I highly recommend the book, Babel No More. It’s a fun read as it’s written like a detective story and you can feel the passion for languages that the hyperglots demonstrate.
Why I read Babel No More
First there was Michael Erard’s opinion article in the New York Times about how monolingual Americans really are and then there was Nataly Kelly’s interview with Erard in The Huffington Post about Erard’s new book, Babel No More, about how hyperpolyglots can speak so many languages. I became curious what the book was about.
I had never heard the term before. But once I read the Huffington Post article, I realized that I am a hyperpolyglot because I speak seven languages. By definition, a hyperpolyglot knows more than six languages. (Knowing a language may not mean the person can speak the language on demand. He or she may be able to read and write in the language better than understand it spoken or be able to speak it.)
Once I read in the Huffington Post that a common strain amongst these super language learners was that they had visual-spatial disabilities, I knew I had to read the book. Then I saw my fellow language blogger, Randy Hunt, review the book on his blog, the Yearlyglot, where Randy wrote that another common characteristic of these hyperpolyglots was that they were introverts.
I wanted to read this book so that I could understand how I fit into the general patterns Erard found amongst this lot of hyperpolyglots.
THE MAIN POINTS IN “Babel No More”
Introverts are good language learners
The introvert idea made a lot of sense to me because in order to develop a feel for the language and pick up on its sounds, the language learner has to listen very carefully. Introverts tend to be better listeners than extroverts, even in their own languages. Think about it. Which of your friends and family members really listen to you and can empathize with you about your problems? The “life of the party” or the quieter ones? Good listening skills are not easy to come by. In order to be a good language learner and pick up on intonation, accent and word usage, you have to listen carefully. Contrary to what some of my friends think because I am very social, I’m an introvert. But I am not shy. I continue to fail miserably at the “don’t talk to strangers” rule I learned in Kindergarten! I can talk to just about anyone and I do television and public appearances. But I crave my solitude. And I am a good listener.
Hyperglots may not be able to speak all their languages at the same level
The assumption that the hyperglot can talk about the same subjects in all of their languages is false. Erard shows that several of his subjects don’t maintain all of their languages at the same time and at the same level. While I do speak Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian, I haven’t used it in almost three years. It’s in me but I don’t activate it often so it’s not as fresh as it was when I lived in Sarajevo over a decade ago. I can’t discuss kitchen appliance maintenance in French because I never had to buy kitchen stuff in France.
The link between a visual disability and language prowess
Erard cites two super hyperpolyglots, Graham and Alexander who can’t drive. He discusses the ideas that visual-spatial deficits could be overcompensated by heightened verbal abilities, leading one to be adept at learning many languages.
I’d suspected for the last several years that what has made my hearing so sensitive is my being partially blind. I was born cross-eyed with strabismus and only see with one eye at a time, rendering me with little depth perception. I only see in 2D. Yes, it’s possible to still drive and park a car, albeit with difficulty, with just one eye. And no, I can’t see 3D movies. About 5% of the population is estimated to have my condition.
I’ve asked other strabismics if they also have a facility at language learning and so far I haven’t encountered anyone like myself, but I have found that several people who only see in 2D do report that they have excellent hearing and can hear things that others with normal vision can’t. Paying attention to what one hears is key to learning languages and developing good pronunciation. But even if someone is not trained to be a good listener, it doesn’t mean he or she can’t foster those listening skills that I probably forged from an early age to compensate for my limited visual abilities. I also learned unconsciously to pay attention to monocular cues like shading to know where the end of the curb is so that I wouldn’t fall flat on the street. Yes, it takes me longer than a person who sees in 3D to judge distances and see if a staircase far away is a real staircase or just a picture, but I can still do it. It just takes me more effort and more thinking than for the normally sighted person. I look carefully at the shadows to make out shapes and depth. It’s the same for someone learning to differentiate sounds in a new tongue. You spend time deciphering sounds and matching sounds to written words. It takes time.
This leads me to one of Erard’s conclusions: to be a great language learner, one has to be hard working and be committed.
Learning languages is about commitment
Erard shows how much time his highlighted hyperpolyglots spend on language learning and what they do to keep their languages maintained and to retain words. They work at it. It’s not like the languages come to them in their dreams and they wake up the next day speaking a myriad of tongues. Alexander was on a tight budget and had children but he stuck to a schedule in his daily language learning.
