New Maine Times Book Review: 'Babel No More'

Posted Wednesday, January 18, 2012 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: 'Babel No More'

"BABEL NO MORE: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners"

by Michael Erard

Free Press, January 2012

256 pgs.; $25.99

ISBN 978-1-4516-2825-8

reviewed by Lee E. Cart

Throughout history, there have been stories of people able to speak not just one or two foreign languages but six, 10, possibly 40 or more. Michael Erard (author of "Um … Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean," 2007) wondered if these “language superlearners really exist” and set out to discover the truth behind these tales in "Babel No More."

The author began his research with one of the most famous of these hyperpolyglots (“someone who speaks, or can use in reading, writing or translating, at least six languages”), Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a cardinal in Italy during the 1800s. Mezzofanti claimed to be able to speak over 45 languages. Delving into boxes and boxes of personal writing by Mezzofanti only opened more questions for Erard, who turned from the past to the present in search of modern hyperpolyglots. His research took him around the world, into old libraries, research departments, and private homes of hyperpolyglots, some of whom study language with an almost monastic devotion.

Erard studied slides of slivers of the brain of a hyperpolyglot, conducted an on-line survey that collected data from nearly 400 multi-lingual people from around the world, and used test results from the Geschwind-Galaburda hypothesis — the theory that fetal genes are affected by hormonal spikes, resulting in a certain brain asymmetry that might produce talents or deficits — to make connections among autism, right- and left-handedness, and the ability to learn more than six languages.

Although the text is dense and a bit dry at times, charts and extensive analysis of data toward the end of the book help sum up Erard’s findings: that hyperpolyglots are a rare neural breed, more men than women are language superlearners, and that you are born with “the capacity to be motivated to learn foreign languages.” For most of the world, monolingualism or bilingualism are the norm, but for a special group, the doors of language stand wide open, providing these special hyperpolyglots with a sense of purpose as they collect languages like others might collect stamps.

"Babel No More" will not provide readers with any shortcuts on how to learn a foreign language, as even the hyperpolyglots Erard interviewed devote many hours a day to the task of studying a language, despite their special abilities. However, Erard’s exhaustive research will be informative for anyone interested in knowing more about how the brain functions in regard to learning and using more than one foreign language and about the special group of people who can speak in many tongues.

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