Babel No More by Michael Erard is described on the front cover as “the search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners.”The book is well written, like an adventure or treasure hunt. A number of well known speakers of many languages, hyperglots as Erard calls them, from history to the present day, are described or interviewed. “What makes them tick” is the question and there are no simple answers. Many things are left deliberately unclear. Why call some language learners extraordinary, and others not? Why draw an arbitrary line? Is three 3 languages enough, or 6, or 11, or 50? It is also not clear what constitutes knowing a language. How well do we need to speak, read and write? As to whether there is something special about the brains of these super-learners, or their methods, or their mindsets, there are also no conclusions, unless you accept Erard’s statement that “hyperglots persist in repetitious activities that bore most other people.” I don’t accept this premise. I am no hyperglot but I enjoy learning languages. Hyperglots,in fact, are simply people who enjoy learning multiple languages. Their motives vary. How is that different from other interests that people have? My father-in-law buys old cars and orders great numbers of parts which he carefully catalogues and stores in his garage, and then uses to rebuild these cars. Growing up I had an older friend who made model sailing ships from small bits of balsa wood, painted them and put them into bottles. I could never ever do these kinds of things, no matter how much you paid me. No doubt the brains of language learners are different from the brains of non-language learners. But why is that strange? As Erard points out, the brains of pianists, as an example, quickly develop differently from the brains of other people. Which comes first, the brain or the talent? Erard asks the question but does not answer it. Do language learners keep learning because their brains are more plastic, or are their brains more plastic because they continue learning languages? Erard provides some interesting gems of information. Did you know that we remember much better if we chew gum while studying? Dopamine and the fitness of our hippocampus both help us learn languages. Exercise stimulates both. Maybe that is why pro athletes often seem better at language learning than academics. One skill that seems to vary depending on the nature of our brains, is the ability to mimic. This suggests that the likelihood that we will achieve close to native-like pronunciation if we take up a language after childhood, varies from person to person, no matter how hard we try. Erard describes the typical hyperglot as meaning-oriented, pattern-seeking, analytical, somewhat introverted, yet flexible, open and attentive. Furthermore, it is important to be able to get outside one’s own language ego. So where does this leave the rest of us, the ordinary language learners? Where we were before. We need to want to learn a language, we need to put in the time, and we need to train ourselves to notice the language. We have no way of knowing if we share some of the characteristics of these super-learners. Nor do they have any special insights to offer. If we are interested and put in the time we will learn. The major activity of language acquisition is using the language, at first listening and reading and eventually speaking and writing. The more languages we learn, the better we get at learning languages. Once we learn one language, learning a related language becomes easier. So if the goal is to rack up an impressive number of known languages, if we have the motivation, and especially if we have the time, our language learning skills will become honed over time. If we want to, we can also become hyperglots, on our own terms of course. But first we have to get that first language under our belts.
18 January 2012