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Babel No More / Mezzofanti’s Gift

 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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Iversen
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 Message 137 of 149
11 May 2012 at 2:00am | IP Logged 
One more interview with Erard in Time Healthland
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Kronos
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 Message 138 of 149
12 May 2012 at 9:25pm | IP Logged 
"If somebody were to come up to me and say, I know somebody who speaks 15 languages, I would say, If you told me that person was left-handed, I wouldn’t be surprised. If you told me that person didn’t drive a car and got lost very easily, that wouldn’t surprise me. If you told me they were male, that wouldn’t surprise me. If you told me this person was [introverted, pragmatic and independent], that wouldn’t surprise me either. The other part that is potentially controversial is the link with homosexuality. If they told me that person was gay, that wouldn’t surprise me either."

I have just been thinking about this. Among the current hyperpolyglots you get to know about via media reports, this forum, or Youtube, as far as I know there is hardly anyone who seems to be gay. Actually not a single person comes to my mind right now.

I do not know the percentage of gay people in present society. Let's say, for argument's sake, ten percent. What I guess is that in the course of doing research for his book the author may have noticed that the percentage of gays among those hyperpolyglots he came to know about were somewhat higher than usual - like say, twenty rather than the average ten percent. Mathematically that would be twice the rate as among mono- and common multilinguals, which sounds sensational at first, but in relation to the whole group it would make only a minor difference - it means that four out of five HPs would still be hetero. Yet the way Erard presents his point, at least in this interview, tends to convey the impression that someone who knows many languages is almost likely to be gay, or potentially so.

I would therefore not be surprised if the statistical background of the other points he raises is equally shaky; for instance driving a car and sense of orientation are basically unrelated issues but for some reason are grouped together here. To give an illustration: I have clearly a rather weak sense of orientation, but I have no problem driving a car; after some time I simply get used to a certain route and, beyond that, also have maps to guide me well enough to get by without any GPS. Except in unusual or unexpected circumstances I hardly ever get lost.

Some of the other qualities and impressions concerning HPs that Erard brings up in this interview and elsewhere are actually not native to them but rather to scholars and high-class intellectuals in general. An egg-headed, left-handed, socially awkward loner with Asperger's tendency whose socks don't match and who can hardly drive a car but nonetheless has terrific powers of concentration or memory and feels naturally at ease with abstract and complex patterns?? - Well, that's a scientist or scholar of course! Or, OK, one in a thousand may also be into learning languages, i.e. turn out to be one of those hyperpolyglots.

I haven't read Babel No More, but each time I read or listen to one of the author's interviews, especially those parts where he elaborates on medical hypotheses, statistics etc. I can't help thinking that he set out on this project in the hope of discovering and describing a special type or class of man called the Hyperpolyglot, but as the insignificant and heterogenous findings on the contrary do much to invalidate this attempt he has to resort to overstatement and sometimes a fuzzy ambivalence in order to rescue and promote his original idea. "These people are not born. And they’re not made. They’re born to be made."

"They possess a particular neurology" / "It’s not will and motivation that determines your success."

I am not sure if any of the hyperpolyglots he has interviewed would readily agree here. What is called talent is sometimes inborn, and sometimes just the result of years of practice and experience. Unlike musicality or aesthetic sense the habit of continuous study can be acquired by most people, if they really want to. Start learning a new language every 1-2 years, keep studying for several hours a day, and after two decades you will be a hyperpolyglot. Those who formed such a habit already in their teens can be HPs at the relatively young age of thirty. All that is required is a sustained effort.


"[Characters] from the 19th century are regularly attributed with more than 100 languages, without a problem. You wonder, ‘Were they just smarter back then?’ I think it’s because the standards for what counts as [speaking] a language have gotten harder."

Here I agree. How well these people really knew their languages is generally poorly documented, I think this has been discussed earlier on this forum. In all likelihood "knowing" or "speaking" a hundred languages means that they had SOME knowledge and/or conversational ability in most of them, but not necessarily all on a more or less advanced level.

