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Babel No More / Mezzofanti’s Gift

 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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jondesousa
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 Message 65 of 149
17 January 2012 at 9:58pm | IP Logged 
I enjoyed the book thoroughly as well. I thought it was very well written and I enjoyed the underlying storyline to pull it all together.

The one thing that is still bothering me is that Mezzofanti was quoted as saying that once he heard a word in any language, he remembered it perfectly, but Mr. Erard's discovery of flashcards would seem to contradict this. It also points out to the humanistic side of Mezzofanti. As much of a Language Saint as he is made out to be, at the end of the day, he was still human, like the rest of us.

I am also terribly curious about Mr. Erard's note that Eric Gunnemark said not to count Mezzofanti. I wish I could know what he was aware of and why he made the statement. It's a shame that so many interesting bits of information disappear when we lose someone so important in a given field.
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seldnar
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 Message 66 of 149
18 January 2012 at 2:36am | IP Logged 
I thought I would post about the book as soon as I finished reading it, but I did
something I seldom do, I started re-reading it immediately--the second time with a pencil
in hand. There were lots of topics and comments that really resonated with me; and some
of the behaviors or ways of thinking about language are things I thought only I did or
thought (such as the observations on language "interference" or, on a frivolous note, the
fact that I don't drive).

Although the author doesn't advocate any particular course of learning, I came away with
a number of ideas on how to improve my languages.

It is an enjoyable and useful book.
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Iversen
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 Message 67 of 149
20 January 2012 at 3:21pm | IP Logged 
So far I have read the first 100 pages and looked through the rest.

I can see that Erard actually refers to his online survey on page 56, where a few surprising observations are made: among the participating polyglots no one mentioned the issue of immediacy, among those seventeen respondents who claimed 11 languages or more no one saw doing anything like a native as a sign of success, and only one listed culture as something important.

I don't remember my own answers, but I have personally defined the languages I "speak" (i.e. basic fluency or more) as those in whose I can jump into a plane and go directly on a monolingual holiday. It is strange that neither I nor anybody else has written this in the questionnaire. Even stranger that only one person has mention "culture". I hope that it is me, but it probably isn't. The reason may be that "culture" in this context mostly is equated with literature, but as an inveterate traveller and deeply interested in history, classic music and arts I do think that culture is important for me. The third observation, that total native fluency may not be the criterion for "speaking" a language, is the only one of the three that didn't surprise me.

A propos the survey. Erard invited people to respond here at HTLAL, and lo and behold, there is actually at least one reference to HTLAL in the book - at page 109-110 it is mentioned that following Ziad Fazad's disastrous performance at a TV show in Chile Alexander Arguelles, who back then was not only a moderator, but also a very active member here, closed the thread about ZF in dismay. I have out of pure curiosity tried to find other references to this peaceful little corner of the world, but if there are any they'll be in the part of the book which I only have skimmed.

Before leaving for Europe to look through the papers of Mezzofanti in Bologna Erard spoke to at least two collegues. Claire Kramsch stressed vehemently that "the right question was not about speaking a language, it was about knowing a language (...) By her definition, knowing a language means that (...) They also have to possess a strongly felt, deeply held combination of language, identity, and culture that makes up the intangible but visceral quality called an "attachment" to language". Erard is slightly ironical about this attempt to raise the bar, but seems sympathetic to the idea. However he doesn't use this bloated definition. His other contact before the trip was Robert de Keyser, who basically stated that "learning enough vocabulary in a dozen languages is no feat at all ... What is much harder (...) and what you do need a special aptitude for, is that you need to be fluent, and not only fast and fluent, but accurate in a variety of languages". This is also a strict criterion, but at least formulated within the limits of language.

OK, Erard went to Bologna and found enough papers to prove that Mezzofanti had indeed dealt with a large number of languages. And from the summary at p. 63 it is clear that he was impressed by him - and at this pint he had decided to look at polyglotism not "with an 'all or nothing' eye but only a 'something and something' one. Among other things, this meant that individuals could be interesting even if they weren't native-like in all their languages.".

From there Erards embarks on a hunt for living polyglots, but has bigtime problems finding anyone - at least if their skills have to be documented. He does however find Eric Gunnemark from Sweden, who besides being a language genius at some point compiled a list of other hyperpolyglots (with stocks far above the limit of 11 which Erard somewhat haphazardly introduces early in the book) - but I have seen the same list on the internet and tried to find more about those persons (which were said to belong to some arcane society) - with no success, and Erard has not been much more successful. So this is basically a blind alley, and Erard seeks other venues.

However one quote (p. 92) from Gunnemark is worth repeating here before we leave him: "On the whole one should concentrate on modern polyglots, usually born after 1900 (...) That means that Mezzofanti must never be mentioned; he has nothing to do with polyglottery as a science - may be regarded as a mythical person." Erard is puzzled by this answer and wonders whether Gunnemark knew something more about Mezzofanti. But I can't see any suggestion of fraud or anything like that: from Erard's own research in Bologna it is perfectly clear that Mezzofanti really was a hyperpolyglot - the exact number of his languages is less important, but it was far higher than 11. The provocative formulation by Gunnemark should just be seen as a program for research in the brain mechanismes, circumstances and methods of hyperpolyglots - and Mezzofanti can't help us here because we only have anecdotes and boxes with papers, but nothing more. Mezzofanti is dead, but Erard has at least reaffirmed that he was something special.

