In Pursuit of Multilingual Dialect Speakers

The humid heat hit me like a brick wall. The airplane that I was stepping off of had just flown down a street between skyscraper apartment buildings, close enough that I could see people in their homes. A single backpack slung over my shoulder and Cantonese phrasebook in pocket, I passed a poster in Chinese welcoming Hong Kong back to China, the big handover that everybody was preparing for in just a few days.

Approach to Kai Tak

I was barely 20 years old at the time. The only phrase I could muster was a simple Mandarin “woh yow chew” (I want go) so I could at least ask for directions. I had arrived on a quest to answer a question that was burning inside of me.

Up to this point in my life, I had accumulated not more than two hundred hours of internet usage, and the internet wasn't a place where I could go find answers for the things that I wanted to know about. My biggest resource to help answer burning questions was the local university research library, or the more accessible and easy-to-find 29-volume hardcover edition of Encyclopædia Britannica. But the answers weren't in there either. It would be another eight years until I laid eyes on an early version of Wikipedia for the first time.

It was more of a curiosity than a simple burning question: Why do Chinese people call their languages dialects and say they're mutually intelligible? If I learned Mandarin, would I just as easily understand the dialects of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Xiamen? Or would they be completely unintelligible languages?

“ the answers would inadvertently unravel the mystery of language acquisition and fluency ”

Before I went I couldn't figure out what the linguistic map of China really was like. Aside from Robert Ramsey’s book on the subject, there was no map or resources. How different were all these lects? Were they truly mutually intelligible? Could they be considered different languages?

By the end of this quest, the answers to these questions would inadvertently unravel and solve the much more profound mystery plaguing all language teachers and language learners worldwide: language acquisition and fluency. I'm sharing this story with you for the first time.

Not too far from where I was, off the coast of China lay an island of complex linguistic mystery. It had favourable visa conditions, among many other conditions too many to mention here, so I made my way to Taiwan. I've called Taiwan home ever since.

Fluency Trickisa wazaqan a shirshir maniza a thau, Source: Hudun Lhkatanamarutaw

Four years later I had the number one destination on the internet for data related to Chinese dialects. I called this website “Glossika”, based on the Greek word, as a place where I could keep track of all things “linguistic”. A few years later I found that another website had overtaken my position and was filling up with data faster than I could compete: Wikipedia. It looked like a good place where I would continue to contribute.

A Land of Unwritten Language Complexity

Languages of TaiwanLanguages of Taiwan, Source: Glossika

Taiwan is fascinating in its own right, with three Chinese languages spoken side-by-side with another 42 aborigine “dialects” dispersed across roughly 18 separate languages. This is quite a remarkable number for an island the size of Maryland.

Out of these two dozen languages, only one is written: standard Chinese, but yet people “pick up” and speak Hakka and Taiwanese. Among aborigine communities in the mountains there are a couple lingua francas: Bunun and Amis. And people learn to speak them through interactions, not from learning how to read or spell or sitting in classrooms.

In the year 2000 the only people who could “write” the aborigine languages were linguists, who were still researching and trying to understand them. The only place where the languages were documented in writing were in linguistics journals. Two decades later and with the help of the government, standardized spelling is starting to emerge and literacy is growing among the aborigine population. It's now possible to see Facebook posts written in a number of Taiwan's aborigine languages.

Language is a Natural Skill that Belongs to Every Human

The activities and skills that we enjoy, such as playing sports or musical instruments, always seem to have a right and wrong way to do them. Because correct leads to favorable outcomes, such as scoring more points or making a more beautiful sound.

But language is one of those things that belongs to the community. And nobody is without language. And there really is no right or wrong way. Some people have beautiful voices, others don't, and everybody speaks in their own way with their own quirks and their own accents. It's just something that we accept with language, and no matter how different someone else is, when we listen, we focus on the message, not the idiosyncrasies of that particular person.

There's a pretty wide range of what people can understand, and as long as you get within that range, the community will understand you too.

