Proud to be a polyglot

Junior Suraiya Saroar’s journey to learning five languages


Anna Claywell and Emily Early

With five languages under her belt, junior Suraiya Saroar’s plan to become fluent in several languages is underway. Although she is also fluent in English, Hindi, Urdu and Arabic, Saroar’s first language, Bangla, is the most important to her to speak fluently. “It is especially important to me to be able to speak my native language, so I can speak to all my relatives properly and not have to worry about them not understanding me,” Saroar said.

Walking through the halls, hundreds of conversations in English surround junior Suraiya Saroar, though her mind goes from language to language. As a friend catches up to her to chat, she replies with an automatic English response. However, despite the English coming out of her mouth, languages from around the globe continue to bounce around in her brain.

Only 3% of the world’s population are polyglots — people who speak a multitude of languages — including Saroar, who speaks Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, English and Bangla, her first language and the official language of her birth country, Bangladesh.

“Bangla will always be the [language] I consider most important. It’s the one that I prioritize knowing the best. I can learn about English and Hindi, but I want to make sure I stay fluent in Bangla,” Saroar said. “[Speaking it is] being immersed in [my] culture. It’s my life, and I’m proud to say I can speak [Bangla] natively.”

After moving to the United States at age 5, Saroar entered kindergarten knowing only a few words in English. Before going to school each morning, Saroar watched English television shows such as “Dora the Explorer” to learn the language better.

“At school, it was hard because the other kids didn’t know that I [did not] speak English. I wanted to be a part of the [kids’] conversations, but I didn’t know what they were saying. So, no matter what they were saying, I would say, ‘I like Dora,’” Saroar said. “I couldn’t speak with everyone, but I wanted to be included. So I tried harder to learn.”

After being immersed in an English-speaking environment for most of her life, Saroar now speaks fluent English at school and with her peers, but she still speaks Bangla almost exclusively at home.

“Some words I know in Bangla I don’t know in English and [vice versa]. [Sometimes] I’m trying to explain to my parents one thing that happened to me at school, but I’m like, ‘how do I explain it to them properly without using English?’” Saroar said. “It does take a lot of practice and trial and error to learn another language. You have to be able to be wrong. You [can’t] be afraid to ask questions. [After learning a language], you’re not as afraid to ask questions later in life.”

Instead of using ordinary language learning apps like Duolingo or Babbel, Saroar’s learning of new languages consists of exposure to her target language through media such as television shows and movies and conversing with native speakers.

“You can learn slang from a native [speaker] that you can’t learn from an app. I just find it easier to learn from a native speaker because they know the rules of the language,” Saroar said.

Saroar also is learning Latin and immersing herself in the language through her Latin 3 class. In addition, she is learning Italian through relatives to communicate with them. Saroar finds that when she discovers a language, she learns about the language itself and the culture of the people who speak that language.

“I have a bigger knowledge of different cultures around the world. [I have] respect for the people who speak them and respect for other languages, especially because [some languages] are hard. [Still], some people can learn it quickly or speak it fluently. Languages are just naturally very beautiful, like Arabic. I love being able to speak it and read it because it’s such a beautiful language,” Saroar said.

Click on the interactive image to listen to junior Suraiya Saroar introduce the language she is speaking and say “how are you?”

Despite learning many languages throughout childhood, Saroar has found it harder to learn languages as she grows up. However, this experience is common to Saroar, as learning a language during childhood can be much easier.

“I persist [learning new languages] because I enjoy learning [them]. I feel like it’s part of my personality, so I love learning more. I’m also naturally curious, so I learn languages to satisfy that curiosity,” Saroar said.

Saroar tries to help others facing language barriers, and though she’s now too busy to do it, she has taught kids English. In addition, Saroar currently helps her brother learn Bangla and teaches her friends if they ask.

“It makes me happy to be able to help people, especially when they’re struggling [with a language barrier]. It hits close to home because when we first moved here, my mom and I had the same problem: we couldn’t express ourselves. There was never really anyone to help [us], so it makes me feel better to help others in that situation because I know what it feels like,” Saroar said. “If someone was trying to learn Bangla, and they’re saying something in a weird accent, I would never judge them. They are putting in the effort, and that’s commendable. They’re trying hard, doing it [and] that’s better than most people can do.”

Saroar plans to continue learning languages while furthering her education and fluency in the languages she already speaks.

“I grew up learning a lot of languages, and I always loved feeling like part of a community. It’s cool to learn about the culture. [When you are learning a language], you learn a lot about where the language comes from,” Saroar said. “Learning other languages teaches you compassion, not just for the language you speak, but for people in general.”