The Superlinguists: A Four-Part Radio Documentary About Polyglots and Language Learning

What motivates people to learn multiple languages for the sheer fun of it? Can the average person become a polyglot? How does one go about learning a new language? What are the benefits and challenges of living in a multilingual environment? And what sort of impact can state-enforced language policies have on immigrants and other language communities? These are just some of the topics explored in the BBC World Service’s acclaimed radio documentary series, The Superlinguists.

This four-part series is presented by travel journalist and broadcaster Simon Calder and was created in conjunction with the Open University’s School of Languages. Originally broadcast on the BBC World Service back in July 2019, all four episodes can be found on the BBC Sounds website and are essential listening for those who are even remotely interested in learning a new language.


Episode 1 – The Polyglots

Synopsis: Simon Calder meets people who keep learning new languages not because they have to, but because they want to. What motivates them? Situations like this – an immigrant hotel cleaner who is moved to tears because you speak to her in her native Albanian; A Nepalese Sherpa family that rolls about laughing in disbelief at hearing their foreign guest speak Sherpa. But do polyglots have a different brain from the rest of us? Simon travels to a specialised lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and undergoes a brain-scan himself, to find out.

Episode 2 – How to Learn a Language

Synopsis: Simon Calder asks how to go about acquiring a new tongue. He gets tips from those who know – innovative teachers and polyglots. The answers are surprising. At school, it is repetitive drills, shouted out loud by the whole class, that seem to lodge the grammar and pronunciation in the pupils’ brains. But if you are an adult learning by yourself, then, on the contrary, don’t stress about grammar and pronunciation, there are better, and more fun things to focus on. Simon has a go at learning Slovenian, can he order coffee and cake after just one lesson?

Episode 3 – Multilingual Societies

Synopsis: What is it like to live in a place where you have to speak several languages to get by? Simon Calder travels to India, where a top university only teaches in English, the one language that the students from all over the country have in common. And he meets people who use four different languages with their friends and family, depending on whom they are talking to. In Luxembourg, it is not so much family, but other situations that require four languages, such as going shopping, watching TV, or school lessons. Simon hears that in secondary school, maths is taught in French, history in German, casual chat in Luxembourgish, and English is compulsory too, so that no one leaves school without being multilingual.

Episode 4 – Monolingual Societies

Synopsis: Presenter Simon Calder is from Britain, where, on the surface, everyone speaks English. In Brazil everyone appears to speak Portuguese, in Russia, Russian. But scratch the surface, and other languages appear, and not just those of immigrants. Simon meets speakers of indigenous languages (like Welsh in Britain), of dialects (like Moselfrankish in Germany) and vernaculars (like African-American Vernacular English, in the US). These speakers all use the mainstream language every day, but code-switch to their variants, questioning whether their societies are monolingual. Is there even something sinister and oppressive to the idea of monolingualism? A tool to control, used by emperors on conquered peoples, and by governments on immigrants?


The Superlinguists was produced by Arlene Gregorius for the BBC World Service in partnership with the Open University. All of the synopses shown above were taken from the BBC website. 


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