The Unwritten Language Barrier of an American Hmong

Sua Vang, an American Hmong womanSua Vang, an American Hmong woman, Source: Facebook

In Anne Fadiman's 1997 book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, she chronicles the true story between an immigrant Hmong family in California and the doctors who are trying to save their daughter, Lia Lee, who unfortunately passes away in 2012.

Although the Lees are fluent Hmong speakers, they cannot read or write their language. In fact, in those days, only language specialists could read and write the Hmong language.

The doctors make use of interpreters to communicate with the family and the doctors get “translations” of instructions in Hmong so that the family would know how to administer the medicine and dosage. Even identifying the dialect or how to write the instructions was a challenge in itself.

Cultural issues aside, a complete breakdown of communication ensues, especially when things are put into writing. The Lee family is aware that English is written in Roman letters and can probably identify quite a few words. Imagine their puzzlement when the doctors present them with what appears to be English, but it’s not English at all, and yet the doctors say it’s their language, but they’ve never seen anything like it before.

It was confusing for the doctors to say the least, who were raised in a monolingual English environment where the written word has a major influence over the spoken language. For the typical monolingual English speaker, it's hard to imagine living in the modern world speaking a language that you have no way to write down.

Hmong has many dialects, and spellings are not yet standardized for all these dialects. Unlike other southeast Asian languages that independently developed their own scripts, Hmong has adopted Roman letter spellings. One way to know if a language has only had an oral tradition, is if it's now written in Roman letters. Languages outside of Europe that are written in Roman letters tend to be languages that have only recently started to be written down.

When looking for language courses, try looking for those that have oral training rather than reading and writing training. In terms of picking up the language, it really makes all the difference in the world. For example, a quick search for learn Hmong reveals results stating “do you want to learn how to read and write Hmong”. Remember, this won't be very helpful since most Hmong don't read or write their language. Sure, more people might be learning to read and write Hmong,

Like most immigrant communities who speak unwritten languages, Hmong speakers in the US are more likely to text each other in English and talk to each other in Hmong. People stick with what feels most natural, and texting in Hmong is not very natural. It is possible to see some comments and conversations online in Hmong, but like the aborigine languages of Taiwan, the use of the languages in written form is still in gestation.

If you wanted to learn some Hmong, does it do you any good to learn reading and writing? Besides, transferring reading and writing skills to real spoken fluency is merely a pipedream for the majority of people who learn languages this way.

Hmong is one of hundreds of traditionally unwritten languages that we're working on producing at Glossika.

Why do we do this? Because for thousands of years polyglots trained their craft with spoken language, not written language. We're bringing as many of the spoken languages of the world to your fingertips.

Written Languages have Fewer Polyglots

All humans who have working ears and vocal chords are capable of any of the 7000 languages on earth. Any one of these languages do not equate to a lifetime of effort to learn or master. To say what you want and to be understood only takes a few months of practice.

Furthermore, only a couple hundred languages are actually written down with a standard writing system. It correlates approximately to how many countries exist on earth. This is because each country really should have a standard language so that the government can communicate with everybody, write down laws, and provide standard services. A lot of countries use English, French, and Spanish, but there are some countries that have 5-10 standard or national languages, so it kind of evens out.

The reason why I mention standard languages is because we're commonly forced to think of language learning as something that is based on writing. When it really shouldn't be. 200 languages out of 7000 have a standard writing system; that's less than 3%. The other 6800 languages we can write down with the help of linguists, but the people who speak them never need to write them.

The people who speak these other 6800 grammatically complex languages become multilingually fluent in them without study, grammars, flashcards, or dictionaries.

And therein lies the secret to language learning.

I'm not asking you to throw out your reference books which provide a wealth of data. But you can definitely stop wasting time on flashcards. If anybody is asking you to invest time and energy into flashcards in this day and age, ask for a refund.

The Most Multilingual People in the World

Fluency trick

So is it possible to learn any of these 7000 languages?

Taking a survey across the globe, we've found that the most multilingual people and most polyglot people on earth tend to be in Africa and Asia especially in areas where languages are not written at all.

The multilingualism that people most commonly experience consist of those 6800 unwritten languages. In stark contrast, fluent multilingualism appears to be less common for written standard languages. Does a correlation exist?

