Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘knowledge’

17 JANUARY, 2012

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


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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

16 JANUARY, 2012

Manuel Lima on the Power of Knowledge Networks in the Age of Infinite Connectivity


Manuel Lima, founder of data visualization portal Visual Complexity, author of the indispensable information visualization bible of the same name, and one of the most intelligent people I know, recently gave an excellent talk on the power of networks at the RSA. Using examples that span from the Dewey Decimal System to Wikipedia, Manuel explores the evolving organization of knowledge and information, and the shift from hierarchical structures to distributed lateral networks.

Networks are really becoming a cultural meme in their own right. We could even argue, is this the birth of a new movement, is this the birth of ‘networkism’?” ~ Manuel Lima

Further reading: Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

16 JANUARY, 2012

The Origin of Snark: Original Illustrations from Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” 1876


Snark is something we encounter — and possibly employ — daily, its permeating ubiquity and cultural givenness having eclipsed any sort of curiosity about its history and origins. But while snark might be a weapon from the modern hipster’s arsenal, the linguistic heritage of the word itself dates back many generations — to 1874, to be precise. Its first recorded occurrence in language is in the title of Lewis Carroll‘s nonsensical poem The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits), which he penned at the age of 42, nine years after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Cue in some favorite and little-known illustrations for his masterpiece.)

The poem chronicles “with infinite humour the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature” — the Snark. The original edition, published in 1876 by Macmillan, featured intricate black-and-white artwork by English historical genre painter Henry Holiday — a collaboration rumored to have taken place largely through a correspondence of letters between Holiday and Carroll. (Cue in this morning’s famous correspondence.)

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.