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babel no more

30 may 2012

I have never thought of myself as particularly good at languages. This despite my reputation in my workplace as someone who can read anything. Indeed, on lection, in the past eight years, I have reviewed books written in French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese, as well as English. My Latin and Greek were once good enough to read Vergil and Homer, I've studied Old and Middle English – and many years ago I learned enough Russian to read a Chekhov short story, though I doubt I could recognize half the characters in the Russian alphabet anymore.

I still think of myself as monolingual, however, because my capacity for carrying on a conversation in any language except English is practically nil. In Spanish, for instance, my pronunciation is decent (honed by years watching Noticiero Univision), my vocabulary is adequate, and I can often think of a single thing to say, if given about half an hour to prepare. But the thought of somebody saying something back to me makes me extremely reluctant to use Spanish in my everyday life. Or rather: it's not so much that they might answer with something I didn't understand – I could perhaps stumble forward from there, despite my shyness, and the fact that it would take me another half an hour to think of the second thing I wanted to say – but the probability that they would immediately switch to English. Everybody's English is better than my everybody else's language.

However, since I can read six modern languages (with proficiency varying from high to struggling), and have a few "surge" languages in reserve that I might be able to swot up given a spare month or two, I verge in some ways on the category that Michael Erard calls "hyperpolyglot." His fascinating book Babel No More tries to do many things: to define "hyperpolyglots" (which includes defining what it means to know or use a language); to locate living hyperpolyglots; to look at the history of hyperpolyglottery; to speculate on the neurological and social contexts for the speaking of many languages; and to travel the world while writing a voice-driven book about eccentric people.

I am deeply in sympathy with all the aims except the last; as readers of lection know, voice-driven nonfiction is one of my pet peeves. Erard, however, keeps the ratio of exposition to chatter substantially high. Once in a while he lapses. Erard flies to Düsseldorf to get some background on neurolinguistics, and tells us that

As any good expedition begins with a meal, Loraine and I considered hyperpolyglots over sushi. Tomorrow we'd be visiting the brain institute, and we had much to discuss. (166)
That's fine, but who cares.

My peeves aside, though, Babel No More is relentlessly provocative. Erard is constantly caught between the desire that there should be linguistic prodigies in the world, and the rueful awareness that claims on behalf of such prodigies always need discounting by (at least) half. "If you read or hear that a certain person 'can speak' (or 'speaks') a large number of languages (for instance twenty or more) you should always be a little skeptical," said the late Swedish polyglot Erik Gunnermark (226). Gunnermark himself claimed to speak six languages well and seven others passably, but some who knew him in turn doubted Gunnermark's claims: one colleague says, "I don't think [he] could speak very many languages very well—but he could read them" (226). Gunnermark claimed to be able to read forty-seven languages (92).

Two principles are at work in the example of Erik Gunnermark. One is that the definition of "knowing" a language is far more nuanced than common wisdom would have it. I "know" Italian well enough to read contemporary novels without a dictionary, and to have read the entire Divina Commedia in the original at one point in my life. But people will come into my office and ask me the most basic words in Italian, and I haven't the nebbiosissimo. When I was in Rome nine years ago, I was reduced to pointing and gesticulating in order to demonstrate my most basic needs. (Fortunately espresso is one of them.)

The other principle is that the languages known by any polyglot form a steeply descending curve of such competence, and can be arranged in graph form (as Erard does on 221-22). There are native bilingual and trilingual people who are completely at home in each of these languages, and they often learn a fourth or fifth language well enough to be able to converse unhesitatingly. A sixth, a seventh . . . these are within the range of accomplishment, but the conversations that a polyglot holds in those languages will be more basic. S/he might get by in rudimentary conversations in shops or airports in half a dozen other languages, and know the most phrasebook-like versions of a few others, and be able to read a few others without a dictionary, and a few others with. And then there are a bunch of languages where one knows how to say "hello," "thank you," and whatever-it-is you say when you bump into somebody in the market. (Συγγνώμη! Bocsánat! Undskyld!)

