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Patrick Chew felt devastated at his grandmother's funeral 27 years ago because he had never learned her mother tongue, Toisanese, a dialect in southern China. Today Chew, 44, uses two to 10 languages every day as the international-community manager for Change.org, a website that conducts online advocacy campaigns in 196 countries. Before that, he traced the source of spam in 33 languages at a network-security firm in San Bruno, Calif.
At Change.org, Chew oversees translations and helps determine the tone and style of the website in 12 languages. In general, he says, he's the advocate for site visitors who don't speak English or don't live in the English-speaking world.
Chew, who was born and raised in San Francisco, has studied dozens of languages, including Vietnamese, Persian, Armenian, Mandarin, Korean, Mongolian, Tibetan, Thai and Uzbek. In the decade after his grandmother's death, he learned enough Toisanese for a relative to say he spoke like his ancestors.
Even in an era of Google Translate and mobile translation apps, hyperpolyglots like Chew -- people who can speak at least six languages, as defined by University College London linguist Richard Hudson -- are increasingly valuable in the business world. Typically, hyperpolyglots have deep fluency in a few languages and are notable for an ability to quickly become proficient in dozens more. Some can pick up a new language in a matter of weeks.
In previous decades, companies tended to prize native-like fluency in one or two languages, leading hyperpolyglots to turn to academia, diplomacy or religious life to find an outlet for their talents. Today the multilingual Internet and international business market have raised the stakes for getting interactions right with far-flung customers. Enter the staff hyperpolyglot.
Two weeks to learn a language
Nick Farmer, a 26-year-old hyperpolyglot who grew up in California and France, got a job on Wall Street in large part because of his language acumen. A few years ago, he read a friend's post on Facebook publicizing a job at a consulting firm for a speaker of Swedish, Danish or Norwegian.
Farmer didn’t know any of those languages, but he figured that in a couple of weeks he could learn enough to start the job: "I can definitely get to the point where I can read in one of those languages."
He grew up around people learning and dissecting languages. His mother is a linguist who works for Google, his father is a professor of French, and his godfather was Kenneth Hale, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist famous for his abilities in 50 languages. "It's like Ken passed on his gift of language acquisition to Nick," his mother, Anne, once said.
Armed with a grammar book and some business newspapers, Farmer learned a workable amount of Swedish. But on the day he showed up at the company, Glass Lewis, the interviewer surprised him by saying the firm actually needed him to know Italian. Luckily, Farmer had been studying that language too. He took the in-house language test, which involved skimming financial statements written in Italian and pulling out information, and he was hired.
Now, three years later, Farmer spends most of his day reviewing documents written in Bulgarian, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Lithuanian, Greek, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish or Swedish, extracting key pieces of information, then writing reports in English.
Most of these languages he's learned only for work; others, like Quechua and Catalan, he studies simply because they interest him.
"I would feel silly if my job had nothing to do with foreign languages," Farmer said. "I spent four to six hours a day studying languages, and I don’t want it to be just for a hobby. I want to use it in my life."
His manager at Glass Lewis, Andrew Gebelin, the director of European proxy research, said polyglots like Farmer who can quickly become proficient in new languages are more desirable to the firm than someone with perfect fluency.
"If I were choosing between two candidates -- one who was semiproficient in three languages and one who was fluent in one other language only -- I would definitely gravitate toward the one with three," Gebelin said.
Studied 30 languages
Richard Simcott, a manager at eModeration, which helps businesses around the world manage their social-media connections, has also found a niche for his language skills. Trained as a network engineer, he has studied 30 languages and has lived in nine European countries. In 2008 he joined eModeration as a moderator of comments and forums in German and Spanish, and in 2011 he was put in charge of hiring and overseeing multilingual teams of employees.
Tamara Littleton, eModeration’s CEO, said Simcott makes the company more competitive and saves it money by doing the jobs of multiple people. "It's useful to have so many languages in one person."
Especially when there are so many in one company. "We are so international," Littleton continued. "We have 300 people, and everyone works remotely. Richard is quite an important part of the company's culture because having someone who can talk to so many different people who have so many different cultures and so many languages -- he’s like a social glue."
At the moment, few companies are specifically recruiting hyperpolyglots. But that may be changing, especially in the $34 billion-a-year localization industry, which provides linguistic and cultural translation services for local markets around the world.
"The bottom line is that, yes, hyperpolyglots can be a real asset for any business involved in localization," said Nataly Kelly, an executive at the New York translation firm Smartling. "As an employer and a localization-technology company, we're always on the lookout for them."
'Are you a spy?'
Chew and other language experts tend to be modest about their skills. "As I get older, the adage of 'the more I know, the more I know how little I know' becomes more apparent," he wrote in an email. Still, he is amused by the way his linguistic virtuosity throws people off.
Once, at a street festival in Berkeley, Calif., he was switching between Persian and Uzbek with friends when someone asked him, "Where are you from?"
"I'm American," he said.
"No, where are you from?"
"No, you're Afghan, right?"
"No, I'm American!"
"No, I'm American!"
"Are you a spy?"
But Chew does nothing so exotic or dangerous. He's just another guy who works at a desk, trying to change the world in as many languages as he can.
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