Babel No More (Michael Erard) Book Review: My Thoughts

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.

The Super-Polyglot
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".

Measuring knowledge
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.

Here's another insightful review:

Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Randy,I ordered "Babel No More" yesterday and am keen to read it. In regards to the idiosyncrasies you list from the book, I was reading the Time Magazine cover story, "The Upside Of Being An Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated)" and it made me think about your mention of introversion being a common trait in hyperglots. It makes sense as introverts are better listeners than extroverts and take the time to absorb details from conversations and observations. Since listening is a key element in language acquisition, one's introversion may make one more capable of listening and not rushing to be the center of attention.

  • A very interesting take. Certainly possible, though I could offer some other tantalizing possibilities... :)What if a lack of social distraction provides more time for study?What if introversion causes people with lesser social skills to look for other signaling methods, such as acquisition of skill, to gain attention?What if the resources of biological development that might have otherwise gone into extroverted areas of a person's brain were instead diverted to other cognitive areas?Or, what if the very lack of a strong communicative tendency prompts people to search for a way to compensate, such as intentionally developing a wider audience (via additional languages) from which to recruit interesting conversation partners?I could play hypotheticals all day. I love this stuff!  :)

  • I think all of your hypothetical explanations work. If someone is introverted, he/she is more apt to focus and sit by him or herself and study. And as you state at the end of your post, the main trait all serious language learners have is the dedication to put in the time to learn the language.We'll have more to discuss once I read the book. I am curious about the issues hyperglots have with spatial orientation that Erard mentioned in his Huffington Post interview (https://www.huffingtonpost.c....

  • Hey Randy, This sounds like an interesting book! I hadn't heard of it but looking forward to checking it out.  I just went to a talk last week by Neil Smith who presented on the mind of a language savant named Christopher.  One of the interesting points he made was that, despite Christopher's fairly low IQ and inability to understand that his reality isn't everyone's reality, the one thing that seems to be easy for him is social interaction.  He loves to talk, and enthusiastically interrogates people who speak languages he doesn't 'know' yet.  Anyways, for me personally, the research I've read on the relationships between brain, behavior and language are still in their infancy.  The big questions for me now are what 'linguistic' features are actually genetically specified or present in the brain before exposure to a language (if there are any). And if not, to what degree does the brain's interaction with a language change its cognitive structures over development both in first and second language learning.  The really interesting stuff is coming out of looking at bilinguals and multilinguals who have learned another language at various stages of development and how that affects such things as executive control and memory.  It seems that learning another language does 'rewire' our brains in startling ways.  Cool post, stoked to have come across another thought-provoking language blog!

  • Looks like I'm in luck - book available at my library.  And I'm even more lucky - I'm number 3 in queue!

  • Michael Erard met Christopher as well, and discusses him quite a bit in the book.He also spent a lot of time expanding on the difference between bilingual/multilingual people and polyglots/hyperpolyglots, the former being people who use multiple languages to function day-to-day, while the latter really only function critically in one (or a few) of their languages and learn the rest as "second" languages.There are some interesting things to consider on that topic, but honestly, I think the bilingual/multilingual thing goes back to the "all-or-nothing" definition of fluency, where learners are always held to the unrealistic standard of speaking like a native. The polyglot/hyperpolyglot seems to accept that native-like proficiency is a nearly unreachable standard that would distract them from otherwise learning many more languages, often to very proficient levels.Personally, I think the difference is entirely circumstantial. Bilinguals/multilinguals are how they are because of where they were born, who they were born to, where they live, etc.  One can only choose to be a bilingual in as much as one can move to a new country where that language is spoken, and stay there long enough to be come functionally near-native.  To anyone else whom fate has not placed in a multilingual home and who doesn't have the option to move to a far-away land, the only option is to learn other languages as "second" languages.  I really don't see why we should threat the two as separate, or give any special status to one over the other.

  • Randy, thanks for kicking off this discussion of the book with such a great summary and review. I wanted to mention that I did not actually meet Christopher, though I have read a lot about him and corresponded with Neil Smith and Ianthe Tsimpli. And Gavin, I took the questions about language, genetics, and higher-order cognitive skills and how they develop (and interact with things like cultural environment) as far as they could go without my being a neurodevelopmental expert -- though the experts will note much of what you do, too, which is that our knowledge of these things is in its infancy. 

  • Hey Randy thanks for the reply! The distinction I think your making between polyglot/hyperpolyglot and bilingual/multilingual is just a little different from what I meant.  The association with the term "bilingual" and "near-native" is just that, an association.  Most of the research in psycholinguistics on bilingualism takes a very broad perspective on what constitutes a bilingual/multilingual, usually referring to them as "early" or "late" bilinguals.  I think most perceptions on bilingualism comes from our common sense understanding of what a bilingual should be, that is a near native in two or more languages, or what you might call a "balanced bilingual."  Most bilinguals/multilinguals have heterogeneous uses of their languages which they use in different contexts, with different communities and with different registers.  I think we should view "second languages" and "bilingualism" as inherently fuzzy and problematic distinctions, as you say.  These categories aren't quite as clear cut as we assume them to be, we just are beginning to understand what affect another language has on our mind (I am making a distinction here between "mind" and "brain"), that is why in the research, a monolingual is usually defined as someone with no exposure to another language, even extremely minimal exposure.  The question is what is "native-like" proficiency? The research seems to show that this "native/non-native" dichotomy is very counter-intuitive. 

  • Hey Michael, I ordered your book and I'm looking forward to reading it.  I had coffee with Neil Smith after his talk (the guy is really soft spoken!) and got to see him interact with some of the other younger professors in our department.  He is very much a traditional UG guy and he didn't really do a lot of tests on Christopher outside of trying to understand parameters of UG. What he did is super interesting stuff, but from the questions that came up during our conversation, it seems the younger generation of linguists are approaching these issues from much different perspectives, in part coming from the new technology coming available to analyze language.  One researcher that has given me an interesting perspective on "language, genetics, and higher-order cognitive skills," as you said, is Terrence Deacon. He really seems to be onto something and if you haven't read his book "The Symbolic Species" I highly recommend it.

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