On the other hand due to the circumstances of the age they lived in many people back then may have been, if required, more mentally focused than a comparable type of people would be in our time. Internet, TV, recorded music, telephones and other technical gadgets and media exposure for most of us not only take several hours of our daily time, but more often than not trick the mind into a state of continuous agitation and distraction that even lasts when for some hours we are left to ourselves. In the 19th century life was much more quiet, and after having done your daily work and chores (and I don't know if married men or those of sufficient means had to do any chores at all back then) you were practically free, with little to distract you from hours of study each day. I see that one of the outstanding present-day HPs Erard mentions here is an organist from the Shetland Islands - an unlikely place and profession nowadays, but maybe closer to the 19th century environment than to the neurotic hustle and bustle of modern city life.
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Iversen
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 Message 139 of 149
13 May 2012 at 2:24am | IP Logged 
I agree with Kronos - it does seem as if Erard expected to find some simple common denominator for people who learn more languages than necessary, and the problem is that he doesn't recognize how shaky the foundations of the Geschwind-Galaburda hypothesis are - and even less how futile it is to attempt any statistical explanation based on the minuscule number of individuals in the sample he has left after he has raised the stakes to 11 languages.

I have mostly read the book for the individual portraits, and if Erard writes a sequel I hope that it will focus more on polyglots as individuals with very different goals, methods and personalities.

PS: the observation that language learners before the electronic age lived more quiet lifes and therefore may have been more inclined to hard and concentrated work is borne out by the biographies of some of the scholars from earlier times - for instance the great lexicographers like Littré or dr. Johnson, or codereakers like Champollion and Grotefend. They may have had less chance to hear and speak the languages they studied, but they had books to read and paper and ink for writing, and they didn't expect to learn things without hard work.


Edited by Iversen on 13 May 2012 at 2:27am

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Pisces
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 Message 140 of 149
17 May 2012 at 9:56pm | IP Logged 
I also mostly read the book for the individual portraits, and I thought Erard tried to analyze the people too much in a pretty reductive way. As you say, Iversen, it seems he tried to find a simple common denominator.

One thing that occurred to me was, is looking at hyperpolyglots even the right thing to look at if you're interested in what makes a person a good language learner? It's so unusual to learn ≥11 languages, that I think the hyperpolyglots are likely to be unusual in other ways besides being good at languages.

There are a lot of people who have learnt 4 or 5 languages. Most of these people could probably learn 11 languages, if they had the time. But they don't, because they don't have the time or don't want to invest the time. But why single out the people with 11 languages as a different neurological group?
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michael erard
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 Message 141 of 149
17 May 2012 at 10:06pm | IP Logged 
I didn't single that group out. If you read the book, you know I did a survey in which the numbers of people who had 11 or more were very, very small. Some of the analysis of survey results was of that group, but there are other results I discuss which were about those with 6 or more languages, and those with fewer languages who reported that learning languages was easier for them. The survey is a broad picture.


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michael erard
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 Message 142 of 149
17 May 2012 at 10:07pm | IP Logged 
Kronos, you should read the book for yourself and see how things are characterized there, which is where I took the care to characterize them.
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michael erard
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 Message 143 of 149
17 May 2012 at 10:09pm | IP Logged 
Iversen, you're wrong: I do realize the weaknesses of Geschwind-Galaburda, along with its potential strengths; I say as much in the book. I take it up because it's the only theory of neurodevelopment that is linked to verbal abilities that is out there. I didn't take it up because I think it's right, then go searching for evidence to support it.
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Pisces
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 Message 144 of 149
17 May 2012 at 11:17pm | IP Logged 
michael erard wrote:
I didn't single that group out. If you read the book, you know I did a survey in which the numbers of people who had 11 or more were very, very small. Some of the analysis of survey results was of that group, but there are other results I discuss which were about those with 6 or more languages, and those with fewer languages who reported that learning languages was easier for them. The survey is a broad picture.



Thank you for your reply. I think I may have gotten the impression that this group was singled out, because the articles about the book that I've read after reading the book seem to concentrate more on them.

Those people in the 19th century who supposedly knew more than 100 languages - it must have been very difficult even to have the materials/resources for 100 languages in the 19th century.


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