Polyglot Gathering.

We seem to discuss hyperpolyglots every couple of years (2009, 2011, 2013), so it’s time for another installment; here‘s a BBC Future piece by David Robson that starts:

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.

Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Lucy Kemnitzer says

    I’ve found that even failing to learn another language does something delicious to my brain that I can feel. I have been intermittently poking at different languages depending on what’s going on in my personal life–Lakota when I knew Lakota speakers, Norwegian when my mother-in-law was getting letters in that language from her cousins (I did succeed in translating them apparently adequately), and Czech when my son was living in Prague. I didn’t have the conditions or persistence to actually learn those languages (though I did get to a functional-but-not fluent level in Spanish when I worked in a bilingual environment), but I still possess something precious from each of these languages. So I tend to believe that there’s a lasting global benefit to it.

  2. Nice to learn that knowing more than one language may delay dementia. Hope springs eternal . . .

    FWIW, Ellen Bialystok’s husband and I were high school chums.

  3. the language of reindeer herders

    What, all Sami are odd, primitive reindeer herders now? Little exoticism from the Beeb, there.

  4. Yep, _all_ of them are. I’m sure that’s what he meant.

  5. H: Let’s be glad they didn’t open up about the Manx! Motorcycle riders, operators of offshore banks and narrow-gauge steam railways, purveyors of unadulterated beer!

  6. A link away from that article is “How the English language became such a mess”, which although probably not containing anything new to our regulars, is scientifically quite correct, perhaps because it is a product of BBC Culture rather than BBC Science. Self-summary: “So what happened with English? It’s a story of invasions, thefts, sloth, caprice, mistakes, pride and the inexorable juggernaut of change. In its broadest strokes, these problems come down to people – including you and me, dear readers – being greedy, lazy and snobbish.” And, I would add, stubborn in refusing to flush the orthographic Augean stables now and again.

  7. Self-summary: “So what happened with English? It’s a story of invasions, thefts, sloth, caprice, mistakes, pride and the inexorable juggernaut of change.”

    This is the story of humanity, not of a language.

  8. One of the polyglots mentioned in the piece, Richard Simcott, has been active on Youtube. Here he is interviewing Cristina, a Norwegian polyglot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=og8yBwSrKkw
    I love her Spanish. She speaks just like an Andalusian.

  9. The Spanish comes in at 9:45, if anyone wants to skip right to it.

  10. AJP Reingjeter says

    There’s certainly nothing odd or primitive about Samisk reindeer herders. And since it’s a way of life for most Samisk people rather than a job I don’t think this is an example of exoticism, but I don’t speak for them.


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