Brain Pickings

Babel No More: Inside the Secrets of Superhuman Language-Learners

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What a Chilean YouTube disaster and a busy Manhattan restaurant have to do with the limits of the human brain.

Nineteenth-century Italian cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a legend in his day, was said to speak 72 languages. Hungarian hyperpolyglot Lomb Kató, who taught herself Russian by reading Russian romance novels, insisted that “one learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.” Legendary MIT linguist Ken Hale, who passed away in 2001, had an arsenal of 50 languages and was rumored to have once learned the notoriously difficult Finnish while on a flight to Helsinki. Just like extraordinary feats of memory, extraordinary feats of language serve as a natural experiment probing the limits of the human brain — Mezzofanti maintained that “god” had given him this particular power, but did these linguistic superlearners really possess some significant structural advantage over the rest of us in how their brains were wired? That’s precisely what journalist and self-described “metaphor designer” Michael Erard explores in Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners — the first serious investigation into the phenomenon of seemingly superhuman multilingual dexterity and those who have, or claim to have, mastered it, and a fine addition to our favorite books about language.

To understand the cognitive machinery of such feats, Erard set out to find modern-day Mezzofantis, from an eccentric Berkeley-based language learning guru and hyperpolyglot — hyperglottery, Erard notes, begins at 11 languages — to the Lebanese-born, Brazil-based one-time Guinness record holder for 58 languages, who proceeded to embarrass himself on Chilean national television by not understanding a simple question by a native speaker. In the process, Erard scrutinizes the very nature of language, its cultural role, and where it resides in the brain, weaving a fascinating story about our most fundamental storytelling currency.

To grasp the power of language learning as a social facilitator, one need only stroll into a busy Manhattan restaurant, where mapping the native origin of the staff and patrons might produce a near-complete world atlas. Erard marvels:

It’s amazing that the world runs so well, given that people use languages that they didn’t grow up using, haven’t studied in schools, and in which they’ve never been tested or certified. Yet it does.”

(For some related fascination, see David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, which delves into what translation reveals about the human condition.)

And in an age where geography and nationality have been shuffled the forces of globalization, ubiquitous connectivity, cheap travel, and the Internet, understanding how language lubricates our social interactions is crucial to making sense of our place in a global world. Erard observes:

Ideas, information, goods, and people are flowing more easily through space, and this is creating a sensibility about language learning that’s rooted more in the trajectories of an individual’s life than in one’s citizenship or nationality. It’s embedded in economic demands, not the standards of schools or governments. That means that our brains also have to flow, to remain plastic and open to new skills and information. One of these skills is learning new ways to communicate.”

(The Daily Beast has an excerpt to give you a taste of Erard’s signature blend of absorbing storytelling and rigorous research.)

Captivating and illuminating, Babel No More is as much an absorbing piece of investigative voyeurism into superhuman feats as it is an intelligent invitation to visit the outer limits of our own cerebral potential.

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