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Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners
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54 of 57 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 17, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified 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. Yet he leaves the word "Altarmenisch" in, leaving the reader to wonder where in the world it is (or was) spoken.

Erard went to South India and discusses the situation there with people being multilingual. But beyond describing the "Sprachbund" there and the similar grammatical features among the languages, Erard does not get into any serious discussion about the mechanics of how people there learn multiple languages. He briefly discusses other places where hyperpolyglots exist (e.g. parts of Africa and South America) where people tend to know many languages, but again, the processes involved in learning them aren't addressed. The book is rather Western-centric.

Erard also seemed unable or unwilling to take a firm stance on what level of linguistic competence would count as "knowing" a language and then judge how many languages a person knew. Many such criteria are discussed, and people's linguistic competency described, but never does Erard state unequivocally that pursuant to a set of criteria, e.g. EU or US government linguist ratings, X speaks more languages than anyone else. The author could have tried to have native speakers of languages test some of the present day hyperpolyglots to reach his own conclusions on how good they are, and to determine just how many languages a person can truly master.

While the book could have earned a fifth star from me with more research and effort by Erard, I still enjoyed reading the book and recommend it for anyone who is an aspiring hyperpolyglot, loves learning languages, or is generally interested in linguistics.
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65 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified 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. 84; 103; 122; 142; 163; 180; 241).
3. Efficient language learners do not feel embarrassed with their accent, body language, intonation, and pitch. Otherwise, they would be blocked from the start from achieving much (p. 238).
4. The three pillars of language learning are concentration, repetition, and practice (p. 100).
5. One learns grammar from language, not language from grammar (p. 103).
6. The way most people usually learn a language, in a traditional classroom, does not provide a conducive setting for language acquisition. Infants do not learn their native language in this way (pp. 86; 100; 128).
7. Multilingualism is about context and need, and those together engender a cultural confidence about learning languages that is hard to replicate (pp. 18; 204-206; 210; 251).
8. Hard work is not solely central to success. Some people really have a predisposition for learning languages or are better equipped than other people (pp. 8; 14; 33; 134; 137; 139; 151; 160; 164; 168-169; 209; 212; 220-221; 232; 234; 239; 243; 252; 255).
9. Brain, culture, and individual biography interact with each other to produce a hyper-polyglot (p. 242).
10. Being intelligible and clear is more important in language learning than being "native." Furthermore, speaking like a native is not as important for English, the world's current lingua franca, as for less widespread languages. Even English native speakers will have to tolerate and learn that English can be spoken and written in many ways (pp. 123; 180-181; 211; 251; 261).
11. Cultural blindness, social inertia, and political inaction stand in the way of language learning in a country like the U.S. Once monolingualism is the genome of a culture, it is hard to breed out. Interacting with native speakers of the target language is key to overcoming these obstacles (pp. 18; 72; 206; 261).

As a side note, learning at least another language is apparently not without some health benefits. It may protect people from the effects of cognitive aging (p. 140).

In summary, Mr. Erard could have done a better job in showing the respective roles of nature and nurture in the language learning process.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
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. When he gets into the science of learning languages and especially neurophysiology and brain imaging, it just serves to remind us how little we know about our own brains. In the end, we learn that the superhyperpolymultiglots learn languages in much the same way everyone does, with regular practice, a disciplined method, and a lot of self-motivation.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I still do not know why the author wrote this book.

He supposedly is interested in people who are capable
in a large number of languages, but he does not
provide sufficiently detailed stories to understand
who they are or why they study these languages.

Instead, he meanders from topic to topic touching
on reasons why these people may do it. However each
reason is inconclusive and progressively less
relevant. Is being left handed a factor? Is being
gay? He does not know.

I would not recommend this book to any potential
buyer.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I'm only about halfway through this book, so I expect I'll touch up this review as I finish up.

But I can tell you now: although the writing style is to my liking, the actual contents of the book are not.

I should say before bashing it that I suppose by one of the definitions of the book I myself would be considered a hyperpolyglot. At one time or another I have been, I hereby claim, conversationally serviceable in about a dozen or so.

But that's with qualification: I mean at different periods of my life, not all simultaneously. Middle age now finds me serviceable in only 3 or 4, though knowing thousands and thousands of words and phrases from various half-remembered others. There was a time, for instance, when I was quite serviceable in Italian, though now I would have problems ordering a simple meal.

