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.