My friend Laura knows four languages plus "bits and pieces" of six others. That's impressive, but it's not quite in the same league as folks who pick up languages the way George Clooney picks up starlets: with frightening ease. Unfortunately, there hasn't been a lot written, in academic or popular literature, on hyperpolyglots: people who know not just two or three languages, but six or ten or twenty.
Fortunately, Michael Erard has filled that gap with his new book Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners. Erard's compelling, continent-spanning tome sifts through the legend, lore, brain science, and more lore surrounding the subject of extreme language-learners. Hyperpolyglots scale lexical mountains that would exhaust the average linguaphile, and Erard is an expert tour guide, weaving an enjoyable, enlightening tale in which he's the Indiana Jones of hyperpolyglots, braving snakepits of exaggeration and hoax.
One thread that ties the book together is Giuseppe Mezzofanti, an 18th-19th century Italian priest and professor said to have spoken 30 languages, or maybe 50, or even 72, depending on what you read. Mezzofanti claimed he could learn a language in two weeks and was variously described as "the most accomplished linguist ever seen," a parrot, and (in his own words) "an ill-bound dictionary." The story of Mezzofanti is an extreme example of how hyperpolyglots are viewed to this day, as Erard writes, "The hyperpolyglot embodies...the linguistic wildness of our primordial past and the multilingualism of the looming technotopia. That's why stories circulate about this or that person who can speak an astounding number of languages—such people are holy freaks. Touch one, you touch his power."
Erard investigated Mezzofanti's papers in his home of Bologna, which is appropriate given how hard it is to know the truth from the baloney about hyperpolyglots. Part of the trouble is that at any time, past or present, it's frightfully hard to say what "knowing" a language really means. In the days of Mezzofanti, "knowing" was more likely to mean reading and translating, but these days we expect people to be able to converse like a native. Erard discusses and validates the different levels of language learning, disputing the "all or nothing" view (you're nearly as good as a native speaker or you're diddly) in favor of "something and something"—a more pragmatic, friendly view of the various levels and abilities that exist.
A lot of this book is devoted to explaining concepts like the Geschwind-Galaburda hypothesis (which suggests a genetic link between hyperpolyglottery and other traits) and clarifying terminology such as hyperpolyglots (who tend to be solo, socially withdrawn, studious types) vs. multilinguals (who live in a place where many languages exist, so it's natural and economically beneficially to use them). But there's no lack of the big picture either, which is appropriate for such a practical topic. In an ever-shrinking world, monolingual doofuses like myself are increasingly ill-equipped. Erard does a nice job of reminding readers how practical and essential language learning is, for individual careers as well as national security.
Erard's writing is crisp and compelling, with one tiny exception that might just be a pet peeve of my own I should stop feeding. I don't care for stuffy, literary-ish, scene-setting descriptions like "Over the palm trees, the sun was barely squinting, and already the traffic lashed the dusty intersection..." Fortunately, there's not much of this sort of thing to slow us down. I much prefer Erard's understated wit, like when he follows an absurd language claim with a dry retort ("You could poke out an eye reading such boasts") or lambastes a crappy teacher who "taught like a jaded stripper."
Anyhoo, you might think tales of these "Olympic athletes of languages" would make language-learning seem more difficult and out-of-reach, but Erard provides a sort of encouragement by clarification. By showcasing the hard work that even the most gifted hyperpolyglot puts in, he demystifies their spooky talents. Their stories are reminiscent of how Michael Jordan is known for being one of the most talented and hard-working players ever: these Michael Jordans of language show the same self-nurture of their natural talents. Few will ever be Jordan-esque or
Mezzofanti-like, but we can all improve, and falling short of perfection is OK. As Erard writes: "A language isn't reserved for the perfectly calibrated native speaker. Words have currency even if they're not perfectly wrought."
In addition to a wealth of info on contemporary hyperpolyglots, Erard does find a type of Holy Grail regarding the legendary Mezzofanti. Erard also comes to some intriguing conclusions about hyperpolyglots as a whole, but I'd be a spoilsport to give too much away. You'll have to go on this ride yourself, and I recommend that you do. Maybe the best review I could this bookis that it makes me want to fan the dying flames of Spanish and American Sign Language that are flickering pathetically in my monolingual brain. After reading such inspiring tales of neuro-plasticity, I feel like I should be giving my own membranes a better workout.
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters