Babel No More. The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners
Babel No More by linguist Michael Erard won’t teach you how to learn a new language, but it will certainly motivate you to “apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair”, grab that grammar book and dictionary, and start learning. Scattered throughout the book are a few pointers given by various hyperpolyglots (in the book the term was used for people who knew at least eleven languages) and at the back of the book are two pages with answers from an online survey in which Michael Erard asked people for their top three methods for learning languages.
But this book is mainly a trek across the globe and into the past in search of historical and living hyperpolyglots. There’s the Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti who was said to speak 72 languages in the 19th century, the cranky German diplomat, Emil Krebs (1867 – 1930), who was said to know over sixty languages, and the Hungarian translator Lomb Kató (1909 – 2003) who at 86 years of age was learning Hebrew as her seventeenth language, and a multitude of other interesting characters.
An interview with Alexander Arguelles shows just how much time and effort goes into learning to speak or read multiple languages. Mr. Arguelles keeps meticulous records of hours spent studying each language, and at the time of the interview, he had spent 4,454 hours of the previous 456 days studying over 50 languages, ranging from 456 hours of Arabic to four hours of Vietnamese. The author also meets with Helen Abadzi of the World Bank who has studied nineteen languages and uses five of them on a daily basis, and with Gregg Cox, who is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the greatest living linguist” in 1999. In India he finds out just how prevalent multilingualism is there, with families speaking different languages with various family members or at the market, with varying degrees of fluency.
Fluency is an issue which pops up over and over in the book. When is a person considered fluent in a language? How fluent do you have to be in order to say that you ‘know’ the language? Everyone has their own standards for that. I still make some mistakes in German (mostly with the articles), but I would say I’m fluent. Switching between English, Finnish, and German is not a problem and I feel “at home” in these languages. I can read in Spanish, but holding a conversation is awkward and I don’t know all the verb conjugations properly, so when people ask, I say “I’m learning Spanish”. I found after a few months of study, that I was able to read a crime novel in Swedish and understand what was going on, but I certainly don’t “know” Swedish. So I “know” three languages and am learning two. And personally, I think the only limiting factor in learning languages is interest and time. If you’re not interested, you won’t learn it, just like with everything else. But if you are interested and are willing and able to spend the hours learning it, then it’s possible to learn new languages.
It took me at least two hours to get this post finished because every single time I opened Babel No More to look up a name or fact, some 15 minutes later I’d realize that I had only wanted to quickly check something, but had ended up engrossed in reading it again! So, yes, it’s definitely worth reading!