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Adventures in Hyperpolyglot-Land,
This review is from: Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Hardcover)I am bad at languages. My worst grades in high school and college were in foreign languages. I picked up Esperanto with little difficulty, but that one is planned to be learned with little difficulty anyway. I submit myself as evidence that some reasonably intelligent people with some skills in other areas might not have whatever it takes to learn a new language. If there are people like me who are inherently bad at languages, there must be others who are inherently good at them, and language writer Michael Erard has written about these "hyperpolyglots" in _Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners_ (The Free Press). These hyperpolyglots aren't just able to get along in a few languages, like a talented mâitre d; they pick up maybe dozens of languages with seeming effortlessness, like the fellow who reputedly knew fifty languages and then picked up Japanese after simply watching a single showing of the _Shogun_ miniseries. How can such talents be? Can they be? Erard has traveled all around the world to find such people, interview them, and survey them, and he has talked with neuroscientists that have studied how their brains might be different from, well, my monoglot one. Erard is a curious researcher and a lively writer who obviously enjoys taking readers on a grand tour of hyperpolyglot-land.
One character who is mentioned here in every chapter is perhaps the world's most famous hyperpolyglot, Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who lived in Bologna in the nineteenth century, and knew seventy languages. Or maybe thirty. Or maybe he was really fluent in ten. Mezzofanti presents the author with an extreme example, and also a problem. Mezzofanti isn't around to be interrogated about his prowess, nor can he take part in the language-capability competitions Erard describes. Mezzofanti also provides problems of definition. If he did know seventy languages, how well did he know each one? Did he write and read them? Could he converse in them? Could he converse well enough to be taken for a native speaker? Erard himself, in digging through Mezzofanti's archive, finds a happy surprise for those of us who have no flair for languages: flashcards. Mezzofanti used flashcards, just like students in first-year language class. This is an important lesson. The mane who won the "Polyglot of Flanders" contest in 1987 explains that you have to work to keep competence up. None of the polyglots interviewed here does anything like getting to every single language every day and keeping it at the ready for conversation. They tend to have a few languages in which they are always ready, and many more that they have let slide but upon boning up (such for a contest) they can bring back to fluency. The polyglots Erard interviews here (and Mezzofanti, if you believe the stories) are modest and introspective. Erard has other characteristics found in the survey he did of polyglots. They don't necessarily come from bilingual upbringings, and while they tend to be bright, few have genius-level IQs. There are more men than women. There was a bigger likelihood of immune disorders in themselves or their families. They were more likely to report homosexual behaviors or orientations. How much of this is linked to some sort of brain circuitry for language and how much is just about polyglots who do such surveys, no one really knows.
Erard ends his amusing and instructive introduction to these rare individuals with advice for all the rest of us about learning languages. We all have memory skills, for instance, and though polyglots may have enormous inherent verbal memories, anyone can practice and make memory better by training. The most important of the rules, though, is to learn languages if you want to learn languages. The polyglots work hard at what they do, but they say things like, "I like what happens to my brain when I'm studying language," or that they appreciate "the pleasure of a large interior world" or they like "the beauty of human speech sounds." It isn't a matter of polishing skills for money, recognition, or competition. It's for fun, and maybe their idea of fun isn't yours or mine, but there can't be any harm in finding a mental activity that is fun for you and pursuing it with all your might.