April 30, 2012 - 12:00am
We all learn at least one language as children. But what does it take to learn six languages, or twenty, or seventy?
The Monterey Institute, one of the world’s leading centers for language training and teaching, will play host to a leading authority on language learning when Michael Erard, author of “Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners,” delivers a free public lecture in the Irvine Auditorium from 12:15 to 1:45 p.m. on May 2.
In researching Babel No More—favorably reviewed by both the New York Times (“gripping”) and The Economist (“thoughtful”)—Erard set out to answer the question, what is the upper limit of the ability to learn, speak, and remember languages? He describes a variety of enigmatic historical figures and delves into the characteristics of “polyglots” (those who claim to know at least six languages) and “hyperpolyglots” (those who claim that the number of languages they’ve grasped is in the double digits).
These remarkable individuals include nineteenth-century Italian cardinal Joseph Mezzofanti, who was said to speak seventy-two languages, and Lomb Kató, a Hungarian hyperpolyglot who taught herself Russian by reading Russian romance novels and believed that “one learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.” Erard also met with living language superlearners such as Alexander, a modern-day polyglot with dozens of languages, who showed him the tricks of the trade and gave him a glimpse into the life of obsessive language acquisition.
Erard’s research examined both the pedagogical methods these superlearners have used to train themselves, and their neurological framework, as Erard tried to divine how much of their ability is derived from training and how much may be genetic. He also reminds readers how crucial multilingualism is to everything from conducting day-to-day business in multiethnic regions of the world, to understanding the true meaning of intelligence intercepts.