If you work at it, despite your hardships, you can succeed. I have a German friend who is deaf and can speak English and German and read lips in both languages. Her German accent in English is the same as that of a typical German with normal hearing speaking in English. Another friend who is deaf in one ear is in China improving his Chinese. Now Chinese is tough for someone who is partially deaf because it’s a tonal language and you have to pay extra attention to the sound of the language. But he’s doing it. My mom is partially deaf and speaks English with an accent that’s not stronger than that of a typical Russian. As a matter of fact, I know Russians who can hear with both ears, who have a stronger accent in English than she does. Maybe what gets people over their hurdles is their enjoyment of the process or the ability to speak a new language.
Dopamine, flow, enjoying languages
At the end of the book, Erard summarizes what makes hyperpolyglots tick and he says that they enjoy learning languages, they feel like they’re in the flow or zone when studying or speaking languages and have an increased level of dopamine in the brain when studying.
“Dopamine is the neurotransmitter than operates in the brain’s reward center… People who learn many languages do it because they are attached to the pleasure of it,” p. 262.
Yes! That’s it. If you find something you like in the language, be it the sounds, the musicality, the grammar, you will be more likely to keep going because you have more dopamine in your brain and you are happy.
My favorite parts of the book
I had so much fun reading this book. One day, I was reading it while doing the lower body weight machines at the gym and found something that I wanted to take note of but I had no pen. I got off the machine, without finishing my repetition, walked to the front counter and took a pen off of the keyboard of the computer. The only paper I had were the fax-paper library receipts in the book. I used those to write my notes with the page numbers I was referencing.
p. 23 People gravitate towards languages that resonate with them. This is absolutely true for me. If I don’t like how native speakers express themselves in their language and if it sounds too harsh, I won’t learn it or I won’t enjoy learning it.
pp. 48-49 Dreaming in a language. There’s a problem here because I’ve heard the theory that when you dream in a language that means you can speak it. I’ve dreamt in Arabic and I can’t speak more than some basic words of Arabic. (I studied the language for a short period a long time ago and I’ve forgotten most of it.) Does anyone else dream in a language they can’t speak?
p.91 Polyglot Ken Hale hates it when people ask him in public how many languages he can speak and make a spectacle of him. Oh my! I abhor this as well. I hate it when people say, “Here’s my friend who can speak _ languages (they usually flatter me with a higher number than I can speak).” And then someone will ask me to say something in all my languages as though I’m some freak show at the circus.
p.128 He labels his Russian teacher “Mr. Bombastic” who has the enthusiasm of a jaded stripper making his students repeat boring grammar exercises and repeat phrases. I was laughing so hard when I read this. I think many language instructors are part of the jaded stripper language show as it’s so common to just teach grammar and vocabulary and lost the spirit and soul of the language in classrooms.
p. 136: Helen Abadzi (http://www.linkedin.com/pub/helen-abadzi/28/411/384 ), one of the few female hyperpolyglots in the book, is originally from Greece and evaluates educational programs worldwide for the World Bank. She used 10 languages as an interpreter at the Athens Olympics and like me, memorizes songs in her target languages. Yes! Someone else who values music in language learning.
p. 138 Erard gives the theory that a polyglot “doesn’t switch languages on and off; rather, they have them all activated all the time, but put a lid on the unwanted ones.” This makes sense to me because if I am tired or have something else occupying my mind, I can speak in English with Spanish syntax. So that means that my brain is thinking in both languages.
The section on India is fascinating because it is such a multilingual place. I did a CNN interview where the journalist asked me if it’s too hard for kids to learn multiple languages at once. I cited the example of India, where people grow up with various languages and they are fine. Many parts of the world are bilingual but here in the US, we make such a big deal about teaching a kid a foreign language early-on because it’s not common here.
p. 198 “In the West, a person with multiple identities and affiliations seems obliged to struggle or feel confusion. Here [in India], the more the merrier.”
I smiled when I read this because it’s so true about how multiple languages or cultures in the West fosters confusion because we are so delineated here when it comes to cultural affiliations. I’ve been asked many times by Europeans if I feel more American or Russian, as though having traits of both cultures is impossible. I feel like my many languages enrich my world tremendously and I am happy that I don’t have to choose being one thing or another.
p. 204 India, “If you don’t speak [other languages], you don’t eat.”
Is what it’s going to take to wake up English speakers to learn languages? Maybe. I did a BBC interview in January about the UK losing $11-26 billion a year because of their dearth of multilinguals.
Babel No More is highly entertaining and educational.