Anyhow. The point is that I was interested in this book because I am intermittently interested in strategies for language learning and was naturally interested in a book on presumably how accomplished language-learners have gotten where they are and held on to it.

And that's worthy material for a book, I think we can agree.

My problem is that it should have been someone besides this guy, Michael Erard, to write it.

Erard is too wonder-struck. Not even a polyglot himself, he seems in perpetual awe of people who have learned more than a few languages. This ability, I believe, is actually quite common.

Throughout, however, Erard is visited by what strikes him as a major epiphany: hey, maybe those who are said to have known dozens of languages weren't comprehensively fluent in some of them! Should it require 50 pages of the reader's time while Erard stumbles towards this realization?

But he doesn't stop there. Virtually any "knower" of several languages could have pointed out to the author, before he worked himself into such a froth, that claiming that somebody "knows" a certain number of languages is impossible because it ultimately boils down to what one means to "know" a language, a concept that has never been universally agreed upon.

Yeah, we know. We get it. We really, really get it. Verbum sap. Do we really need hundreds of pages of Erard variously mulling this over?

Then there is the fact that Erard was so taken with Mezzofanti that he apparently wanted to write a biography of him but stopped short, owing, I presume, to lack of material and Italian. But the elusive Mezzofanti is hardly worth the first quarter of this book, moreso given that, when you get right down to it, Erard has nothing substantial to say about him that isn't a guess.

Really, a poor job. I have a feeling I, sans passion, could have done a better one. Instead of wonderstruck hagiography, I would have straightfowardly explored the various methods claimed by hyperpolyglots. Such might have been a worthy exploration of the relationships between god-given genius, learning style, motivation, and fraud.

But instead, here, all we have is callow awe.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2013
Format: Paperback
When I first heard about Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners by Michael Erard, I knew that it was a book I would have to read. I have long been fascinated not merely by polyglots, but specifically by hyperpolyglots and the limits of language acquisition. When I was a child I longed to study a foreign language, and I didn't get my first exposure until French classes in grade six. At the same time, my 1977 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records stated, under the category "Greatest Linguist":

"According to some uncompleted and hence as yet unpublished researches, the most proficient linguist in history was Sir John Bowring (1792-1872), who was said to be able to read 200 languages and speak 100.

"The greatest living linguist is probably Georges Schmidt (b. Strasbourg, France, in 1915) of the United Nations Translation Department in New York City, who can reputedly speak fluently in 30 languages and has been prepared to embark on the translation of 36 others."

These extremes of hyperpolyglottery are known more to myth than science. Bowring isn't mentioned in Babel No More, wherein Erard travels the world to research those from the past and present who have claimed to know literally dozens of languages.

Before I even opened the book, I was intrigued by this comment on the back cover:

"Erard gets beneath the surface of the hyperpolyglot, piercing the myth of perfect competence, to show the actual landscape of motives, obstacles, and satisfactions that texture the world of long-distance language-learners."

The myth of perfect competence. What was Erard going to discover? Were these Guinness language champions all fakes?

Erard starts his investigation by travelling to Bologna where he researches the archives of Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a cardinal who claimed to speak 72 languages. While on the train en route to Bologna, he feels the limits of his own linguistic capabilities:

"And let me tell you, there's nothing like a trip on a European train to make a white American fellow realize that English, his cradle and this throne, has also been his prison. Sitting with a guy who speaks five languages (four of which he wasn't native to) was intimidating."

The scientific record has shown that there are indeed limits to language acquisition, specifically the capacity to be fluent. Erard profiles many hyperpolyglots and while they may be able to read and translate dozens of languages, they cannot speak many of them. They thus have a level of fluency but it is not total fluency. When these hyperpolyglots are subject to rigorous linguistic testing, Erard encounters the same language limit time after time. When assessing the level of perfect competence, where one can slide effortlessly from language to language while maintaining the appropriate accent, without confusing words and without needing to stop to think of what to say, where one is conversing as closely as possible at the level of a native speaker, the language limit is six. Only six languages. A hyperpolyglot by definition can speak six or more languages fluently, and all of the people profiled in Babel No More do. So why set the limit at six? All of the hyperpolyglots study and review their languages. It is an ongoing process. Many of them intensify their levels of study prior to an exam in order to increase their levels of fluency. However well they may be able to speak these additional languages, they cannot speak them as well as their "first six". These hyperpolyglots will even be able to converse quite well in as many as twenty languages (which is the international extreme for any linguist subject to a battery of tests) but this is only a temporary result. Hyperpolyglots often file their languages away into their mental banks, taking them out to review as the need arises. They are not, however, fluent in these languages prior to such intensive review. In an interview with hyperpolyglot Gregg Cox, Erard learns:

