February 14, 2012 | Hebrew

Michael Erard on Hyperpolyglottery

In which I discuss a new book about language-learning superstars.

I found it extremely difficult to get through Michael Erard’s new book, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. And I mean that as the highest form of praise.

Michael Erard's New Book, Resident in My Library

Michael Erard’s New Book, Resident in My Library

When I am interested in a book I am reading, I get so riled up I find it hard to sit still enough to keep reading. That has caused me problems throughout my reading life. And this book was one of the worst ever in that regard.

Besides profiling various massively gifted language learners, both current and historical, Erard grapples with the question of who, exactly, qualifies as a hyperpolyglot. It is not an easy thing to assess. One working definition is a person with six or more languages, but a better number might be someone with 11, according to Erard.

What does it mean to have or to know a language, though? This is a recurring theme throughout the book.

I myself am constantly asked, “How many languages do you speak now?” It’s funny, because I have a very hard time saying I “speak” a language other than English. My personal standard is native or near-native proficiency, and I am always painfully aware of deficiencies in any language that is not my native English.

I do not say I am bilingual, or trilingual, or whatever-lingual. Nor do I say I am monolingual, however; that wouldn’t be correct, either. I will say I am “conversational” in one language or another, but to say I “speak” it reminds me of everything I cannot say, or that I do wrong.

In any case, as Erard discusses, even people who claim full-on proficiency in many languages tend to have pretty varied levels of skills in those languages, with a relatively small number of languages being at a very high level and actually including abilities across all four communication areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

If you can translate a text into English with the aid of a dictionary but can’t comfortably carry on a conversation, do you “have” a language? I value all four areas of communication skills, but I personally privilege oral skills above all else, so I would say no for myself. But I certainly understand why others don’t measure this way.

Indeed, one of the things I liked about Erard’s book is that it gave value to different degrees and types of capability. It’s not an all-or-nothing deal with language. Some degree of versatility in a language is very meaningful. This seems like an obvious point, I guess, but I struggle with it in my own brain a great deal.

I do find utterly mindboggling and captivating the idea of someone like the Italian cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849), who was reputed to have mastered dozens of languages and be able to flip effortlessly in conversation from one to the next. It is of course hard to assess the true skills of someone who has been dead for 163 years, and Erard conscientiously seeks to ferret out the truth behind the mythology, but no matter what, it seems clear to me Mezzofanti was a pretty extraordinary man.

There was also plenty of discussion in the book about reactivation of languages. In general, even a language genius can’t maintain a very high number of languages at a very high level. Some languages may go to sleep, only to be reactivated later when they are needed.

Some language superlearner types can reactivate languages very quickly, I gather. But the point is, you can’t generally show up unexpectedly at someone’s front door and expect him or her to be equally fluent in two dozen languages. Or even a dozen.

Most normal people also start to get confused pretty quickly among their languages. Language pollution! One of the most attractive and appealing notions to me is the idea of being able to switch from one to another all in a day’s work. 

Erard writes about Helen Abadzi, who uses Greek, English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese daily in her post at the World Bank. My idea of fun!

I did particularly enjoy reading about modern-day language accumulators such as Abadzi, or such as Alexander Arguelles, who lives in California and has an unwavering passion for this stuff.

Arguelles’ learning approach is in many ways different from mine, and this three-year project is but a smidge of studying compared to the commitment he has made, but I couldn’t help noticing some funny and random things we had in common.

I do admire his dedication. He is clearly motivated by a profound love of learning and language, and is generous in sharing his knowledge and experience with others. 

Looking through Arguelles’ Foreign Language Expertise website, I noticed the following comment from him:

I am all too frequently asked how many languages I know, and I dread this question because I am truly unable to answer it. Having spent my life studying languages, I have such varying levels of knowledge about or abilities in different languages that I cannot give a simple answer, especially since the traditional borders between languages disappear when, as I have, you study many members of any given language family. When I stumble trying to explain this, people often then ask how many languages I can speak; they are trying to simplify the matter, but this actually just makes it all the more complicated. The only aspect of my foreign language knowledge that I can quantify in any way is my ability to read, for my main goal in studying foreign languages is to develop the ability to read the Great Books that have been written in them.

Such humility is refreshing. Much better than the far more common opposite tendency in this country to claim a language on the basis of very primitive skills.

Back to Erard’s book: if you love languages and/or care about language learning, this is a must-read. I loved it. I can’t say I didn’t sometimes get a little jealous of some of those superlearners—the book made me wish I could pull a Mezzofanti—but such is life.

The struggle is fun!

Comments (2)

Katherine • Posted on Fri, March 02, 2012 - 1:37 pm EST

This is a really great and interesting post! Thank you for posting Alexander Arguelles’ website, I love his idea of “polyliteracy.” I really appreciate his quote above and am often at a loss when asked the same question.  I have studied maybe 12 languages throughout my life and the levels of them are all over the place. In one language I can read almost perfectly, another I have perfect conversation but can’t speak on high topics, another language I can discuss nuclear non-proliferation but don’t know how to say ‘party’. And technically you are only really fluent if you are a native speaker. I would say this is the case for most people who study multiple foreign languages.  The reason for this is that life doesn’t always provide the same opportunities for every language.  You can learn a foreign language from academic settings, from real world experience, from books. Each foreign language I have studied is always in a completely different setting.

I also find the question interesting of what makes a polyglot be a polyglot.  I have no idea how or why I can absorb multiple languages easier than others and wish someone would explain it to me. I do agree that it is a lot of work and time and effort and persistance. And flashcards.  Most people find the idea of learning a foreign language exotic and are taken in by the fancy Rosetta Stone packaging and have no idea how many hours need to be spent doing boring grammar exercises. You need to study on a daily basis for a really long time and then find a way to maintain the language or else you will lose it. It is A LOT of boring work, but definitely the most rewarding work in my opinion.

Tim • Posted on Tue, June 12, 2012 - 4:05 am EST

Thanks for the tip. Sounds interesting (if a bit humbling).

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