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Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners Hardcover – January 10, 2012

51 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


A "fascinating" (The Economist) dive into the world of linguistics that is "part travelogue, part science lesson, part intellectual entertaining, informative survey of some of the most fascinating polyglots of our time" (The New York Times Book Review).

We all learn at least one language as children. But what does it take to learn six languages...or seventy? In Babel No More, Michael Erard, "a monolingual with benefits," sets out on a quest to meet language superlearners and make sense of their mental powers. On the way he uncovers the secrets of historical figures like Italian cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who was said to speak seventy-two languages; Emil Krebs, a pugnacious German diplomat, who spoke sixty-eight languages; and Lomb Kat, a Hungarian who taught herself Russian by reading Russian romance novels.

On his way to tracking down the man who could be called the most linguistically talented person in the world, Erard meets modern language-superlearners. Among them is Alexander, who shows Erard the tricks of the trade and gives him a dark glimpse into the life of obsessive language acquisition. "Others do yoga," writes Erard. "Alexander does grammatical exercises."

With his ambitious examination of what language is, where it lives in the brain, and the cultural implications of polyglots¿ pursuits, Erard explores the upper limits of our ability to learn and to use languages, illuminating the intellectual potential in everyone. How do some people escape the curse of Babel - and what might the gods have demanded of them in return?

About the Author

Michael Erard has graduate degrees in linguistics and rhetoric from the University of Texas at Austin. He’s written about language, linguists, and linguistics for Wired, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and many other publications and is a contributing writer for The Texas Observer and Design Observer. He is the author of Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (January 10, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451628250
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451628258
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #266,793 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

71 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Serge J. Van Steenkiste on January 23, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Michael Erard sets himself the goal to untangle the myths, history, and science surrounding what he calls the hyper-polyglots. Mr. Erard defines the hyper-polyglot as a person who can speak (or can use in reading, writing, or translating) at least eleven languages (p. 12). The author initially chose Dick Hudson's definition of the hyper-polyglot, i.e., a person who can speak (or can use in reading, writing, or translating) six or more languages. Mr. Hudson, a British linguist, has found that community-based multilingualism, where people, not just special individuals, speak many languages, has a ceiling of five languages (pp. 12; 23-24; 47; 68; 104; 189).

Unfortunately, Mr. Erard's prose wanders too aimlessly. The author summarizes his findings about hyper-polyglottery in eight recommendations that he articulates in chapter 19 (pp. 260-265). As a multilingual native originally from Belgium, I did not find all these recommendations practical. Think for example about the next three recommendations:

1. "If you want to improve at languages, you should manage your dopamine."
2. "If you want to promote brain plasticity, you should find flow."
3. "If you want to improve at languages, you should build executive function and working memory skills."

(American) readers will have to look elsewhere in Mr. Erard's book to figure out what it takes to become a bilingual, multilingual, polyglot ... or a hyper-polyglot.

1. Language learning is not easy and takes hard work, pushing (successful) language learners to use their time efficiently (pp. 115; 141; 268-269).
2. What makes someone a successful language learner is interest driven by motivation, perseverance, and diligence. Instant gratification has no place in this equation (pp.
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56 of 59 people found the following review helpful By K G R VINE VOICE on January 17, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Erard's book "Babel No More" is about hyperpolyglots, defined arbitrarily by the author as anyone knowing six or more languages. Many characters appear along the way. For example, Cardinal Mezzofanti, a 19th Century Italian Prelate who knew dozens of lanaguages, to modern day South Indians who use multiple tongues on a daily basis, to modern Europeans who have apparently learned numerous languages.

Babel No More is original, being the first book I have found that deals with hyperpolyglots as individuals, how people can master many languages, how the brains of hyperpolyglots are different from others and several other related topics. Of course, numerous books have dealt with each of the covered topics in far more detail, but Erard brought them all together in a book accessible to the lay reader.

It was clear from early on that the book would have benefitted from more work and research by Erard. The book starts off with the author at a library in Bologna, Italy, doing research on Mezzofanti. Erard then makes clear that he doesn't know Italian or much of anything about most of the languages he sees in Mezzofanti's archives. I'm less than clear about how much the author hoped to gain by conducting archival research on materials in languages he didn't know, and even worse, that he didn't try to get translated. He comes across materials in native American languages and rather than trying to determine what level of linguistic competence Mezzofanti was demonstrating in them (such as by contacting an Algonquin scholar), Erard just moves on. Later, he describes the polyglot Emil Krebs as having learned "Altarmenisch." The word is German for Classical Armenian, which Erard could have easily found with a few seconds worth of research.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 17, 2012
Format: Hardcover
With memories of failing college French, mangling German in Berlin, and being unable to even hear the critical difference in some letters in Polish, I was looking forward to Michael Erard's Babel No More, a book about successful language learners.

Erard takes an already interesting topic and makes it a little more irresistible by turning it into a multi-faceted mystery. Are the occasional reports of super linguists, people who learn languages with ease and speak dozens, true or are they urban myths? Are there any of these hyperpolyglots, as he calls them, alive today? If they exist, is there something we can learn from them, some secret language-learning method that will make sad uniglots like me potential hyperpolyglots?

Erard sets out to verify or debunk the story of a 19th century Italian who was supposed to have spoken over fifty languages and learned new languages in weeks. From there he tracks down and meets some current-day polyglots and starts to find some unexpected and disturbing similarities. Most of the self-identified polyglots are men, many are left-handed, and quite a few seem to exhibit some autistic tendencies. Erard is reluctant to make too much of these similarities, yet he can't explain them away either.

And then there's the most vexing problem - what does it mean to speak a language, or to know a language? Does it mean with native fluency? With ease? Able to get by? Everyone has a different standard and this makes it hard to compare or group these hyperpolyglots in any meaningful way.

Erard is best when he is interviewing the polyglots and finding out how they learn languages.
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