Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners

By MICHAEL ERARD

The ability to speak multiple unrelated foreign languages fluently counts among a short list of showstopping talents, like the ability to play a Bach fugue or fly a helicopter (assuming one isn’t a harpsichordist or pilot by profession). It impresses in part because it suggests discipline, time, and effort — and, perhaps, other hidden skills.

But what if the languages came effortlessly? There are, in the history of polyglottism, a few examples of people who seem to have found a way to cheat the system and acquire languages so easily and quickly that what would normally appear a feat of discipline and erudition looks instead like savantism. These hyperpolyglots chitchat fluently in dozens of dialects, and they pick up new ones literally between meals. For the rest of us who have to slave over our verb tables, their talent resembles sorcery.

Michael Erard’s Babel No More is about these hyperpolyglots. It is not about concierges or mâitre d’s who can charm guests in Japanese, English, and French, or about diplomats who get along without a translator in Moscow, Cairo, and Shanghai. Such people are strictly amateur compared to, say, Harold Williams, a New Zealander who attended the League of Nations and is said to have spoken comfortably to each delegate in the delegate’s native tongue, or the American Kenneth Hale, who learned passable Finnish (one of about fifty languages he was reputed to speak convincingly) on a flight to Helsinki and allegedly learned Japanese after a single viewing of the Shogun miniseries.

The most famous hyperpolyglot is Giuseppe Mezzofanti, the nineteenth-century Bolognese cardinal who was reputed to speak between thirty and seventy languages, ranging from Chaldaean to Algonquin. He spoke them so well, and with such a feather-light foreign accent, according to his Irish biographer, that English visitors mistook him for their countryman Cardinal Charles Acton. (They also said he spoke as if reading from The Spectator.) His ability to learn a language in a matter of days or hours was so devilishly impressive that one suspects Mezzofanti pursued the cardinalate in part to shelter himself from accusations that he had bought the talent from Satan himself.

Babel No More takes Erard (who has only modest linguistic ability of his own) to Mezzofanti’s library in Bologna, and then on the trail of modern Mezzofantis. Not one can match the ability of the cardinal himself. Many alleged hyperpolyglots turn out to be braggarts — one of them, Ziad Fazah, is now best known for appearing on a Chilean TV show and failing to respond coherently to speakers of half a dozen languages he claimed to know — and the rest are impressive but tend to need practice to keep up their skills. Their languages recede with disuse, and no one succeeds in switching from Abkhaz to Quechua to Javanese in the way Mezzofanti was said to.

Among the more impressive workhorses is Alexander Arguelles, who, at the time of his first meeting with Erard, is an unemployed academic and jogging enthusiast living in California. Arguelles reads novels in Dutch, writes and reads classical Arabic, and translates Korean for cash on the side. But he also spends twelve hours every day learning languages and obsessively cataloguing his progress. In his case, the hyperpolyglottism appears to be simply compulsive behavior.

And so it goes with virtually every hyperpolyglot Erard meets. His book ends up being less an exploration of modern Mezzofantis than a fairly convincing (if uninspiring) brief denying their existence, at least in the mythologized form that their reputations have assumed. Literally thousands of people tested Mezzofanti’s abilities and came away satisfied, so it might seem improbable that he was anything less than a linguistic monster. And yet earwitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, and many people set an absurdly low bar for fluency. (I was once accused of speaking Russian, on the basis of successfully having read a train schedule and bought a ticket in Irkutsk.)

All this is not to say that hyperpolyglots are all frauds. Both Mezzofanti and Kenneth Hale were reluctant to enumerate their languages, and although both conversed happily with many visitors — who were gratified and enchanted by the gesture of linguistic respect — they denied that they were doing anything remarkable or praiseworthy. Hyperpolyglots argue that what they do is not fluent speaking but instead a sort of mechanical reproduction, a robotic trick rather than a human skill. Hale, an MIT professor who died in 2001, is quoted as disputing the idea that he “spoke” fifty languages, limiting his claim to only three, one of them being the Australian Aboriginal language Warlpiri. He distinguished “saying things” from speaking a language and really understanding it. The ability to pretend to converse in a language, and get by, isn’t the same as speaking it fluently.

Both men were, of course, tremendously accomplished individuals: Mezzofanti curated the Vatican Library, and Hale was among the most distinguished members of the best linguistics department in the world. Harold Williams, the New Zealander, wrote a very good book about Russia (Russia of the Russians), led a remarkable life, and was a sensitive reader of his hero and acquaintance Leo Tolstoy. By contrast, the hyperpolyglots alive today — at least, the ones Erard manages to find — seem to be quite unremarkable people. The most impressive is a World Bank employee.

It’s hard to know whether to take the humility of a Hale or Mezzofanti or Williams at face value. For those of us who simply want to communicate, the ability to do what Hale calls “saying things” would be more than adequate to the task. Erard is, unfortunately, unable to distill anything from these men’s examples that tells how to awaken the slumbering linguistic monsters within the rest of us. It helps to enjoy languages, perhaps to the point of compulsive behavior. And Hale, Mezzofanti, and Williams all inspired a great deal of affection among their interlocutors, which indicates perhaps that learning languages is easier if your extroverted side is expressed through linguistic acquisition.

This all suggests that there’s no magic formula for language learning, or at least nothing that one can use purely through an act of will. You can’t become Mezzofanti, in part because the traits are not generally voluntary and in part because even Mezzofanti wasn’t Mezzofanti. There are learning techniques that sometimes work and sometimes don’t; some say adding physical movement helps learning (Arguelles likes to run around and shout vocabulary words), and some suggest that zapping one’s brain with electricity can boost memory. But for most of us, it’s back to the flash cards, and to humiliating ourselves when we try to order in French restaurants.

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