Language Learners from Literature: Poly O’Keefe

The protagonists in Madeleine L’Engle’s novels are often child prodigies. Among them are a maths genius, a blind pianist who can echolocate, and a boy who can travel through time. Today, I introduce you to the linguist who mastered eight languages before she graduated from high school: Polyhymnia O’Keefe.

Poly and I first “met” when we were both about twelve years old. And I always assumed that the unusual name Polyhymnia (after the Greek muse of music and mathematics) came first and the nickname Poly came later. Isn’t that the normal way? But now I wonder whether the reverse is actually true. What if “Poly” was originally short for polyglot, and L’Engle hid the joke behind an Ancient Greek name?

From Dragons in the Waters, Chapter 7

Poly’s first appearances in L’Engle novels are in an international hotel and a cruise ship with passengers from all over the world. Perfect settings for a friendly child who loves languages! And as she interacts with English clergy, Portuguese concierges, Dutch officers, and Venezuelan stewards, she really can’t help showing off.

In schoolboy Spanish, Simon tried to thank Geraldo, and was interrupted by a bang on the door and Poly’s voice, “Here we are, Simon!”and she burst in . . . [Her brother] Charles . . . followed her.

“All right if we come in?” he asked.

“Oh, please do come in,” Simon welcomed them, introducing Geraldo. “Do you know –“

“Oh, yes, Geraldo brought me hot tea, too, like a Herald Angel — that’s what Geraldo sounds like. I used to spell it with an H instead of a G.” Then she burst into a stream of Spanish so fluent that Simon found it difficult to follow.

Geraldo spoke carefully and slowly to Simon. “You understand that Geraldo begins with a G, which is pronounced like an H in Spanish? And the other passengers are having tea in the salon . . .”

At Geraldo’s grave courtesy, Poly flushed . . . “I’m sorry, Simon. I didn’t think.”

Under his breath Charles said, “Don’t show off . . .”

Poly flung around as if to flash a reply to her brother, then stopped herself.

“It’s okay,” Simon assured her, “really, it’s okay. And just as I was feeling smug about my Spanish, too. Teaches me how non-existent it really is.”

I sympathize with Charles O’Keefe, who thinks his older sister is shamefully showing off. But if I had as many languages like Poly, and could speak to everyone in a mixed gathering using his own mother tongue, I would find it silly to stick to the lingua franca.

What I would say to Poly

I have a million questions about language learning that I’d like to ask Poly! How does she start learning a new language? What kind of resources does she use the most? How does she retain old languages? Does she have any tips?

Of course, it is entirely possible that Poly is just “magic.” That is, like the boy who can travel through time, maybe no one else can copy what she does to get similar results. But just as Madeleine L’Engle made me believe in time travel, she has made me believe in languages. I am positive that being like Poly — that is, being a polyglot — is also entirely possible.

There are some realistic conditions in the novels that we can recreate. We know, for instance, that Poly is homeschooled — which means free to self-school. Her American parents raised her on a Portuguese island, where she picked up both Portuguese and the islanders’ Gaean. Portuguese opened the door to Spanish, and from there, I guess another Romance language like French came easily.

It was from Poly that I learned it is easy to learn Spanish if you already know Portuguese, but very tough the other way around. ThisĀ  later became an excuse for not learning Spanish from my grandmother. I really believed that the correct order of language acquisition was: Portuguese first, Spanish later. And today I know neither Portuguese nor Spanish — one of the great tragedies of my life!

But why dwell on what I did wrong, when I can discover what Poly did right? Her German and Russian, both of which she learned before she left Portugal, are especially interesting cases. Since I’m studying the former now and want to tackle the latter next, I would want to hear everything she has to say about them.

Who is your favorite fictional child prodigy?

2 thoughts on “Language Learners from Literature: Poly O’Keefe

  1. I always get the genealogies and timelines mixed-up for L’Engle’s works, so had to look up the fact that Poly is the daughter of Meg and Calvin, and in fact is the one Meg was pregnant with in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. STP is the Time Quartet most about kything, which in the books is a kind of empathic telepathy that bonds human beings together, but in Old English the word originally meant making known, usually in words. So kything could be considered a fictional metaphor about the power of language, and maybe one of Poly’s secrets is that she is, in fact, a friendly child who likes to interact with people as people.

    Polyhymnia was also sometimes considered the Muse of eloquence, so that may be relevant to her name, as well.

    1. Cristina @Linguavert

      For the longest time, the only interactions I had in other languages were with my classmates. It was primarily practice of pre-determined words and phrases, which certainly doesn’t count as “interacting with people as people.” Besides, they were all fellow Filipinos. When we cared to connect outside the classroom, we switched to Tagalog or English.

      Only last year did I start meeting a lot of people from other countries — people who had had to learn English (and in some cases, also Tagalog or Bisaya) in order to make friends here. And they’ve all made me wish to learn their mother tongues as well, to get to know them even better, now that I am their friend.

      It would be interesting to reread A Swiftly Tilting Planet knowing the original meaning of the word “kything”!

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