Inside the Mind of a Polyglot

Babel No More CoverA polyglot is defined as someone who is able to speak several languages. The exact number of languages can be and often is disputed, but technically “poly” from Greek means many so each is free to define it as he or she wishes. People tend to be fascinated and highly impressed when you tell them that you speak several languages. Everyone tends to ask you the same types of questions. How many languages do you speak? Where did you learn them? Do you travel a lot? Don’t you confuse them? While it is fairly easy to impress most monolingual people with your answers, it can sometimes come across as boastful, even when not intended to. In my own case, I have found that the best answer to give is to say how many languages I work in professionally. These are the languages I can use in any situation and actually make a living off of by translating and interpreting. I have studied many languages for pleasure, but if I mention those most people automatically assume that I must speak them all equally as well. However, studying and knowing can often be very different things. I have studied astronomy and chemistry in my life, but I am neither an astronomer nor a chemist. In fact, I remember very little beyond the basics in both of them. However, there are many people who quite readily claim to know fifty languages or more.

So what does it mean to know a language and how many can a person really learn? In search for an answer to that question, a new book has come out titled Babel No More by Michael Erard. The book delves into past and living polyglots and attempts to discover what they all have in common. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book for several reasons. First of all, since I have an insatiable passion for languages, I was curious to know what I may or may not have in common with these language overachievers. Secondly, I participated in the on-line survey for the book several years ago and had been anxiously waiting for the book’s release to get a glimpse into the world of modern polyglots. Lastly, I received an iPad as a gift this past Christmas and this was my very first venture into the world of electronic books.

Mr. Erard actually focuses on hyperpolyglots, a newly coined term for people who speak six or more languages. However, he states that he found eleven languages to be a more accurate number for defining a hyperpolyglot. The author admittedly takes a somewhat skeptical approach to claims of those who speak many dozens of languages, pondering whether it is even possible for someone to speak so many languages to any meaningful degree. He researches renowned polyglots from the past and interviews several living ones to observe their methodology for learning and retaining so many languages. The author attempts to determine whether there is any secret or innate talent that they have for learning languages. Each of the people he interviews gives different approaches to tackling a new language, each suited to his or her individual learning style. When he confronts the question of how many languages a person can actually know, he comes to the greater question of what it means to “know” a language and whether you count a language if you merely know a few basic phrases in it. He learns that all of the people he studies have latent languages that they don’t actively use for long periods of time. They reactivate them as needed by studying them from a few hours to several weeks. He tries to figure out how many active languages a person can have, concluding that there seems to be a limit on how many a person can maintain at a high level, though he doesn’t give a precise number in the book. In the end he seems rather disappointed to realize that more than anything else what these hyperpolyglots share is a love for doing what most people find boring: studying vocabulary lists, verb conjugations and grammar. He states that polyglots “haven’t escaped the banality of methods at all; they make the banality more productive. Their minds enjoy the banality.”

My own take on Babel No More is that it is a rare gem – a language book with a mass appeal. It is written in such a way as to be both insightful and compelling. I found myself staying up well past midnight for nearly a week as I couldn’t easily put it down, if one can say that about an e-book. The polyglots that he profiled were fascinating, though sometimes a bit sad. I kept trying to find threads of my own learning style and personality in the quirkiness of the polyglots he covers. I found the living polyglots even more interesting as they are able to speak for themselves. In particular, I enjoyed the section on Alexander Arguelles, who is a living polyglot with an unquenchable drive for studying languages, and whose YouTube videos I have been following for years. His profile reveals just how much effort is required to actually maintain such a large number of languages. Though the book does not cover many other well-known living polyglots, or more famous past ones such as Mario Pei, it is well worth your time and money. I would encourage anyone with the interest in languages in general, or polyglots in particular, to give this book a read.

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Confessions of a Language Addict

My name is Bill and I’m a language addict. More precisely, I’m a recovering addict. Since the age of 12, I’ve studied dozens of languages to varying degrees of proficiency, amassing a formidable collection of several hundred languages books spanning over forty languages. My interest in a given language would start out strong and remain so for several weeks, or months, only to wane or vanish altogether once I heard someone speaking another language. I’d get the feeling that I was missing out on something by not studying that language. Some of these languages included Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Swedish, Finnish, Polish, Czech and so forth. I might spend ten minutes studying German grammar, followed by a half hour of Czech verbs. I managed to continue this erratic learning style while still studying my main languages in high school and college, which were and still are Spanish, French and Russian.

Addiction is generally defined as continuing a behavior that has negative consequences. Few would see any negative consequences from studying too many languages. However, in my case I had thoughts of becoming a United Nations interpreter, considered to be the best in the world. Their job requires an absolute command of at least three of the UN’s official languages, which are English Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese and Arabic. My haphazard study plan of jumping in and out of different languages was leaving me as a jack of all trades and master of none. I had become content with my language skills once I mastered most of the grammar and could carry on full conversations, regardless of how basic they might be. Such skills, though perfect for tour guides and waiters, were nowhere close to the near-native levels I would need for any serious work. I found that I was unable to easily read novels in my main languages, or follow movies and conversations of native speakers. After studying Russian in the former Soviet Union in the 1991, I came back with a deeper appreciation of the joys and practical value of speaking a language well. I began to focus much more heavily on my primary languages, almost to the point of abandoning the study of my minor languages for several years. In 1994, I began to work as a translator and was able to hone my major language skills much more effectively. A job offer in the late 90s as a Spanish/Portuguese translator required me to add Portuguese, a language I had studied for three years, to my list of working languages. This gave me a valid excuse to study another language for work. Now I struggle with the desire to add yet another working language while trying to keep my main languages at very high levels.

I now regard my addiction as more of a passion for language learning. Since I now have nearly twenty years’ experience as a translator, there are not the same downside risks to learning other languages as there were when I still hadn’t perfected my core ones. In the last five years I’ve once again begun dusting off some of those languages I first started studying many years ago. Nonetheless, I still must restrain myself from taking on too many languages since I long ago discovered that it’s a lot more fun, and enormously more profitable, to know a few languages very well than many poorly.