When I recently received a copy of the new book Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, by Michael Erard, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. A few other language bloggers have recently commented on the book, and while I tried to ignore their comments in order to form my own opinion, one can’t help developing a few preconceptions.
When I finally opened the book and turned to Chapter 1, I began reading with a bit of a defensive attitude. Even after I’d read the first 100 pages, when I was thoroughly impressed with the storytelling ability of the author and admittedly quite enthralled in the book, I remained skeptical about where it might be heading.
I’m pleased to say that as I continued to read my skepticism melted away, and after I’d finished the final chapter I had no sense whatsoever of the controversial attitudes to which I’d been primed by other bloggers who read it before me.
Babel No More opens with the story of Cardianl Mezzofanti, the famed Italian who is said to have spoken some 76 languages. Erard tells of his pilgrimage to Bologna to learn about Mezzofanti, and of his travels around the world in search of what he calls hyperpolyglots — people who speak 11 or more languages — while also peering into any historical record of the hyperpolyglots of yesteryear, including Mezzofanti or the legendary Emil Krebs, in search of the secrets of language learning.
He tells of his own experiences meeting and interviewing modern-day superlinguists like Professor Arguelles, as well as examining the library of Mezzofanti, and even getting a first-hand look at the preserved brain of Krebs, all in hopes of finding out what gives some people the ability to learn an excessive number of languages, while also coming to grips with exactly what it means to say that you “know a language”.
Erard wastes little time addressing one of the most controversial topics in the language learning community: the question of what standard to hold people against when they say they speak a language.
I’ve seen many — and even been sucked into several — arguments about exactly what it means to know a language. Do you have to have native-like skill? Is it necessary to be capable of carrying out a professional career in the language? Is it enough to be the “educated tourist”? Is it necessary to read literature? Do you even have to speak at all?
After doing the extensive footwork he’s done contacting and/or studying as many hyperpolyglots as he’s met, the author comes to the only sensible conclusion to which any reasonable person can come: the “all or nothing” measure of native-like skill is simply unreasonable. This leaves him with what Erard calls the “something and something” measure: essentially, the kind of quantifications that go “Expert in A and B, fluent in C, D, and E, conversational in F and G, and passing knowledge of H, I, J, etc…”
This touches on my own personal attitude toward quantifying language knowledge. When I have fluent abilities in Spanish, Russian, and Italian, basic conversational skills in German, Polish, and Turkish, survival-level ability in French, Ukrainian, and Tagalog, and at least a passing knowledge of Portuguese, Mandarin, Catalan, Czech, and Serbian… what exactly is the right answer when someone asks me how many languages do I speak?
Faced with the question, I usually say four, counting my native English. That answer doesn’t tell the whole story, but I don’t care to misrepresent my abilities. Apparently, most of the people Erard met were of similar mind, preferring to quote rather low numbers in spite of having personal exposure to many more — often exponentially more languages than that. (Presumably, this sense of humility was not the case with regard to the legend of Mezzofanti.)
The Tabula Rasa
One thing I greatly appreciated about the book was the author’s willingness, if reluctant, to accept that all brains are not equal. While there is little reason to believe anyone (short of brain damage) has an incapacity for language learning, there seems to be some evidence that some people do have certain genetic gifts that lend themselves to ease of learning languages, and perhaps even feed the ultralinguist.
Executive function and working memory seem to be facets of the mind that can not be greatly shaped or improved after birth, which offer significant biological advantage to certain language learners. Meanwhile, dopamine (which can be tweaked by the learner) appears to be significant to the process as well.
Interestingly, he shares some evidence of correlation between language learning talent and various mental idiosyncrasies, such as introversion, left-handedness, homosexuality, and OCD. One that stood out to me in particular was the mimic: people capable of reproducing things they hear, such as impressionists. Immediately I was reminded of my own compulsive tendency to copy strange accents, sounds, voices I hear, often to the point where people think I’m mocking them. I’m not, of course… I just have an innate need to reproduce the sounds I hear. I’ve often wondered if there was a connection between that and my interest in language. Apparently, I’m not the first person to wonder that.
Notably absent from the book was any mention of the programmer. In my field, one often finds that anyone worth his weight as a programmer usually has the ability to use several programming languages — indicative of the fact that this person understands the computer itself, and can communicate with it regardless of the programming language he has to use. I’ve often drawn comparisons between computer languages and natural languages in my own conversations on the topic. At the very least, it would have satisfied my curiosity a bit to have seen that avenue explored in this book. (Hmmm, maybe in a sequel.)
Answers and Questions
On the whole, one comes away from the book feeling that it does a great job of asking questions, but doesn’t make many overt attempts to offer answers. Sure, the last chapter seems to sum up the story and tell what he learned, but it also neatly wraps up with the reminder that there’s still a lot we don’t know… and perhaps equally reminds us that there’s also a lot that we do already know.
It seems clear that there is (as we’ve already known) no magic bullet that can make us capable of learning a language in a day or a week. However there is evidence that quite a lot can, in fact, be learned in little more than a fortnight, so that even if you won’t speak fluently in just two weeks, it is quite possible to speak and understand a very impressive amount in a very short time.
In the end, all of the most accomplished language learners have one thing in common: they were willing to put in the work. With or without shortcuts, every one of his hyperpolyglots has spent a notably large amount of time dedicated to the study of the languages they speak. Maybe that’s the best answer of all, because it means we all have a chance at reaching that status if it’s what we really want.