"When Cox and I sat down to talk again, I asked him if there were any myths about hyperpolyglots. He immediately replied, 'That they can jump back and forth between all their languages. That's the biggest myth. I've met several other polyglots, and we've been able to bounce back and forth in seven or eight languages, but not further than that,' he said. 'The most languages that I've ever had back and forth with somebody was seven.'"

How does a hyperpolyglot do it? What skills must one possess in order to amass seven languages fluently, much less twenty? Erard has two theories:

"Possible explanations for talented language learning fall into two general areas. One view says: What matters is a person's sense of mission and dedication to language learning. You don't need to describe high performers as biologically exceptional, because what they do is the product of practice. Anyone can become a foreign-language expert--even an adult. In fact (the story goes), language learners run the gamut, and the successful ones represent the very, very successful end of this spectrum. Their native languages may be as jealous as anyone else's, but somehow these people aren't held back from hearing and producing new sounds, words, and grammatical patterns. Believing that language learning isn't easy and takes work, they commit themselves to using time efficiently."

In my own language studies after I left university, I sought courses that fulfilled certain requirements. In order to attain optimal results of the language at the level I was learning, I looked for courses taking place in locations where the language was spoken every day. Also, the language of instruction had to be the language I was in fact learning, thus it had to be a total immersion program. I was also looking for intensive courses, with many hours of study and lots of homework. In my Finnish and Romansch courses, I found exactly that. While one can certainly learn Finnish in Toronto, I did not want to opt for courses that were part-time and, if I enrolled at the University of Toronto, would have been offered only once every two or three years. I had to live in a Finnish environment where the classroom experience continued once the lessons were over. I got to apply the language on the streets of Helsinki immediately. When I started studying Romansch, I wanted to immerse myself in a Swiss community where this endangered minority language was still spoken as an everyday language. One can study Romansch in metropolitan Swiss cities like Fribourg, but once the lessons were over for the day, there wouldn't be anything in Romansch to read or anyone to talk to. I can't tell you how thrilled I was to go to the Swiss village of Laax to learn Romansch, then go to the post office and purchase stamps, all while speaking the local language. Erard even says:

"I admire people who were such fans of Japanese anime that they took up the language. Living and working in a context where multiple languages are used, and where learning and using them are socially and materially rewarded, are big assets, especially if that place respects a 'something and something' view of languages--where one's capacity in languages, at whatever level, is regarded as meaningful multilingualism."

Another reason I excelled in my Finnish and Romansch courses is that I was highly motivated. I took a leave of absence from work in order to study Finnish for three months. As such I did not get paid for this leave. I had a mission: to go to Finland to study Finnish, and I had better succeed as the trip was costing me a lot of time as well as money. As the only Canadian (ever) in the Romansch program, where the overwhelming majority of students were in fact Swiss citizens, I had invested a lot of money as well. Each of the four times I have been to Switzerland has been a working vacation. Motivation is a powerful force behind success or failure.

Erard however has a second explanation for hyperpolyglot language acquisition:

"The other view says: Something neurological is going on. We may not know exactly what the mechanisms are, but we can't explain exceptional outcomes fully through training or motivation."

Two substantial parts of Babel No More are devoted to brain mechanics and neurolinguistics. I found all the brain talk quite boring, as Erard discussed which parts of the brain served this or that function. Erard likened the brain to a globe and annoyingly referred to certain parts or lobes by their corresponding geographical land mass. I really didn't find it amusing whenever he'd refer to temporal lobes as "India" or elsewhere in the brain as "the Gulf of Mexico". He discovered patterns among the hyperpolyglots he profiled in the book as well as in many of the others he interviewed. In an interview with hyperpolyglot Alexander Arguelles:

"'I don't know many women who collect stamps or coins,' Alexander said to me on one of my visits. He wanted to know if I had ever considered polyglottery as a kind of collecting behavior, perhaps an obsessive one. Maybe it would explain why so many hyperpolyglots were men."

and:

"Why are there more male hyperpolyglots? One answer is that speaking a lot of languages is a geek macho thing."

The first quote could have been said by me. How many times have I told people that "I collect minority languages"?

The majority of the profiles in Babel No More are indeed of men. Why then are there so few women who pursue, and sometimes obsessively study, dozens of foreign languages?

One of the most striking observances was:

"For instance, people who reported knowing six or more languages and who said that learning foreign languages was easier for them were more likely to report homosexual behaviors, preferences, and/or orientations than would be predicted. This finding was statistically significant."

When I attended language courses in university I was often the only male in class. Most of the other men, what few there were, were gay. This was also my observance in my Romansch courses in Switzerland. What is it that draws gay men to languages, or specifically in this case, to wanting to learn many languages? Does gayness precede avid language acquisition, or rather, since my belief is that no one is born gay and that homosexuality is entirely an acquired, learned, or "nurtured" orientation, could multilingualism be one of no doubt many environmental causes of homosexuality? Does a mind that is more adaptable to language acquisition bend itself towards homosexuality? Would I become straight if I was monolingual?

Some of the hyperpolyglots mirrored my own life to eerie proportions. Many of them exhibited Geschwind-Galaburda traits of being gay as well as being spatially limited and, if I do say so myself, verbally gifted. At least two of the hyperpolyglots in Babel No More do not drive because they feel they would be utterly hopeless behind the wheel. I myself would not be the first language student who didn't know how to drive a car. I have tried projecting myself into the driver's seat on many occasions and all I do is cause accidents. I have often said that the only way I would learn to drive a car is if I won one, but even then, if I won a lot of money in addition to the car, I'd hire a driver.

Successful language learners adapt teaching methods to their own personal styles. I was laughing out loud as I read of Erard's technique in his attempt to learn Russian:

"I wanted to be studying Russian. So I invented some games to make the best of it--which, I realize now, is what a prisoner does. It's common sense that when you teach the words for family members, you ask students to bring in photos of their real families, to tap into one's emotions as a pedagogical aid; I've taught it myself that way, when I taught English in Taiwan. Because Bombastic [Erard's nickname for his Russian teacher] did not exert such effort, we sat pointing to imaginary photos. This is my mother, she is a doctor. This is my father, he is an architect.
The best solution: outdo the absurdity. "This is my mother," I said to Elizabeth, pointing at an imaginary photo, reciting aloud to the class. "She is a woman who works on asphalt."
"So is mine!" Elizabeth said.
"This is my father." I said. "He is a veterinarian of elephants."
"So is mine!" Elizabeth said.
Some classmates chuckled. Others were astonished. Bombastic let fly a smirk."

In my later years of high school, and throughout university, whenever I engaged in conversation classes or group tutorials I always turned the tables on my topics of discussion. Whenever we had to prepare a dialogue to recite later in class, I opened the floodgates to all the sick humour I could muster, which made the exercises fun--imagine poring over a German dictionary researching terms to describe gangrenous corpses--and I can still remember to this day how one would say "I have a horrific cancerous growth on my face" auf deutsch.

No matter who the hyperpolyglot is: male or female, straight or gay, immersed in a multilingual home or not, all of the subjects profiled in Babel No More are intense studiers who pursue languages primarily for the love of it. These men and women love to study, they love learning new words, new grammars and discovering literary treasures hidden by the veneer of language. I am inspired by their stories, and know from personal experience as well as their own, that it is never too late to learn a new language.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2012
Format: Hardcover
The key of this book is that it presents a topic which has not scientifically been explored before. In his book Michael Erard informs the readers that also the Swedish hyperpolyglot Eric Gunnemark was working on a book with the title "Polyglottery Today", but he couldn't finish his book and meanwhile he passed away. The second main reason why I wanted to read this book is that I am also involved in the whole "polyglottery game" as I speak 7 languages myself.

The book begins with the historic hyperpolyglots such as Cardinal Mezzofanti and Emil Krebs and also some American people whose names I have never heard of. The second part of the book deals about interviews with living hyperpolyglots of which the most wellknown one on the HTLAL language forum is Alexander Arguelles and his father Ivan Arguelles.

I personally am more interested in the living hyperpolyglots and their way of life and their attitudes towards language learning. With great interest I read the author's description of the linguistic situation in southern India where multilingual people belong to the norm. Also the situation of Belgium is presented with example hyperpolyglots who were winners in the polyglot contest of Belgium. However, I miss a description of the multilingual situation of Switzerland and Luxemburg here.

The whole book is written in an anecdotal style, that means that one (well-researched!) anecdote follows the next. It's not a scientific textbook which is presented here. Perhaps this makes such a book more accesible to a general audience. What I miss in this book is a detailed statistical analysis of the online - survey on hyperpolyglottery, but I hope that Michael Erard will add such information later on his Babel No More - website: [...]

The significance of the brain and its functions is a key topic of this book. Language aptitude is mentioned and explained. Part of the online-survey were questions about whether or not somebody is a "non-righthander", homosexual, and other criteria and there are some results on the relevance of such criteria for hyperpolyglottery. Another result is that hyperpolyglottery is a male-dominated field (which I knew well before I read this book, because the whole "Polyglot Subforum" on the language forum HTLAL is full of male polyglots being presented and discussed) - with two female exceptions named in the book: The Hungarian Kató Lomb and a woman called Helen Abadzi.

This is a kind of book which I read several times with a textmarker in my hand to mark the key statements and definitons about hyperpolyglottery to be able to find them more quickly.

I am very, very thankful that finally someone took the initiative to research polyglottery/hyperpolyglottery and publish a book about it and I can recommend it to everybody whether he/she is interested in this special group of extreme language learners or just generally in the topic of language learning and how to optimize language learning methods.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This book reminded me a lot of Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Both relate to brain function (in some way or other), both see the author experiment with new tools and ways of approaching their subject, and both are eminently readable. Erard lays the science on thicker than Foer, but that's not a criticism.

I'm a language learner -- not by any means a polyglot -- but I have dabbled in a bunch of languages, European and non-European. I came to the book not only looking forward to some answers as to how I, too, could become a polyglot like some of those he describes. Admit it, didn't we all? Unfortunately, I didn't finish the book knowing 25 new languages, although perhaps it's a little unfair to blame Mr Erard for that.

At any rate, Babel No More has lots of good suggestions for things budding linguists could think about in how they go about approaching new languages. For myself, it was worth the read just to have confirmed that LOTS of other people have trouble switching between languages, and that doing so is a little bit like juggling many balls at once.

Go read this book. You'll read it quickly, and you won't regret it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 15, 2013
Format: Paperback
On reading this, it didn't impress me hugely, but over time it has stuck with me and given me a gut-level sense of understanding of these topics that I really appreciate. Six months later, I'm much more glad that I read it, than I realized I would be when I finished it.

While the author seems to meander about meeting odd people on his quest to find anyone that really knows (for some definition of "know") a very large number of languages, he manages to bring to life the questions about what it even means to know another language, how people who know many languages learn, maintain, and switch between them, the effort required and the rewards.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
The author deserves credit for coming up with such an interesting topic. I am very interested in learning languages and have studied many (I know 4 languages quite well). I guess most of the people who read a book like this are interested in language learning.

The book is well written for the most part. However, the short biographies of 'hyperpolyglots' don't have much variation: they list the various languages these people are reported to know, followed by lengthy discussion of how well exactly they knew which languages. The book also contains too much discussion of the question 'When can we say someone knows a language?' Too much, because the author, in my opinion, never understands sufficiently that a language is not 'one thing' -- there are many different skills involved. If 'knowing a language' defined a certain way, we can say that a native speaker knows his/her language perfectly -- but in other ways, this is not really true. Many native speakers (take English as an example) have poor vocabularies, have difficulty with standard English, have difficulty expressing themselves, can't read Shakespeare, etc. How creative someone is with language is another thing entirely. My point is, that you could have someone who learns English as a foreign language, who can write a beautiful essay in English, but who still has a thick accent and doesn't know the word for 'onion'.

The author is oddly naive at times -- partly this is annoying, partly this adds to the interest of the book. For example, before he meets any hyperpolyglots, he expects them to be "someone boisterous and charismatic, who could talk about the Giants' season so far, and oh yeah, don't you love Sino-Tibetan languages?...Someone debonair, not dweeby, whose life was thick with political and sexual intrigues that played out in a dozen languages...Someone fully plugged in." Then he discovers that people who have learned many languages are generally nerdy people who like to study.
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