Polyglot Problems: 21 Hilarious Problems That Only Polyglots Understand

Do you speak multiple languages?

Did you ever expect that it would be anything less than pure, multilingual bliss?

Whether you grew up speaking several languages or you took the time to learn them in adulthood, you may know by now that being multilingual isn’t always a walk in the park.

Sure, most of the time being multilingual is great, but every now and then there are some problems you encounter simply because you know multiple languages.

Even if you’re not fluent in all of your languages, you’ve probably still come across some #polyglotproblems. Same goes for bilingual people, by the way. We’re all united in the joys and challenges of language learning.

What Are Polyglot Problems?

Before we get into that, let’s travel back in time to 1997—way back when the hashtag was still called a pound sign.

Here, we’ll find that the late rapper, Mr. Notorious B.I.G., might have been on to something with his hit “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems.” Through this catchy tune, he and his mates gave a detailed account of the struggles they faced as their burgeoning celebrity status caused them to acquire more and more money. It’s a tale for the ages.

Now, it’s unlikely that a polyglot will encounter many of the same issues faced by hip-hop superstars, but there’s a theme here. The more you have of something, the more conflict you’re going to face.

Languages are no exception.

As such, the multilinguals of the world took to the Twitterverse to air their grievances. From this came the rise of the now popular hashtag in the language learning community: #polyglotproblems.

It’s hard being brilliant and ambitious, isn’t it? But you should expect that you’ll have to jump over some hurdles if you take the road less traveled. We could all sit in the corner of our bedrooms and let life pass us by so that we don’t run into challenges (except for abject loneliness, of course). Or, we can choose to be bold and adventurous and #slay any problems that are sure to come our way.

Let’s be honest, would we really even take the time to learn several languages if they weren’t something to conquer? We thrive on the challenges. We look forward to them. Besides, many of the problems aren’t even problems, but merely hilarious nuisances.

And if we’re really being honest, it’s kind of fun to “complain” about issues that we know will fly right over most monolingual heads. It’s not to be mean. It’s just that no one else really understands woes of a polyglot’s life, do they?

You spend your days studying and memorizing, living your life in front of a computer screen or beneath a pile of books. You’re not alone. We understand. We polyglots have issues and we’ll cry about them if we want to, in several different languages if we must, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

So, ready to vent yet? Good. Let’s do this.

Polyglot Problems: 21 Hilarious Problems That Only Polyglots Understand

1. People try to test your knowledge.

“You speak how many languages?! Say something in ___! Now in ___! Now in ___!” Somehow your hard work and practice becomes something of a parlor trick for friends, family and sometimes strangers.

But polyglots are a resilient bunch. Don’t huff and puff next time you hear this “request.” Smile, show off and make everyone around you a little jealous. They asked for it, anyway.

2. You mix up languages.

Je voudrais (French) un vaso de agua (Spanish), per favore (Italian).” (I’d like a glass of water, please). 

This is a pretty common occurrence for people who speak multiple languages.

Sometimes, you aren’t sure of a word and replace it with another foreign word, and sometimes your brain just rattles off foreign words at will, it seems.

Either way, when this happens don’t beat yourself up. Just try to slow down when you speak, and the words (in just one language, hopefully) will come to you more easily.

3. Subtitles give you anxiety.

It’s no secret that we polyglots like to use subtitles when watching TV or movies to maximize our productivity. The trouble is, we never really know which language to choose. There are just too many options. It’s enough to make you toss your remote and give up on TV forever.

Next time this happens, try just adding subtitles (or audio) in the language that you struggle with the most. Learning through entertainment is one of the best—and most pleasant—ways to focus on the trickier language issues you’ve been trying to avoid.

4. You feel insulted by bad translations.

So, you’ve decided on which subtitles to use. As you’re watching your show you realize that you’re much more fluent than you thought, because every few seconds you’re shouting at the TV, “That’s not what that means!”

Nothing sends a polyglot over the edge like a bad translation. It’s unacceptable and someone should pay. Perhaps you can write an angry letter shaming the translator for their less than perfect work.

5. They only like you ’cause you’re a native.

This happens often in the language learning community. People seek you out solely because you’re a native English speaker. But you’re more than your language abilities. You’re funny, creative, a good listener, loyal. The list goes on.

Maybe your new friend will learn to love you for who you are, but as of now, they just want you for your vocab.

6. You only like them ’cause they’re native…

Can’t really get too mad at that first guy, can you? You probably have a friend for every language that you speak.

It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. As long as you’re kind and consistent, a genuine friendship is likely to flourish anyway, and you’ll have a language buddy for life.

7. …but they only speak to you in English.

…except if they only speak to you in English. This union is now a waste of your time. Find someone else who’s willing to split the time evenly so you can both benefit from the relationship.

8. You know the word in every language except your native one.

We’re so focused on achieving fluency that we study every and anything we can. We know massive amounts of vocabulary in the foreign languages we’ve learned, so much so that sometimes we know words for things that we never even learned in our native language.

It’s always a little funny when you can identify an object in several languages, but then you realize you actually have no idea what it’s called in the language you’ve been speaking your entire life.

9. You want to learn a new language while still struggling with your current ones.

Our ambition can go into overdrive at times.

There are several reasons why we might decide that we want to pick up a new language while we’re currently studying others: travel, competition, curiosity, love, work and many more. We want to be able to talk to everyone. It drives us crazy to say “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

Still, slow down. Cramming never helps anything.

Perfect the ones you’ve got right now.

Life is long. There’s plenty of time to learn others.

10. Reading does not mean comprehension.

You’ve succeeded. You’re able to read books and documents in French, German and Korean seamlessly. There’s just one problem: you only understand 50% of it.

