Maya Angelou was a renowned poet, writer, civil rights activist and speaker, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1972. Born in 1928 in St. Louis, Maya Angelou spent her childhood moving between her parents’ homes in the United States and Mexico. During this time, she picked up a few different languages, making her a polyglot.
The exact number of languages that Angelou was fluent in is unknown, but some sources estimate that between seven and eleven. According to her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou learned English and Spanish while living with her father, German while living in Germany, French while living in France and Creole while living in Abbeville, Louisiana.
The versatile polyglot was also a master of dialects and accents, which allowed her to seamlessly slip into different conversations. She was known for switches between languages and dialects with ease, depending on the circumstances and the listener. Even in her later years, Maya Angelou continued to expand her language repertoire and exhibited interest in new cultures, which is likely why she eventually immortalized over eight languages.
Aside from her impressive portfolio of languages, Angelou was also accomplished in literature. When she was just 16, she became San Francisco’s first African-American streetcar conductor. Angelou soon transitioned to a career as a singer, dancer and actor. After running away from an abusive home, she chose to focus on her poetry and prose.
Angelou became globally beloved for her work after her autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1969. Thanks to its success, she was invited to various speaking engagements, becoming the first African-American woman to deliver the prestigious ‘Dartmouth Commencement Address’ in 1977. As a result of numerous publications, interviews and lectures, she has been credited with giving life to languages that were once unknown.
While Maya Angelou’s language skills made her a very sought-after public speaker, her works — full of honest expressions of pain, courage and hope — allowed her to serve another purpose: to be a voice and an inspiration for millions of people around the world.
Masters of Dialects and Accents
One of the languages that Maya Angelou was fluent in was English but she was a master of dialects and accents. She was known to easily slip into different tones, depending on the conversation and the listener. It is believed that her ability to adapt her language helped her make a deep connection with her audiences. For example, in 1972, Angelou wrote and performed a speech for a Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize ceremony and received a standing ovation for her performance.
It is also true that Angelou had an ear for dialects and accents which she cultivated during her childhood. At the age of three, she moved between her parents’ homes in the US and Mexico picking up different languages on the way like Spanish and German. During the late 1950s and 1960s, Angelou also lived in France for several years and it is believed that this is where she learned French.
Apart from her expertise in languages, Angelou was also critically acclaimed for her other works. She single-handedly changed the foreground of literature when she wrote her autobiographical novel in 1969, which earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Her works were honest expressions of her opinions, which made her famous around the world. She was even invited to be the first African-American woman to give the ‘Dartmouth Commencement Address’ in 1977.
It is certainly possible that Maya Angelou learned some European languages while studying at an institute. Sources suggest that Aangelou learned German during her time in Germany, which began in her childhood. Therefore, it is likely that she either continued learning German in school or enrolled in a language course while in Europe.
In addition to picking up some German, Angelou could have also become fluent in French while living in Paris. French was the language of culture, intellectualism and sophistication, and Angelou was considered to be a well-read and knowledgeable woman. She might have learned the language during her time in the French capital or during the time she spent in Belgium, Switzerland and Togo.
Angelou was also acclaimed for her skills in dialects and accents since she was younger, she could have easily picked up languages with similar dialects. She traveled to various countries due to her work as an actress and dancer, and some of these countries would have likely had similar languages or accents. For example, if she were traveling to Italy she may have picked up a dialect of Italian which could have helped with her French.
This is not forgetting that Angelou also learned English and Spanish from her father and Creole from the town she lived in Abbeville, Louisiana. It is likely that Angelou was exposed to these languages at a young age and would have had some basic language skills before she suffered her emotionally traumatic event at the age of eight.
Travel and Cultural Influence
Not only did Angelou have an ear for languages, but her time spent traveling and working in different countries would have given her the opportunity to pick up some vocabulary. Her parents were of mixed ethnicity, which gave her an awareness of the different cultures she encountered in her travels.
Apart from her work as a world-renowned poet and writer, Maya Angelou also pursued a career as a singer, dancer and actor. She traveled to various countries to pursue her art form and it is likely that this gave her the opportunity to learn about various cultures. This experience of various cultures gave her enough insight to write about her perspectives on social justice and equality, which eventually earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.
Some of the places that she traveled included St. Louis, Mexico, New York, San Francisco, Germany, France and Belgium. Everywhere she traveled she was likely exposed to the language, which may have helped her build and cultivate her language skills.
During her time in Europe, Angelou drew on her own experiences as a traveler, a musician and an observer of cultures to inform her works. She used her writing style to express her view of the world, bringing powerful images and language to the forefront of literature.
It is unknown how many languages Maya Angelou was actually fluent in, but it is believed to be between seven and eleven. Angelou used her language skills to enhance her writing by engaging her readers through language choices. She crafted bits of languages, dialects and accents into her writing, making her work unlike any other.
The polyglot’s works earned her various awards and many admirers, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1972. Her works were honest and full of emotive images, largely influenced by her travels, making her a well-known and respected global voice.
Not only did she write about the world but Angelou wrote about herself, too. In her autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou wrote about her childhood and her journey around the world. She expressed her struggles and her resilience in honest depictions of her life and the world she experienced.
Thanks to her legendary works, Maya Angelou will always be remembered not only as a polyglot but also as a writer and an inspiring world voice.
Angelou’s flair for language relied on her ability to learn multiple languages quickly and organically. This suggests that she had a strong understanding of linguistics and the grammar used in each language.
In addition, it appears that she learned languages phonetically — by listening and speaking with native speakers. Although Angelou learned some European languages from schools or language courses, it is likely that her ability to learn languages with ease was attributed to her early life traveling between the US and Mexico.
Furthermore, Angelou was comfortable learning languages organically and quickly picked up more languages while living in different countries. For instance, she picked up French while living in France, learned German during her time in Germany and also acquired Creole while living in Abbeville, Louisiana.
Angelou also learned various dialects and accents that she used to connect with her audience. Her ability to be flexible and understand a variety of languages, dialects and accents gave her a significant edge as a public speaker. She was committed to the idea of learning and observing new cultures.
The legacy of Maya Angelou will live on through her works, which were translated into various languages. Her books were also adapted for film, television and stage, as well as giving her language to modern literature.
Moreover, her influence in the literary world will never be forgotten. Angelou taught many people the power of words and their potential to be used as a tool of expression. Her works allowed her to spread her message of courage and hope beyond national boundaries and cultures.
Finally, Maya Angelou also gave people the courage to explore language and explore their potential to be expressive speakers. Despite struggling with traumas in her childhood, Angelou found the courage and resilience to express herself through words, which is something that we can all learn from.