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“According to some uncompleted and hence as yet unpublished researches, the most proficient linguist in history was Sir John Bowring (1792-1872), who was said to be able to read 200 languages and speak 100.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