Learning To Speak More Than 12 Languages

Have you ever dreamed of being able to speak dozens of languages? A new book, Babel No More by journalist Michael Erard, traces the history of people who can do just that: hyperpolyglots, people who speak 11 or more languages.

Obviously, hyperpolyglotism is a trained skill. No one just wakes up speaking multiple languages, but there may be factors that make it easier. As Erard told the Huffington Post, “Hyperpolyglots are not born, and they are not made, but they are born to be made. There is a finite subset of the human population which has the right neurological equipment for learning and using lots of languages.”

What does this mean? Well, it seems that hyperpolyglots tend to share a few characteristics other than their language ability. Hyperpolyglots tend to be male and left handed, and they also tend to have immune disorders and high IQs. It is unclear how or if these characteristics are tied to language ability or brain plasticity, and Erard makes sure to say these variables may be random or attributed to who responded to his survey. There is no conclusive evidence around what makes someone – physiologically – predisposed to be a hyperpolyglot, but there are some speculative correlations.

How do hyperpolyglot go about learning these languages? They study – a lot. After the first five or so languages, hyperpolyglots acquire a deeper understanding of how language systems work, making it easier to learn other languages. Despite that, it still takes hours of focus and vocabulary drills.

One interesting feature of historical hyperpolyglots are how language expectations have changed over time, particularly in terms of what exactly it means to “speak” so many languages. For example, one of the most famous hyperpolyglots, Cardinal Mezzofanti of Bologna spoke as many as 30 languages, but in his era, to “speak” a language meant to read and translate it, not necessarily to converse fluently. No hyperpolyglots have instant recall of all of the languages in their repertoire. Most hyperpolyglots are fluent in three or four languages and have a store of other languages that they must briefly review to speak with fluency, so called “surge languages.”

What about contemporary polyglots? In October 2011, Sonia Yang, a 10 year-old girl in England, was named the best young linguist because she can speak 10 languages: Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, English, German, French, Spanish, Portugese, Kazakh, and Luganda (the language of Uganda). She is quickly on her way to become a hyperpolyglot.

Learn more about the book here.

What do you think of hyperpolyglotism? Would you want to be able to speak a dozen languages?

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