I'll comment on his quest for living hyperpolyglots when I have read the rest of the book thoroughly.

Edited by Iversen on 23 January 2012 at 11:25am

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seldnar
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 Message 68 of 149
20 January 2012 at 8:27pm | IP Logged 
Iversen wrote:


A propos the survey. Erard invited people to respond here at HTLAL, and lo and behold,
there is actually at least one reference to HTLAL in the book - at page 109-110 it is
mentioned that following Ziad Fazad's disastrous performance at a TV show in Chile
Alexander Arguelles, who back then was not only a moderator, but also a very active
member here, closed the thread about ZF in dismay. I have out of pure curiosity tried
to find other references to this peaceful little corner of the world, but if there are
any they'll be in the part of the book which I only have skimmed.


There's another reference later in the book and also, I believe, in the appendix. But
there is no lengthy mention of this forum or site; its mentioned only in passing.

Iversen wrote:


OK, Erard went to Bologna and found enough papers to prove that Mezzofanti had indeed
dealt with a large number of languages. And from the summary at p. 63 it is clear that
he was impressed by him - and at this pint he had decided to look at polyglotism not
"with an 'all or nothing' eye but only a 'something and something' one. Among other
things, this meant that individuals could be interesting even if they weren't native-
like in all their languages.".


For me this was an important observation. In this section he puts forward the idea
that through time, ideas of fluency have changed, that "judgments of 'mastery' vary
from era to era and to assume that the 'fluency' and 'mastery' of the eighteenth
century would mean the same now that they meant then" are easy to overlook. In the 18th
and 19th centuries "scholars spent far more time reading and translating texts--in
receptive activities, in other words--than they spent communicating with people." He is
careful to note that he's not saying polyglots didn't go around talking to other
people, just that it is easier to rack up numbers of languages when their "legitimate
language activities were reading and translating." Whereas today, "we seem to treat
oral communication as the hallmark of 'knowing' a language."

He also mentions that in terms of speaking, Mezzofanti might have been constricted by
the social standards of the day. Given his social position, he wouldn't have been
expected to know how to shop for food or engage in a conversation at the local pub;
also, the people speaking to him, for the most part, probably only spoke about certain
topics--religion, for example--or social niceties.

As a teenager and young adult I counted five languages that I "knew." I was confident
of my knowledge of them and that I could READ anything in those languages. I emphasize
"read" because it never occurred to me in those years that I would need to speak them.
It wasn't until some time later while I was living in Taiwan that I began to think of
speaking as the hallmark of knowing a language. I could speak enough Mandarin to get
around and do things, a B1 level; but my strength was reading. In fact there were many
a time during a conversation when I would take out a pad of paper and pen and ask that
we continue the conversation on paper. Eventually my concept of it what it meant to
know a language changed and then I felt fraudulent only knowing how to read. This
observation of how the "hallmark" of knowing a language has changed over the centuries
struck a chord with me as my own linguistic progression seems to have mirrored it.

Iversen wrote:

...compiled a list of other hyperpolyglots (with stocks far above the limit of 11 which
Erard somewhat haphazardly introduces early in the book)


I thought 11 was the lower limit, not the upper.

I think you'll really enjoy the next section--at least, I did and it made me think a
lot about how I learn languages.


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Michael K.
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 Message 69 of 149
20 January 2012 at 9:12pm | IP Logged 
Great review, Iversen. I'm looking forward to your full review once you read the entire book. I also look forward to Dr. Arguelles's review if he comes back.

Dr. Erard mentions our forum a couple of times in the book besides the post about Ziad Fazah and the appendix. I have the Kindle edition and there's a direct link to the forum everytime HTLAL appears in the Kindle edition. He also quotes Prof. Arguelles in (I think) chapter 9 that comes from the thread named something like "Moses McCormick's admirable accomplishment" where he talks about "a coterie of critics who harp on the lack of a native accent, as if that were possible or even desirable," or some such similar wording.

What I really look forward to is a summary of the neuroscience in the book. I thought the chapters dealing with the brain were a little too hard to understand and I don't look forward to reading those chapters again, but I liked how he used the brain as a globe to point out the different anatomical structures.
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meramarina
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 Message 70 of 149
21 January 2012 at 3:27am | IP Logged 

Here's the New York Times review:

NY Times review
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Budz
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 Message 71 of 149
22 January 2012 at 5:06am | IP Logged 
The book gives some strange definition of what it means to 'think in a language'. Surely to think in a language is to sub-vocalise in a language, naturally without forcing oneself to do so, without having some other language come into ones thoughts...?


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Fasulye
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 Message 72 of 149
22 January 2012 at 12:01pm | IP Logged 
Steve Kaufmann's book review of "Babel No More" posted on his blog "The Linguist on Language" where he also shows his You Tube video on the same topic.

Book Review of "Babel No More" on Steve Kaufmann's blog

Someone suggests Steve Kaufmann to call him a "hyperpolyglot" and he replies:

"Wait till I get my Czech going a little better in a few months and then I have to bet back to improve my Korean, and then maybe on to Turkish and then we can start talking!"

Fasulye



Edited by Fasulye on 22 January 2012 at 12:03pm



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