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Adventures in Hyperpolyglot-Land



Rob Hardy


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? In other words, if you say you know a language besides your native one, there is a whole spectrum of "knowing" that might range from tourist guidebook level to complete fluency in reading, writing, and speaking. Mezzofanti had some astonishing skills, at least according to those who knew him. He not only knew lots of European languages, he knew Chaldaean and Algonquin. Foreign visitors who called upon him were amazed that he spoke their home language so flawlessly and with a native's accent. He could also switch between languages instantly if need be. He was able to learn a language he had never before heard or seen in a matter of days, if not hours. One time there were two prisoners about to be executed, but no one, including Mezzofanti, could understand what they were saying, so no one could hear their confessions. Mezzofanti learned the language in a night, heard their confessions the next morning, and off they went to the gallows, but, because of his genius, not to hell. 




Or so the story goes; that's the sort of miracle story they tell about saints, and who knows how true that one is? There are other stories that knock the Cardinal off his pedestal. An Irish writer found him dull, saying, "An old dictionary would have been to the full as companionable." A priest was quoted as saying that for all Mezzofanti's languages, he "has not five ideas." And 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. Oh, he made them himself, and they were in Arabic, and Georgian, and lots of other tongues, but for whatever gifts he had, Mezzofanti had to study just like anyone. 




This is an important lesson. Erard meets some real language geniuses, people who have been tested and whose astonishing capacity for learning lots of distinct languages and doing it quickly cannot be based on just legend, as some of Mezzofanti's abilities must be. There was, for instance, a "Polyglot of Flanders" contest in 1987, and Erard gets to talk with the winner, Johan Vandewalle, one of the few polyglots here who have been given genuine testing for language ability. For the contest, he went from table to table, talking to native-speaker judges, and was assessed to have a proven "communicative competence" by judges at nineteen different tables. He did lots of radio interviews after he won, and was amused and bored by the attention, and also by the hundreds of resultant marriage proposals. Vandewalle explains something else basic about learning languages: you have to work to keep competence up. It's like the guy at the circus spinning plates on poles and having to give each plate a spin before it comes crashing down, so he can rush of to do the same for the next one. 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 meaning of "knowing" a language is called into question many times in these pages, never so dramatically as in the case of Ziad Fazah, who was raised in Lebanon and now lives in Brazil. He once held a Guinness world record for knowing fifty-six languages. He had some sort of certification in each to show he knew it, but during a now famous television broadcast in Chile, he was surprised by confrontations with native speakers of languages in which he was supposed to be fluent, like Finnish, Mandarin, and Farsi. He could not converse. When the Russian asked, "What day is it today?" he drew a blank. Maybe he was a fraud, maybe he was having a bad day and hadn't been keeping up languages in which he had been certified. Fazah was also something of a braggart; 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. 




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