Back in 2009 I posted about Michael Erard’s Babel No More project (“a book about language superlearners and the upper limits of the human ability to learn and speak languages”); now the book is out (well, it’s not actually available until January), and since the publisher sent me a copy of the galleys, I’m able to report on it. (You can visit the book’s website for more.)
The bottom line is that if you’re interested in the topic of hyperpolyglots, you’ll want to read this book. Erard has scoured the world to find such people, present and past; the first one he talks about, and the presiding spirit of the book, is Cardinal Mezzofanti, whose archives in Bologna he excavates with contagious enthusiasm. (How many languages did Mezzofanti know? Well, lots, but the difficulty of giving a more precise answer is what the book’s about.) He discusses other polyglots, some of whom he meets and spends time with, and analyzes their motives and methods as best he can. (Most of them are resistant, understandably but frustratingly, to being tested on their competence in their various languages.) He discovers that there was a “Polyglot of Flanders” contest in 1987 and talks with the winner (one of the few of his polyglots whose abilities have been reliably tested). At the end he gives some tips for would-be polyglots based on what he learned from his researches. It’s fun and educational too!
It’s also, perhaps, a bit too long; an editor should have suggested he cut some of his day-to-day experiences in the course of his quest and his own momentary reactions (“Silence in the room. Maybe the rain was coming down, but I’d stopped hearing it….”). But in these days of first-person journalism, that’s par for the course, and it doesn’t detract from the inherent interest of the subject. Here, for example, is a passage from chapter 10 that starts with a quote from another LH favorite, Victor Mair (see here and here):
“Throughout Chinese history,” said Victor Mair, a Sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania, “practically the only Chinese who learned Sanskrit were a few monks who actually traveled to India and stayed there for an extended period of time. Merchants and others (e.g., some officials who traveled widely within China) learned several Sinitic languages (so-called ‘dialects’) in the various places where they went. There was no interest in learning other languages out of sheer intellectual or linguistic curiosity.” Steven Owen, a Harvard professor of Chinese literature, added that some of the Chinese population learned Manchu when the Qing ruled China (from 1644 to 1911), but that they were specialists working for the emperor.
“As an intellectual endeavor,” Owen said, “meaning learning languages that are not proximate or needed, with an attendant interest in the culture—I don’t know of any cases among the educated [Chinese] elite before modern times.”
One reason was most certainly cultural. In the West, polyglottery had its earliest roots in Christianity, which was, from the start, an evangelical religion with no single language [...] and whose central text was propagated in many languages. Polyglottery also stemmed from European exploration, colonization, and empire-building. By contrast, in China, the main pursuit of the intellectual class for thousands of years had been either trying to join or rise up in the civil service. This required such extensive literacy [...] that there was little time left to do much else. Moreover, the one writing system itself linked intellectual cultures across time and space in a way that, in the West, required fluency in many languages. Perhaps most significantly, the Chinese perceived themselves to be the center of the world, so they could hardly be expected to learn barbarian languages.
And on a more down-to-earth level, a quote from Zainab Bawa, “an urban studies graduate student who learns languages for her research by hanging out and being with families. ‘The best way to learn a language is to sit with four-year-olds,’ she said, because they don’t talk about very complicated things, and they don’t have high expectations of your time together.”