Michael Erard: Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Free Press, 2012)

At the outset, all I had were such stories, the tantalizing tales told over the centuries about people with remarkable linguistic gifts. Most of the stories are legends, unreliable as wholes. Yet hidden in them are kernels of truth that are subject to discovery, assessment, and testing, which in turn can guide further exploration. Do such language superlearners really exist? How many are out there, and what are they like? What could this gift for learning languages amount to, if it’s real? And what are the upper limits of our ability to learn, remember, and speak languages?

I have this theory that when a reader is disappointed by a well-written book, it’s because she thought it was a book about something else. So be forewarned: this is not a book about how to learn languages, nor is it a psycholinguistics text. Think of it instead as a narrative: the story of one man’s journey into the world of hyperpolyglots. It starts off reading like a novel, and chapters often end with cliffhangers of sorts; you’ll meet some great characters along the way. While parts of it were terrific, overall I found it a bit scattershot, with topics raised and dropped, sometimes returned to later, sometimes not.

But here was the truly frustrating thing for me: none of those questions raised above were clearly answered. For the most part, they weren’t even defined.

Erard acknowledges an existing threshold of “hyperpolyglottery” (a term coined by London linguist Richard Hudson) at six or more languages, but suggests that might be too low; perhaps eleven would be more accurate. What exactly it means, to “have” a language – ability to speak, converse (how well, with whom, about what, under what conditions), read a newspaper or classic text, pass a test – is discussed, but there’s no conclusion. Though, to be honest, these nuggets might be buried in there somewhere; these issues came up again and again, with varying observations, but I don’t think there was ever a definitive set of criteria.

He begins with his captivating trip to Italy to study notes left by Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774 – 1849):

On one occasion, Pope Gregory XVI (1765-1846), a friend of Mezzofanti, arranged for dozens of international students to surprise him. When the signal was given, the students knelt before Mezzofanti and then rose quickly, talking to him “each in his own tongue, with such an abundance of words and such a volubility of tone, that, in the jargon of dialects, it was almost impossible to hear, much less to understand them.” Mezzofanti didn’t flinch but “took them up singly, and replied to each in his own language.” The pope declared the cardinal to be victorious. Mezzofanti could not be bested.

We’ve all heard about people who “pick up” languages just travelling around; these accounts may or may not be true, but the hyperpolyglots described here work at it: Mezzofanti had boxes of what might be called flash cards, and devoted himself to a program of study.

Other legendary hyperpolyglots are investigated, but the first living subject Erard hears about is Ziad Fazah, who seemed to make a fool of himself in a Mezzofante-like demonstration on Chilean TV. Thanks to YouTube, his performance has been preserved; I can’t interpret what I’m seeing at all, but it seems he answered some native speakers nonsensically, as if saying what he had memorized rather than understanding and answering their comments, and didn’t even bother to answer another. Poor guy: he never knew YouTube would happen. Erard never meets him, though someone on a message board passes along his email address, but this lead gets (frustratingly) dropped.

Through that same message board, Erard met a more willing subject, Alexander Arguelles, in what was for me the highlight of the book. Arguelles has an entire YouTube channel where he offers advice on language learning, some actual lessons, and a discussion of this book. He also maintains a presence on the discussion boards attached to the website HowToLearnAnyLanguage, which is free though registration requires a brief explanation of why you’re interested in visiting the forums (apparently they’ve had a lot of trouble with spam and trolls; it’s easy, I just said I’d read the Erard book and was curious to look around, and three days later I got my authorization).

Arguelles is another hard-working hyperpolyglot: his daily regimen (which he describes on YouTube) includes writing “a few pages” each in English (his native language), Arabic, Sanskrit, Cantonese, which he refers to as his “etymological source rivers.” Then he’ll write in Turkish, Persian, Greek, Hindi, Gaelic, or something else; he tries to write 24 pages a day, and has nine volumes to show for it. Once he had kids, he cut back his study time from nine to four hours a day. And he loves to involve his children, when they feel like it.

He’s also a proponent of a technique he calls “shadowing.” It seems to mean listening to and repeating a recorded text, loudly, while walking outside, as the first step in learning a language, whether a translation is known or not, even whether or not the sounds are repeated correctly. It seems bizarre to me, but it’s the cornerstone of his technique.

Erard watched Arguelles demonstrate this technique with another student in a public park in Berkeley, prior to using the technique to begin his own study of Hindi:

As the two men orbited by, shouting and gesturing dramatically, as if they were declaring opinions in the midst of some vehement argument, I spoke to one sunbather, who had wandered down the hill.
“Does this look weird to you?” I asked.
“Kind of,” she said. “What’s going on? Is he learning Italian?”
“The guy on the right, he’s the teacher,” I explained.
“He’s good.”
“Do you speak Italian?”
“No, I speak Spanish, but I’ve been to Italy. Where is he from in Italy?”
“He’s not Italian, he’s American,” I said her eyebrows went up. “Actually, he knows a lot of languages, he says, and he wants to start the school to make more people like him.”
“Oh, like a language cult,” she said, as if this were commonly recognized phenomenon.
When Justin finished, Alexander offered the tape recorder to me. I’d chosen an Assimil Hindi tape. Le Hindi sans Peine, the label read.
“You’ve just promised me Hindi without pain,” I said.
“I’ve promised you nothing like that,” he said.

Erard tried shadowing, and reported his experience:

After shadowing three dialogs again, it happened: Hindi opened up. I’d never set out methods or secrets; all I knew was what I knew about study: you plug away, you memorize, you write out sentences, you practiced endlessly. Flash cards. At first shadowing seemed absurd. Yet the gates to Hindi were – I could feel it – parting before me.…
Sunshine, sunshine. Now give me someone from whom I can elicit words. Let me play board games with a little kid. Give me a Hyperpolyglot, who will baptize me in his confident shadow, who has no inhibitions, even though he’s not a native speaker.

Arguelles has posted a video of shadowing, and a discussion of it, as well as an hour-long step-by-step guide, on his YouTube channel.

In the third section of the book, Erard discusses the brain, and possible neurological clues to this phenomenon of learning many languages. Here’s where the structure of the book really came apart for me; it seemed like a succession of anecdotes and a general outpouring of (albeit interesting) information – Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, the Geschwind-Galaburta hypothesis, what PET scanning reveals about how the brain stores and accesses learned languages, the possibility of a dopamine feedback loop that makes learning language pleasurable) – often referring back to the hyperpolyglots mentioned earlier and sometimes recounting issues mentioned earlier. Again, it’s a story, rather than a hierarchically-organized text of neurolinguistics. I could’ve used more structure.

I decided to read this book after Dr. Erard gave a talk about it at my local library a few months ago (on Cardinal Mezzofanti’s birthday, by chance). It’s interesting I found his talk to be a little disjointed as well, though he was very willing to answer questions after the lecture and even later by email – so I feel extra-guilty that I don’t have unbridled enthusiasm for his book. Then again, this is all just my opinion; The New York Times seemed to have none of my reservations.

To be clear, I don’t regret reading the book at all; I was delighted with much of it. In fact, I plan to read his first book, Um… Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What they Mean, some time next year. Arguelles and his Shadowing technique alone was worth this read, and I had a great time following up leads online. I just wish, even if there aren’t any answers, there were more concrete questions, or at least a more organized framework in which to wonder.

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