Read on for an interesting factoid about Michael Brein (me)!

For posterity—for friends and/or relatives and colleagues—who might not have known this about me: A very little known factoid about me that very few people who know me well may or may not have known about me is that in a very odd sort of way, I have been very polyglottal in my life.

The meaning of this will come out through this post. Suffice to say, if you can imagine Forrest Gump in his travels: He was a ‘dromomaniac’—a habitual, almost indefatigable, incessant traveler. And I imagine that his character could probably even have been described as an addictive traveler!

Yep that would be me with travel PLUS languages. What an odd capability I had (and am still working on). In fact, some of you may be scratching your head, thinking, well, yeah, I’ve heard him on occasion blabbing, muttering with someone once in a foreign language briefly.

But what you did not know is that I immersed myself in languages to the point of obsession. What better capability could a dromomaniac have than to be able to mutter some foreign phrases in his or her travels?


Here are two letters of reference that were written for me once upon a time in this regard:

Eric Shumway,
Assistant Language Coordinator,
Peace Corps Tonga II
University of Hawaii

December 11, 1967

My principal association with Mike Brein has been through the Peace Corps Training Program, Tonga II, in which we are both presently employed.

In addition to his rigorous duties as Assessment Officer in the project, Mike on his own, has been studying the Tongan language with the trainees.

His mastery of the text material and his fluency of speech are nothing less than remarkable. Although he has little time to attend classes and little time to study outside of class, his current speech proficiency is superior to that of our best trainees.

Mike is, in my opinion, one of those rare and fortunate individuals who not only can assimilate and understand languages intellectually but also vocally produce them efficiently and precisely—all in an extraordinarily short time.

I am confident he is both qualified and deserving of any encouragement and help you may give him.

and one other…

William W Langebartel
Associate Professor of German and Russian
Temple University

December 16, 1966

Mr. Brein has written me that he is applying for a grant to study Chinese in your department [University of Pennsylvania] and requested a recommendation.

I had Mr. Brein as a Russian language student several years ago and found him to be an exceptionally able language student. He has a very strong interest in foreign languages with is coupled with a notably superior linguistic ability.

He has a very good ear for catching new sounds and intonations and can reproduce them easily. In my opinion he has the necessary interest and perseverance to be a very good student of Chinese (my wife has done graduate work in Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, so I have some idea of what is involved).

In addition to a good reading and speaking knowledge of Russian, Mr. Brein speaks German fluently, and has passed the graduate reading examinations in French and German at Temple University.

Mr Brein is a personable, friendly, and energetic young man of equable temperament who should be able to do excellent work in your department. I am glad to recommend him to you as a young man of distinct promise.

Interesting things happened to me as a result of my apparent ability to learn foreign languages:

  1. I landed a fellowship to learn Mandarin Chinese for a summer at the University of Hawaii;
  2. I landed a NDFL (National Defense Foreign Language) fellowship to study Indonesian at the University of Hawaii;
  3. I was actually conditionally accepted into the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Linguistics Ph.D. program.
  4. I did land a 700+ score (out of 800) in German on a College Board Achievement Exam once.
  5. I did pass my French and German language reading exams required for the Ph.D. at both Temple University and the University of Hawaii
  6. I could wend my way a bit around different countries being able to speak at least a little with some of the local people, and interestingly and oddly, I could fairly often easily speak with foreigners in a common language that were not our own! For example, I had a great conversation once with a Czech in German, where I didn’t speak Czech and he didn’t speak English! That was great! And it helped!
  7. But fluent in any of these languages, I was NOT! (okay, okay—English, YES!)

I never did enter the University of Pennsylvania’s Ph.D. program, because, frankly, I was chicken-shit and didn’t think I’d last more than a week.

But why? Simple. Although I was a good, fast learner of foreign languages, I was hardly ‘fluent’ as letters of recommendation are often wont to claim. I was afraid that I would be discovered to be a fraud! Yep, that’s what I was thinking.

Who knows what other prestigious Ph.D. programs that scoundrel me might have managed to wrangle my way into, had I tried!? And, who knows… Maybe I could have made it through. Oh well, maybe I’ll discover that in another life.

So, what is the bottom line in all this?

Well, who can say, really? I do like to be able to carry on a simple conversation with people now and again in these languages. And I am systematically working my way through all of these languages that you see in the Wordle photo (scrambled word image) accompanying this post.

I have managed to garner a collection of Pimsleur courses in all these languages (except Tongan). I am working my way through the 90, 1/2 hour lessons in each of these languages. Lots of stuff is coming back.

I’ve already completed the French course; I’m now working on the Russian course, and over time I hope to cover most of the courses in these languages that I have once learned somewhat throughout my life.

But the most beneficial result of all of this is that I am challenging this aging brain of mine. It’s a good activity for me to do.

Finally, a very fun benefit is that I will soon be able to talk a little bit with my cousin, Jeff Brein’s, little granddaughter, Erin, in Bahasa Indonesian (Indonesian language). Only she and her mom, Fiera, will understand me! Now, that will be fun!