Out on a sunny Berlin balcony, Tim Keeley and Daniel Krasa are firing words like bullets at each other. First German, then Hindi, Nepali, Polish, Croatian, Mandarin and Thai – they’ve barely spoken one language before the conversation seamlessly melds into another. Together, they pass through about 20 different languages or so in total.
Back inside, I find small groups exchanging tongue twisters. Others are gathering in threes, preparing for a rapid-fire game that involves interpreting two different languages simultaneously. It looks like the perfect recipe for a headache, but they are nonchalant. “It’s quite a common situation for us,” a woman called Alisa tells me.
It can be difficult enough to learn one foreign tongue. Yet I’m here in Berlin for the Polyglot Gathering, a meeting of 350 or so people who speak multiple languages – some as diverse as Manx, Klingon and Saami, the language of reindeer herders in Scandinavia. Indeed, a surprising proportion of them are “hyperglots”, like Keeley and Krasa, who can speak at least 10 languages.
It claims that learning languages “is arguably the best brain training you can try”:
Numerous studies have shown that being multilingual can improve attention and memory, and that this can provide a “cognitive reserve” that delays the onset of dementia. Looking at the experiences of immigrants, Ellen Bialystok at York University in Canada has found that speaking two languages delayed dementia diagnosis by five years. Those who knew three languages, however, were diagnosed 6.4 years later than monolinguals, while for those fluent in four or more languages, enjoyed an extra nine years of healthy cognition.
There are lots of interesting tidbits, like this on Nabokov:
Different languages can also evoke different memories of your life – as the writer Vladimir Nabokov discovered when working on his autobiography. The native Russian speaker wrote it first in his second language, English, with agonising difficulty, finding that “my memory was attuned to one key – the musically reticent Russian, but it was forced into another key, English”. Once it was finally published, he decided to translate the memoirs back into the language of his childhood, but as the Russian words flowed, he found his memories started to unfurl with new details and perspectives. “His Russian version differed so much he felt the need to retranslate to English,” says Aneta Pavlenko at Temple University in Philadelphia, whose book, The Bilingual Mind, explores many of these effects. It was almost as if his English and Russian selves had subtly different pasts.