of another person, you have a big advantage in using language that is appropriate for that state. Another feature of polyglots is their high social flexibility. They are less judgmental about other people’s beliefs and behavior. Instead, they are curious as to how language has constructed such beliefs and led to certain behavioral outcomes.

If you want to learn a new language, what is Keeley’s advice? Listen, repeat, read and write down phrases, and listen to popular songs in that language. Pay attention to their emotional state. Music is one way to understand another culture’s emotional response to life. Why songs? This is a treasure trove of information, expressions, the language of the street, the syntax of ordinary people expressing their inner emotions. But these techniques take time and discipline. In the Internet age, with shortened attention spans and many online distractions, the future for polyglots like Keeley is dim.

Each chapter is a record of Keeley’s experiences and impressions ranging from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, the Arctic, and many Western and Eastern European countries. His language facility means he can communicate at a native language level with 72% of the world’s population. There are two omissions from this survey of a life journey of language acquisition. I would liked to have known if in his later years when he brings his wife and two sons onto his journey if this aided or distracted from the way he learned language as a solo traveler. Second, in the chapter on Thailand, there was a missed opportunity to highlight the unique role played by heart phrases or jai words in the Thai language. Finally, I would have loved to have read a chapter about the cross-cultural difference in the expression of cognitive biases. The Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, thinking Slow book leaves a gap in how language influences our biases. Keeley is the person to fill this hole in global differences in the way our biases differ. But these are small quibbles.

In the 1970s and 1980s, before mass tourism, the Cold War world was a dangerous place. We are privy to his close calls with local authorities. He was briefly arrested in Argentina during the time of the ‘Dirty War,’ and his language skills made his interrogators suspicious that he was a spy. In 1985, he brushed shoulders with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and planned a trip to the Khyber Pass. From his experience in the old Soviet Union, Poland, and East Germany, we discover that smuggling was common among a population suffering from shortages. It hadn’t occurred to me how important speaking a language was to the career of a smuggler. You couldn’t move inside a black market without knowing the lingo at a native level of fluency. Keeley’s language ability was useful for dealing in the black market for smuggled cameras and coffee. In Armenia, he had another close call as his language fluency made him a target of suspicion.

Keeley’s understanding of a local language has given him a unique window into history, relics, and architecture. He explains the histories of castles, monasteries, citadels, palaces, mausoleums, and cathedrals. These monuments are more than just brick and mortar; in the hands of a linguist, they are connected to the local language landscape. He was in the sleeping compartment of his train, watching the Azerbaijani countryside outside when the train suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere. A powerful blast came from the train horn. Keeley experienced history unfolding on location when his train stopped on November 10, 1982, after the announcement that Brezhnev had died.

Today, tourists gather in tour buses or cruise ships, but not Keeley. He traveled by train, plane, ferry, bicycle, motorcycle, and local buses to explore the Amazon, Asia, and Europe. He recounts his stories with details of the people he met along the way and what he learned from speaking their language. Raise your hand if you’ve been to the Witches Market in La Paz and mingled among the locals examining displays of dried frogs, owl feathers, dried turtles and snakes, or witnessed the slitting of a llama’s throat in a sacrifice ritual. Fortunately for us, Keeley kept a daily diary of his explorations, allowing him to provide the kind of detail that makes the experiences authentic and memorable. One of my favorite stories is set in Lhasa, where Keeley visited in 1985. Two “German tourists borrowed a soccer ball from a Tibetan boy. They began kicking and heading the ball against the wall and passing it back and forth with great skill. Along with two Germans, they kicked a soccer ball with local boys and soon drew a crowd of thousands to watch.”

It comes as no surprise that his work for GE, with all of its luxury perks, wasn’t sufficient to dampen his curiosity for language and travel. He saw no joy in the lives of GE’s top managers with their considerable wealth and possessions. In 1989, he made the decision to return to Japan with his Japanese wife and their two children. He had secured an academic position which would give him the opportunity to resume his travels and language learning.

At the end of Keeley’s book, he answers questions about remembering so many languages and why some people have the ability to accumulate multiple languages. He labels this ability as the “multilingual factor.” Someone with this facility “develops metalinguistic knowledge (knowledge about particular languages and languages in general) and metacognitive knowledge (knowledge about how they learn a foreign language), as well as insights into the emotional aspects of identity and self-representation in multilingual and multicultural contexts.”

Ultimately, “there is no one perfect way to learn.” Each polyglot has found his or her own pathway to language acquisition. Keep in mind this axiom: “The more I spoke, the better I got.” What are the benefits that arise from learning multiple languages? The learner gains tools to examine a much broader range of the purpose and meaning of life. By being open to different ways of thinking and being, the learner’s outlook on his or her own experience in life is transformed.

The importance of language comes from understanding the component parts of any culture: “the songs, hymns, folk tales, sayings, metaphors, appropriate politeness for interaction with others, the history, wisdom, and ideals of a particular cultural group are all reflected in its language.” This makes a strong case why leaders in government, finance, commerce, and academia who are fluent in multiple languages make better decisions. They are able to negotiate with others in their own language, knowing what phrases, gestures, and expressions support their position.

Softening up an adversary by speaking their language, as Keeley recounts, was how Nelson Mandela was able to change the attitude of his guards during his long period of imprisonment. This lesson should not be forgotten. You can humanize your enemy by speaking their language and, in doing so, disarm them of their anger, hate, and suspicion. You are no longer the “other” when you understand how they think, feel, and dream. Keeley has written a polyglot manifesto that stimulates, inspires, and will change the way you think about language and culture.

Feature Image Source: Unsplash @qmikola

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