Dog Eared

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"Babel No More": Facts and Fables of Linguistic Superheroes

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.


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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 more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Friday January 13th 2012, 12:05 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
Oh, please don't stop feeding the pet peeve about those stuffy, literary-ish, scene-setting descriptions like "Over the palm trees, the sun was barely squinting, and already the traffic lashed the dusty intersection..."
Friday January 13th 2012, 6:49 PM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)Top 10 Speller
In the days before the "bucket list" had a name, I would write pages filled with goals for my life. Now well into my 60s, I've reached many of them. But language learning--along with playing the piano--has escaped me. Spanish and American Sign Language! Two I've tried, and a random article in a Spanish reading class about a gorilla learning sign language has indelibly linked the sign for "dirty" and the word "sucio" in my brain. The gorilla signed the word, and I can picture my professor imitating him. So ironically funny. And memorable. I have a theory that learning sign language and a spoken language at the same time would be effective. Has anyone tried that? Or maybe I'll try learning a language while learning to play the piano. But certainly I'll read the book. Fascinating review. Thanks!
Friday January 13th 2012, 6:55 PM
Comment by: Anthony L. (New Haven, CT)
I would choose to completely master my native language of English -- vocabulary, usuage, grammar -- rather than learn a foreign language and wind up learning it poorly or inadequately at that. Most people that I know who speak several languages have limited speaking and writing abilities for those languages outside their native tongue. My point? It's not impressive to hear someone speak several languages if they do so at the elementary level. Given a choice, I would prefer to master the English Unabridged Dictionary, tweak and hone my oral and written expression skills in English, than to be able to speak and write a foreign language such as French or Spanish at the 3rd grade level. Just my personal preference on the matter.
Friday January 13th 2012, 8:03 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Exact definition of "hyperpolyglots" is missing in the column and therefore incomprehensible and therefore no comment.
Saturday January 14th 2012, 12:44 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Begum: It's right there in the first paragraph: "people who know not just two or three languages, but six or ten or twenty."
Saturday January 14th 2012, 10:32 AM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)Top 10 Speller
Even knowing a few words and glimpsing different ways to structure reality makes learning additional languages worth the time and effort. A skilled English teacher once told me that the grammar of English, her native tongue, didn't click until she studied a foreign language. Interesting that Anthony mentions mastering the English dictionary. Reminds me of Malcolm X in his prison cell. It worked for him.

I can't function in spoken Spanish, but I can read it, because when I was required to score on a written test as "fluent" in a foreign language for my Ph.D. in English, I bought a Spanish dictionary (no English words in it at all--definitions in Spanish, too) and I read the whole thing, both randomly (letting a new word in a definition lead me to a definition of that word) and sequentially, like it was a novel. That and four semesters of college Spanish got me through the test. With Hebrew or Greek, both of which I try to read, I still have to keep an alphabet beside me and dig into the reference books. Once, in a Hebrew class with only 4 or 5 students, our reading was at the same time so intensely serious and so reminiscent of the first year of school, I started laughing until I cried and couldn't stop. My classmates didn't appreciate it very much. But I have learned a great deal from my Kindergarten level of language learning. I think it can enhance our critical thinking and our joy. And maybe some people are just collectors of languages, and that's okay, too. Downloaded the book, and it's next on my Kindle, right after I finish rereading "Lord of the Rings"-- a book by an author who would have loved this conversation.
Monday January 16th 2012, 5:13 AM
Comment by: Wightly (Frederick, MD)
Then there are those rare people who can carry on a lively conversation in a foreign language with hardly any knowledge of the language. Only seen this twice in sixty years. Both were highly verbal "people-people". There's a skill I wish I had!
Monday January 16th 2012, 10:36 AM
Comment by: tom A.
To the guy who says he'd rather spend his time learning his mother tongue perfectly, than in learning to speak and write one or more foreign languages at a third grade level: What if your job requires at least an elementary knowledge of something other than mother? What if your your girlfriend--a world class knockout--wants you to whisper sweet nothings to her in her own language?
Tuesday January 17th 2012, 1:54 AM
Comment by: Namrta M.
I would be impressed if a person is a polyglot but if he knows his native language better than any body, then I would be super impressed.
So in my opinion having a good hold on one language is better before you go for others.
Wednesday January 18th 2012, 2:46 PM
Comment by: jack G.
Well, I would sure like to have the talent to learn several languages, and be able to speak them correctly.
Tuesday February 14th 2012, 6:01 PM
Comment by: Sophie K.
Hey Anthony L., I have to agree with you about what your saying. Right now, I'm learning to speak Spanish, and personally, it really isn't that easy. I'm mean, it would be really helpful to learn how to speak it since like every instruction booklet has one of the languages as Spanish. Mostly, I would also like to master the English language first before learning something completely different at a Elementry level. Which trust me, I should know. I'm only in 6th grade.
Friday March 23rd 2012, 6:20 PM
Comment by: sebastien w (cincinnati, OH)
that definition had taught me something i have never seen before. looking at these comments helps me to see important words that can help me in school
Friday November 16th 2012, 2:15 PM
Comment by: Katy Z. (Toronto Canada)
Too bad Erard never contacted me. Peccato per lui. I'll send him a note. Not sure if I'd be considered a multilingual or a hyperpolyglot. A bit of both, most likely.

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