Reading is a whole new beast. You encounter new words and you also encounter old words used in ways that you can’t make sense of. It’s stressful. It can make you feel like you’ve learned absolutely nothing.

It’s normal. Besides, if you’re confident enough to read books and documents in a foreign language, you’re much further along than you’re letting yourself believe.

11. Mediocrity has become an unlikely ally.

There are some polyglots who seem to have superpowers and can speak all of their learned languages at near-native fluency. Most of us can’t do that. We want to but it can be a bit much.

It’s quite normal to set a goal for near-native fluency in one or two languages and decide to just be “pretty okay” at all the rest. This isn’t failure. It’s just keeping your sanity.

12. That internal battle when Google asks if it should translate the page.

What do you do? Do you accept the challenge or do you go native? There’s some important stuff on that website. You can’t afford any misinterpretations.

Oh, but you’re so much better at the language now. You might even learn a word or two now that you’ve mastered context. You did come to this page knowing it wouldn’t be in English but you didn’t expect Google to show up and give a choice. Now what do you do?

Your finger hovers back and forth over “yes” and “no.” You have to make a decision, and you have to make it soon. There’s no time to waste. You close your eyes, and you click.

13. They think that you don’t understand them.

This is always fun.

Sometimes you’ll be in a place where someone will start talking about you in their language, thinking you don’t understand. People should really stop doing that. Haven’t they seen a single television show or movie? It’s just never safe to assume.

If this has ever happened to you, hopefully it was a kind or benign comment. That actually happens sometimes. But if someone is talking trash about you, well, there’s no better time to practice oral communication than when you’re giving someone the shock of their life.

14. When you speak to someone in your target language and they respond in English.

It’s like someone has just burst your bubble. When this happens we feel foolish, and a little bit insulted. However, many times, people will speak English because they think they’re helping you. Or, maybe, they just want to practice English themselves.

If this happens, and you’ve still got even a shred of confidence left, try to pick the conversation back up in your target language. It’s the only way you’re going to get better.

15. People think you have Dissociative Identity Disorder.

In one language you’re timid. In one language you’re pragmatic. In one language you’re a comedian. It’s not uncommon.

Many of us dance between personalities as we switch languages. Most of the time we don’t even realize it. You’re not crazy. There have been a ton of studies trying to figure out why this occurs. Just embrace it as being “part of the job.”

16. It’s hard to be in multicultural locales.

Ever been in a place and you hear several languages you know being spoken at once? That happens quite often to polyglots living in major cities. The brain goes topsy-turvy trying to figure out which language to focus on.

In this situation, pick the one where you’re strongest. That way you’ll be able to hear the words with clarity (as opposed to it sounding like garble if you’re still in the learning stages) and you might be able to pull out some words or phrases you haven’t learned yet, and stick them on your to-do list to learn later.

17. You try to translate idioms to no avail.

Yeah, it’s terrible when you’ve got a perfect idiom to whip out but you just can’t.

If you’re trying to tell your Japanese friends that “there’s no cow on the ice” (ingen ko på isen) which means “there’s nothing to worry about” in Swedish, you might be better off just being direct or learning an idiom that has a similar underlying meaning.

The Swedes are right, by the way. There’s really nothing to worry about. Embrace the struggle. It’s part of the process. In due time, this will all come to you like “a roll with butter” (bułka z masłem), as we say in Polish.

18. You panic when studying one language because you’re worried you’ll forget the others.

It’s simply not true, but we’ve all been there.

You put so much focus on one language. You spend hours, days, weeks or months studying—and then you stop in a panic thinking of the other languages that aren’t getting your attention. Trust your brain. It’s a lot more reliable than we’d like to believe.

Your sentences may sometimes sound like a language smorgasbord (see problem 2), but that goes to show you that all the words are in there. Take your time with each one. Set a schedule and follow it. This way, you’ll know that even though you’re not focusing on the others now, you’ll definitely get to them later.

19. You say polyglot, they think polygamist.

People who aren’t language enthusiasts most likely have never even heard the word “polyglot” before.

Since our human brains like to make sense of things, theirs might just substitute “polyglot” with the other “poly” word it knows, and so now this other person is just kind of shocked and bemused.

If you’re met with awkward, uncomfortable looks when you say that you’re a polyglot, just assure that person that, no, you do not have several lovers. Though, if you did, none of them would speak the same language.

20. You’ve thought about learning Dothraki.

Or Valyrian. Or Klingon. Or any of the other made-up languages associated with popular fictional series. Let’s be honest, we all want to sound as cool as Dany Targaryen when she shouts the Valyrian command dracarys (breath fire) to her dragon, Drogon.

As a polyglot, you simply don’t want to be left out of the language loop, even if you’d only be one of five people in the entire world who speaks the language outside of the presence of a film crew.

If you’re perfectly fine being the super-awesome person in the room who doesn’t have to read the subtitles when watching “Game of Thrones,” then we’re fine with it, too.

21. Your friends just don’t get you.

You’re not doing this for school or for work, but simply for internal glory.

You want to be the ultimate language master of the world. You want to increase your brain function and expand your mindset.

Some people just don’t get that. Some people wouldn’t put that much hard work and dedication into something without the expectation of a tangible reward. That’s fine for them.

We, on the other hand, will let our passion for languages continue to drive us. We may get some funny looks for turning down a happy hour or staying in on the weekend so we can practice, but that’s okay.


Sure, we may have some #polyglotproblems from time to time.

In the end, we’ll have the fulfillment we need from the languages we love.

So, do what makes you happy. That’s all anyone can ask for.

Oh, and be sure to let us know all about your polyglot problems on Facebook and Twitter!

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