(My own curve, for instance, has my native English at the top of the slope. French I can read without a dictionary, and almost as fast as English, and I have a huge passive vocabulary that I can sometimes tap into to actually say something in the language, though I can't understand spoken French. I can read most Spanish texts without a dictionary. I read Italian without a dictionary after a chapter or two of recharging with a dictionary. In French, Spanish, and Italian I use an intralingual dictionary, rarely checking anything against English. I can read German newspapers without a dictionary, and novels with a German-English dictionary; when I'm fully charged I sometimes don't need the dictionary for pages at at time, but I cannot go off the grid and use a purely German dictionary as I read. I can speak some German, and I can understand German conversations better than those in any Romance language; I've learned the language differently, and it simply sounds closer to English than the others. I read Portuguese passably, with a Portuguese-English dictionary – because it's so close to Spanish. I have never heard Portuguese spoken, and I might not even identify people speaking it nearby.)

Nobody can be near-native in more than four or five languages. (But I know people who are highly fluent in that many, mainly from crossroads-of-Europe places like the Benelux countries and the Baltic.) Partly the constraint is one of time. It takes time to learn them and time to keep them current. A few years ago, struck by the sense that I ought to practice reading the eight languages I could nominally read, I devised a plan of reading one Bible chapter in each of them, on an eight-day rotation. One chapter a day does not sound like much; the material was familiar and the translations (or in the case of Greek, the koine of the original New Testament) fairly basic. But let me tell you, reading the Bible in eight different languages at the rate of one language per day is a shortcut to madness. You can't keep it up unless you have nothing else to do. (Two features of many of the hyperpolyglots Erard studies are extremely good time management and near-compulsive study skills.)

"The enemy of the language-learner is forgetting," says one of Erard's informants. "You can only prevent this by regularly studying" (134). Sir Richard Burton (the world traveler, not the movie star) learned over two dozen languages, but never all at once; he spoke them "in blocks or spurts" (47), and time away from any of his languages had to be redeemed with time spent studying again before he could return to it. The example of such hard work, Erard says, is the basis for one theory of superlearners.

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. (163)
But clearly there's a sense in which at least some hyperpolyglots are just gifted with verbal ability.
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. (164)
Indeed, some language "accumulators" are of low intelligence, or hampered by social anxieties; they are savant-like in their ability to memorize gigantic vocabulary lists. They work hard, but they also do things that normal hard-working people can't (and fail at things that the mentally normal handle easily). Great language learning can be a gift in the same way as great musical ability or great chess talent. There is probably more than one pathway there, and sometimes people take several at once (just as there is more than one kind of polyglottery).

Erard lists several talents to cultivate if you want to use a lot of different languages: mimicry, openness to experience, metamemory (remembering what you know and what you don't), and the less-definable Sprachegefühl [sic] ("feel for language," 263). I think I understand Sprachgefühl, though I may not possess it to any great degree. It is partly what the poet Keats called "negative capability." In any language, there are various ways to pronounce words, various idioms that don't make logical sense, lots of synonyms, multiple registers, and above all tons of irregularities that don't apply in every other (sometimes any other) language. If you have a feel for language, you roll with it.

You cannot learn languages, or in a real sense even learn much about your own language, if you are unable to yield to uncertainty. In this, language is utterly different from math or chemistry. If you ask someone who is competent in two languages, but lacks Sprachgefühl, to translate something, they will give you a rote dictionary equivalent. If you ask a multilingual with Sprachgefühl to translate something, they will tell you three ways to say it in writing, one way to say it to your grandkids and and one way to say it to a cop, plus an interesting way they say it in Kentucky. As Ron Washington says of baseball, that's the way language go.

Erard, Michael. Babel No More: The search for the world's most extraordinary language learners. New York: Free Press [Simon & Schuster], 2012.

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