Tag Archives: Giuseppe Mezzofanti

Up Close With Language Super Learners

More in the podcast this week with Michael Erard about his new book,  Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. This is the second half of my conversation with Erard. Part One is here.

Erard talks about why hyperpolyglots are driven to learn so many languages. He also describes the lives and practices of several language super learners:

Alexander Arguelles, who spends nine hours a day, divided into twenty-minute chunks, on language-learning. It used to be fourteen hours a day before he got married.

Gregg Cox, dubbed the “Greatest Living Linguist” in 1999 by the Guinness Book of World Records. Guinness credits him with speaking 64 languages, though he says he doesn’t speak that many.

Helen Abadzi, who drills the sounds of languages into her brain with the help of a device called a digital language repeater. The repeater plays digitally recorded audio snippets over and over at various speeds.

Erard conducted an online  survey of hyperpolyglots. In the podcast, he talks about the results. He also talks about how writing the book influenced his own thinking—like when can you say that you know a language? As far as the US government is concerned,  it’s if you speak it at home.  But in Canada, the government is more likely to credit you for having learned a language, even if you don’t speak it at home or work or school. So, Erard now believes that the US government underreports the number of US residents who speak more than one language.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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The Road to Hyperpolyglottery with Michael Erard

Language writer Michael Erard’s new book is about people who appear to have a special gift. You, perhaps, and I (and Erard for that matter) struggle to learn one or two languages to a basic conversational level.

Hyperpolyglots aren’t like that. They take on Arabic after breakfast and will have mastered it by dinner.

OK, not exactly. But there is a gulf between  language super-learners and most of the rest of us. You only have to read about some of the hyperpolyglots in Erard’s book.

Erard says most hyperpolyglots are men. Many share a “geek macho profile” that in some cases demands that they don’t “leave any languages uncounted” in their repertoire, even when they don’t have full mastery of some of them. Another of Erard’s findings (based on a survey he conducted and interviews with some of the participants): hyperpolyglots are more likely to be introverted, gay or left-handed.

The patron saint of hyperpolyglots has to be  Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849). Though he never left his native Italy, he learned scores of languges– just how many is disputed.   One account claims that Mezzofanti learned as many 114 languages, though 60 is more likely (and of those, he had mastery of perhaps 30).  He’s far from the only hyperpolyglot on whose behalf  inflated claims have been made.

Like many hyperpolyglots, there was a sense of showmanship about Mezzofanti. He staged public displays of his linguistic prowess, and received guests from around the world. Not dissimilar to TV game shows in which more recent hyperpolyglots have performed (sometimes not all that well).

One of the big questions about Mezzofanti and other hyperpolyglots is: why? Why learn so many languages?

There is the geeky completism (not that you ever could achieve true completism: too many languages for that). There is the desire to learn. There is, for some, a devout faith in one’s methods. What sometimes isn’t there (but does exist in casual language learners)  is a desire to verbally communicate with others. That’s not always the case– some hyperpolyglots are professional interpreters– but for many, the learning is on the page or between the earbuds.

In the podcast, Erard compares a typical hyperpolyglot’s method (they “attack the languages” with grammar and vocabulary drills) with the immersive approach of Hippo Family Clubs (also known as LEX). The Hippo Clubs bring together groups of people, sometimes from the same families, who want to learn several languages simultaneously. The emphasis is on immersion, community and non-judgmental trial by error.

Erard also talks about a term he has coined: the will to plasticity. Linguists and educators have long argued over which is more important in learning a language: personal drive or brain plasticity. Erard argues that hyperpolyglots have both in abundance, and each sparks the other.

This podcast, incidentially, is part one of two. Erard will be back next week to tell the individual stories of some of the hyperpolyglots he met in researching his book.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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A Right Brain Religion Translated into a Left Brain Language

Is Ancient Greek a left brain language? And Ancient Hebrew a right brain one? Yes, says Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And, he says, it has a huge bearing on how the Bible has been understood.

Most of the Old Testament was written in Ancient Hebrew. Like most early scripts, Ancient Hebrew was written like Hebrew and Arabic are today—without vowels and written from right to left. It is a right brain language, says Sacks, because to understand the meaning of any word, “you have to understand the total context in which it occurs.”

Sacks sees it this way:

Ancient Greek was the first language ever to be written from left to right, which activates the left brain. You don’t need to understand the total context here. You derive meaning word by word, in small components.

The emergence of the world’s first left brain language also coincided with the first instances of “left brain thinking”: the philosophy of Aristotle, Epicurus and other Greek scholars. This atomistic, evidence-based approach to interpreting the world eventually led to modern-day science.

Most of the Old Testament was written in Ancient Hebrew. It was translated into Greek between 300 BC and 200 BC. It was the Greek translation of the Old Testament that the early Christians used to spread the religion.

Judaism and Christianity began as right brain religions, based on that Ancient Hebrew way of thinking. But early in its evolution, Christianity took a turn. The word of Christianity—the Old Testament—was translated into Greek (and the New Testament was written in Greek).

Sacks concludes that Christianity was a right brain religion translated into a left brain language. And the religion encompassed those two ways of thinking: the metaphysical and the analytical. For many centuries – until the Enlightenment—the prevailing view in Europe was that religion and science were part of the same thing.

I don’t know enough about all this to draw any conclusions. (Readers: please comment…) But I think it’s important to maintain some skepticism. For example, Sacks seems to be arguing that we can infer a certain mindset based on language—that, for example, the lack of vowels in written Ancient Hebrew means that its speakers were big picture rather than piecemeal thinkers. Here’s a good reminder that it’s unwise to jump to conclusions about what a language reveals about beliefs.

Aside from Jonathan Sacks, the pod has several other segments, most of them related either to Modern Hebrew or to the Bible:

Nina Porzucki profiles the Hebrew Language Academy, a charter school in Brooklyn, NY.

Matthew Bell takes a tour of Tel Aviv’s Occupy-like tent city, with its Hebrew (and occasional English and Arabic) signs and slogans.

Michael Erard, author of the forthcoming Babel No More, talks about 19th century Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, and his policing of erroneous translations of the Bible.

British philosopher A. C. Grayling and former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral in London Giles Fraser debate Grayling’s secular re-imagining of the Bible, The Good Book.

Finally, a conversation with ethnomusicologist Heather MacLachlan. She’s just written a book called Burma’s Pop Music Industry. Particularly popular in Burma are well-known Western songs that sound almost identical to the originals—except they are sung in Burmese with totally different lyrics.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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