What is even more remarkable is that people learn to speak these languages without any written words, any dictionaries — just no resources whatsoever. They learn to speak these languages through interactions with other people, through bilingual acquisition.

For example, one person says one sentence in Swahili and another person says the translation in Maasai. Through a few more encounters and reps, the Maasai “translation” has been acquired and it makes sense and holds meaning. These are not even related languages, coming from two different language families with different structures, grammar, and vocabulary.

Slowly over time, the whole Maasai language is acquired through this method because the parts and pieces of the language keep repeating and interacting with all the other parts to the point that all the patterns make sense.

Since the sentences are random and patterns occur by frequency, this process takes two to three years of constant contact, but nevertheless it is just one of the natural phenomena of the diversity of humans on earth. And all of this happens without classrooms, teachers, or writing.

I've heard a lot of people say that indigenous languages are more primitive and not as rich in expression as our national languages. The problem with this thinking is that our national languages haven't evolved a new level of complexity from their prehistoric origins. If anything, our national languages have simplified in structure. Aborigine languages are some of the most complex wonders in the world of language diversity. And this is why so many people hold these languages as special and unique and dear. One thing to add to your list of things to do in life should be to dive in and experience an indigenous language entirely different from your own.

This brings us to another perplexing issue:

How is it that such complex languages be picked up by common country folk as second languages without any schooling or literacy to help?

It comes down to reps. And you need a lot of reps to gain any amount of fluency. It's true, if you don't use it, you'll lose it.

Fluency trick sisi ifafaw ruza wa taun, Source: Hudun Lhkatanamarutaw

The Need for a Fluency Solution

By 2008 I had already acquired several Chinese languages.

I hadn't done anything with Glossika for several years. In mid 2009 off the recommendation of a client, I decided it was time to start a new chapter for Glossika and the Glossika owl logo was born. I embarked on a new challenge to figure out the secrets of fluency. I started tackling the aborigine languages of Taiwan as a testing ground for myself on acquiring fluency. I went to amazing places, had life-changing experiences, and met fascinating people. It was fun and highly rewarding.

Meanwhile my new fluency training service in Taipei took off like wild fire. The results blew people away and word of mouth was strong. All the language lessons people had had in school left them with very passive and nascent abilities and the inability to speak up and express themselves. The service transformed their lives. It lead to DVDs and a publishing business. I pivoted in 2012 to a global language service and started building a team.

The Answer to the Burning Question

For Chinese dialect speakers, exposure to languages enhances comprehension to the point that where Mr. A spoke Hakka and Mr. X spoke Cantonese, they'd understand each other perfectly, because they grew up hearing each other's languages every day.

Meanwhile, Mr. B who also speaks Hakka, but grew up not hearing Cantonese, would not be able to understand a single word of what Mr. X says.

This leads to understanding of multiple languages due to exposure and experience of use rather than linguistic similarity. The Chinese dialects are, in fact, separate languages as much as French and German are. They are merely intelligible “dialects” to the locals who understand more than one of them. Writing, on the other hand, is a completely different concept taught in school, and loosely related to spoken communication.

Does Glossika Work?

Glossika gives you reps. Lots of reps, in a very logical order. It is a fact that the most multilingual people on earth speak languages that aren't written down, even by the natives who speak them. It is also known that these languages are grammatically complex. Yet people acquire them with their ears only. It simply is the number one best way that humans acquire language — ask your nearest five year old!


Large, national languages are in fact less complex, and therefore even easier to pick up. Stop stressing yourself out over learning a major language. Sometimes all you need to do is try your hand at a harder language to stretch yourself beyond your ultimate goal. When you come back to the easier language, your success rate skyrockets.

Glossika language training is unique among companies: we built our system based on how people acquire unwritten languages. Then we organized all of our data and made the training of each language as effective as possible by applying algorithms to our data.

Glossika definitely works for you. All you have to do is hit your first goal of 25,000 reps to experience this wonderful feeling of fluency growing inside of you!

Unlock the pro version and start changing your relationships now.

Experience Fluency.