In Babel No More, Michael Erard goes on a search for hyperpolyglots – people who are said to speak over six languages. But he also wants to know about the legendary hyperpolyglots who are rumored to speak more than 50, 60, or even 70 languages. You can therefore understand why I approached this book with a healthy dose of skepticism. Do I believe one person can speak 70 languages? No. Do I believe that other people believe that someone can speak 70 languages? Yes. After all, that’s where the legends of these hyperpolyglots came from. But I’ve had training in linguistics. Language is a trickier subject for me.
I was skeptical that Erard would not approach the subject of hyperpolyglots with as much skepticism as me. Fortunately, I was wrong. Erard is on point with the nature of language learners, separating the fact from fiction in the legend of the hyperpolyglot:
The hyperpolyglot embodies both of these poles: the linguistic wildness of our primordial past and the multilingualism of the looming technotopia. That’s why stories circulate about this or that person who can speak an astounding number of languages – such people are holy freaks. Touch one, you touch his power. […] Once you say you speak ten languages, you’ll soon hear the gossip that you speak twenty or forty. That’s why people who speak several languages have been mistrusted as spies; people wonder where their loyalties lie.
Needless to say, Erard finds many interesting characters in his journey of hyperpolyglots. It’s part of what makes the book so interesting. But he also gets into how language works. And, thankfully, he doesn’t do it from a best-seller pop-science fascinating-but-total-bullshit way. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is, but I can give you a sample quote:
Language, however, encompasses more than the communicating we sometimes do with it. If language had evolved solely for the means of communication, we’d rarely misunderstand each other. Instead, we have a system in which worlds mean more than one thing, in which one can devise many sentences to capture the same idea, in which one moment of silence means more than a thousand pictures. No animal species could survive this intensity of ambiguity. Moreover, people don’t appreciate how little of our meaning is in our words, even as we decipher hand gestures, facial movements, body postures automatically every day. What we mean is implied by us and then inferred by our listeners.
The real beauty of Babel No More, however, is the way in which Erard demystifies the process of language learning without removing the wonderment that people attribute to it. If anything, when you better understand the multifaceted nature of language learning, you will appreciate it more, while at the same time avoid being fooled into thinking someone could speak 70 languages or that someone who speaks more than three must be a spy.
Up next: The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.
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