The cult of the Linguistic superheroes

Anushree Basu-Bhalla | Print Edition: Apr 15, 2012

Babel No More: The Search Of The World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners
By Michael Erard, Free Press;
Price: Rs 1,400, Pages: 320

There's something about the word hyperpolyglot. Its phonological symphony goes perfectly well with its definition: one who can speak in at least 11 languages. The word begins somewhere in the throat with a glottal h. Then come the lips with two rapid flaps of p sounds, proceeding into a couple of splendid alveolar l's. Finally, it ends appropriately with a flourish at t. You will come across this word often while reading 'Babel No More...' by Michael Erard.

Hyperpolyglots are both the central character of the book and a quest for the author. While researching the book, Erard travels the world following the trail of these apparent superhumans, in history and the present day. In it, he chronicles their remarkable language-learning abilities and their life stories.

Linguistic scholars say multilingualism involves speaking, thinking and feeling in a certain language. At best, they say, a person can achieve such fluency in four tongues. Erard disagrees. Pick any global city and you will find yourself surrounded by the sounds of multiple languages.

Erard gives the example of an unassuming noodle restaurant in Manhattan, where two Hondurans juggle English, Japanese and Spanish, while working through customers' orders. A monolingual eavesdropper would find this rather intimidating. They are, what we know as polyglots: people who are fluent in three to four languages. Yet they're not quite in the same league as true hyperpolygots, "the gifted massive language accumulators," as Erard puts it. The key to their gift is a particular neurology that's well-suited for learning languages very quickly and being able to use them.

Erard himself graduated in linguistics and rhetoric from the University of Texas at Austin, Texas. He is a journalist and a self-confessed 'monolingual with benefits,' who approaches his subject with both academic rigour and a healthy bit of journalistic scepticism.

The first hyperpolyglot to be introduced is Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, an 18th century Italian priest and professor, who lived near Rome and could speak fluently in more than 50 languages.

Mezzofanti's story is an extreme example of how hyperpolyglots are looked upon. As Erard writes, "The hyperpolyglot embodies... the linguistic wildness of our primordial past and the multilingualism of the looming technotopia." Other engaging accounts recall a 19th-century Russian girl who mastered 11 tongues before she died at age 17.

Another self-taught-polyglot Ray Gillion, can converse in 18 languages; Ken Hale, a linguist in MIT who had an arsenal of 50 languages, learnt Japanese by watching the movie Shogun with subtitles.

While investigating these Mezzofantis of the world, Erard also scrutinises the very nature of a language, its role in society, and its residence in the human mind. He suggests that such minds may well be more 'plastic' than a lay person's; more two-year-old-like in one key aspect: the ability to absorb and reproduce foreign sounds the way a child learns its mother tongue.

Geography and nationality are all jumbled-up in this jet-age. Babel No More attempts to understand how language lubricates social interaction and concludes that hyperpolyglots may be gifted but there are no magic shortcuts-even the great Mezzofanti had a set of handwritten flash cards to get by.

Erard weaves a captivating and illuminating story, delivered with great insight and utmost objectivity.

Michael Erard
Michael Erard

Michael Erard, journalist, linguist and author of Babel No More

What inspired you to write this book?
In 2004, I'd been working as a journalist, writing stories about language and languages, and a discussion popped up on a linguistics listserv about who the most lingual person in the world was. Hardly nothing had been done on people who were gifted language learners and massive language accumulators. My interest was also spurred by the fact that we need polyglots. We can't have hyperpolyglot brains but we can mimic some of the principles they use. Their relentless getting away from one's mother tongue and yet not losing a sense of who they are, is also very useful.

Why did you suggest 11 as the number of languages that distinguished a hyperpolyglot from a polyglot?
I suggest that number as a limit because of the online survey that I did. There were quite a few with six, seven, and eight languages and some with nine and 10. But the number of people with eleven languages and higher are very, very few. This suggests there's something special about them.

Among all the hyperpolyglots you interviewed and chronicled in your book, who came about to be the most interesting and why?

Cardinal Mezzofanti is still a favourite of mine, and I've come to have a lot of respect for Ken Hale, the MIT linguist, who had 50 languages. He tried to be very clear about saying what he could and couldn't do.

Are hyperpolyglots born to be language superlearners?
Hyperpolyglots are born to be made. There is something about their brains that predisposes them to do this activity and to perform well at it. Now, I am not saying that someone with one of these brains will inevitably become a hyperpolyglot. They have to have access to the right resources, and they also have to take up language learning as a personal mission.

Can anyone be a hyperpolyglot?
Anyone can, even those who have not been exposed to many languages from an early age. But if you're asking about learning higher numbers of languages across multiple language families and reading and writing in a range of writing systems, and speaking five to nine languages on a regular basis, with a larger set that are "on ice," that requires predispositions.

What's the difference between 'speaking' a language and 'knowing' one?
'Speaking' a language is really focused on oral communication, whereas 'knowing' is more expansive. In my survey, I asked people what they meant by 'knowing' a language. They often talked about having a comfortable, stressless approach to functioning in the language, whether it was talking or watching movies or reading the newspaper.

Does a hyperpolyglot have an upper limit of learning languages?
In my online survey, the highest number of languages that someone reported 'knowing' was 26. Gregg Cox, who holds the Guinness Book of World Records for speaking 64 languages, told me he can't actually speak that many languages. In 1990, a Scottish man named Derick Herning was tested in a single day by native speakers and was found to have communicative competence in 22. It appears that the architecture of executive function keeps people from having more than five to nine languages active at any single time.

  • Print

A    A   A