I started this blog a little over five years ago. Shortly after that, I started posting videos on YouTube. My blog posts were mostly about my adventures living in various countries and learning languages, and my videos mostly recorded my attempts at speaking various languages I had studied.
I had this hidden away for a long time, but now I’m going to show it to you again. This was my first ever YouTube video, posted in May 2011:
Talking to a camera wasn’t something that came naturally to me at all, but I did it because I wanted to push myself, and also because posting videos was what all the cool kids were doing. Soon after I posted that first video, I found myself being called a “YouTube polyglot”. (Polyglot (n.): “A person who knows several languages.”) And as I continued to write blog posts, I started getting linked to as a “language blogger”. People other than my mom started to follow me. Having started blogging with a vague notion of perhaps eventually building a large following and maybe even making a living off it, at first the attention was exciting. But then it started to freak me out a bit.
It’s kind of hard to explain why, but something about the situation made me uncomfortable. I guess it was a combination of things. For one thing, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as someone who “just” likes languages, since I was also interested in and wanted to write about other things. I also didn’t want to get caught up in technical talk about language learning methods, which was what a lot of the discussion online seemed to be about in those days. And frankly, I just plain felt awkward and overexposed with my unprofessional YouTube videos and blog posts revealing what in hindsight often seemed like far too much personal information and far too many bad hair days now irrevocably spread all over the Internet. (I recorded a video with my hair wet once… Why did I do that?! I could have waited for it to dry!)
In all seriousness though: It can be really easy to post something online and not realize how personal it is, how vulnerable you’re making yourself. It’s far too easy to just hit “publish” without stopping to think about the significance of what you’re putting out there. And sure, once in a while someone will make a rude comment on your YouTube video, but it’s easy not to let it bother you– they’re just some random faceless person on the Internet, and you can always just block them anyway. But it’s not as easy to hide from people actually standing face to face with you in “real life”. It’s not as easy to make yourself vulnerable to them.
I will never forget the time about two years ago when someone I knew in “real life” (a coworker in Japan, who could possibly even be reading this now) mentioned having read my blog and watched my videos. My immediate reaction was to feel extremely embarrassed, and I’m sure I must have turned red as a tomato. I was bothered by this reaction, and I asked myself why I felt so embarrassed.
It seemed I had just gotten into the habit of separating my “real life” from my “online life”, and I wasn’t prepared for the two to come together in this way. My blog posts and videos revealed parts of myself that I was used to keeping hidden from people around me, mostly because I thought they wouldn’t understand. They would think I was weird, or worse, they might elevate me as some sort of multilingual, musical, artistic “genius”. I didn’t want to be a “genius”. In my everyday life, I simply had that everyday human desire to be understood and accepted as equal. But I never felt like I could get that understanding and acceptance from most of the people around me while also being myself. That was why I turned to the Internet: Where expressing my true self wasn’t as scary, and where I could reach a large enough pool of people that at least a few of them would understand. And even more than a few of them did.
But I was still afraid to express my true self in person. My Internet life and my in-person life grew more and more separate, until any connection between the two was too jarring to handle. Although I never abandoned this blog completely, I never got into any sort of consistent posting schedule and often went weeks or months without posting. I took down most of my YouTube videos because I didn’t want anyone in my “real life” to see them (I think I may have told some of you another reason, or just said it in a vaguer way, but now you know the real reason I took them down). As a result I mostly fell into obscurity. Various other things took over my life for a couple years, and I mostly lost touch with the language blogging community.
Then I went to the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in 2015. I went with the intention of being a mere passive participant and indulgently absorbing inspiration from wiser and more accomplished people, but I was surprised that several people knew who I was. (By that I mostly mean a few people squinted at me and said slowly, “I think maybe I read your blog… once… a long time ago.” A few more people lit up and exclaimed excitedly, “You were in that ‘Skype Me Maybe’ video with Benny Lewis!”)
But despite the awkwardness of my weird state of polyglot semi-fame, there was something really special about meeting other language enthusiasts and bloggers in person. Everyone was so incredibly warm and encouraging, and there was no sense of competition or one-upmanship at all. There were people who spoke 20 languages and people who just spoke 2 or 3, but everyone was equal. We were all there to learn from each other, and most of all, to soak in the feeling of belonging with others who shared this rather unusual hobby of learning multiple languages. We were different in so many ways, but our common love for languages was enough to bring us together. Everyone was invited to contribute, and all contributions were appreciated. I enjoyed the experience enough that I attended the Gathering again this past May, and even contributed by giving an “Introduction to Japanese” talk, which got a very positive reception.
By that second Gathering, where I saw many of the same faces again, I was starting to feel like the people in this community were becoming my actual, real-life friends. And now, after the North American Polyglot Symposium in Montreal, that feeling has been further solidified. I now feel like I have this amazing support network of friends who love languages scattered all over the world. I think this movement is growing into something that’s about more than just learning languages, something that has a lot of personal significance for many of us involved. Or at least for me.
These events and the people attending them have shown me something I couldn’t see on my own: That my online life and my real life don’t have to be separate. I can merge them, and I should– because that’s the right way to live. Because I shouldn’t have to hide who I am from anyone. There are enough people out there who do understand and accept me for exactly who I am, and the support of those people gives me the courage to face the others. And now if anyone calls me a weirdo or a “genius”, I can simply say, “Oh no, I’m not that special– I know like 300 other people just like me.”
The other day I did something that may seem insignificant, but was kind of a big deal to me: I decided to stop posting on the Facebook Page I’ve had for this blog for years, and start posting blog related stuff on my personal profile where my “real life” friends can also see it. I plan to take down the Facebook Page soon. (Don’t worry– even if we’re not Facebook friends, you can follow me on my profile to see updates.) To me this marks an important transition.
Maybe some of you are already tired of me going on about these polyglot events. But the Polyglot Gathering and the NAPS have changed my perspective on language learning, blogging, and life. The polyglot community now feels almost like a family to me, and I think that kind of support is what I was missing. It’s not just about learning languages– it’s about having the courage to put myself out there and be authentic in all aspects of my life. It’s not an easy thing to do and I’m sure I won’t do it perfectly, but I think I can at least try.