When God put the kibosh on the Tower of Babel, 72 languages were said to have been created from the one that unified those hubristic humans. In his new book, Babel No More, linguist Michael Erard seeks out the people who have put those pieces back together: hyperpolyglots, i.e., the most fluent mamma-jammas on the planet. TIME spoke to Erard about phenoms who can speak more languages than they have fingers, whether anyone can do it and where the upper limits of human potential lie.
At what point does someone stop being a polyglot and start being a hyperpolyglot?
The hyperpolyglot is someone who is both a gifted and massive language accumulator. They possess a particular neurology that’s well-suited for learning languages very quickly and being able to use them. When I started the project, I was using the number of six [as a cutoff] because there was a survey of multilingual communities around the world, and the maximum used in any one community was five. So ordinary people, who don’t have any special mental gifts or access to education, can speak five. In my work, I did a survey and many people said they could speak six or seven, but they started to fall off at 11. So I suggest that number.
How widespread are these language superlearners?
They’re rare. But my argument is that we’re going to see more and more of them because of the way the world is now. You can travel very easily. Just looking at my Twitter feed, I see Greek and Chinese and Spanish and Korean. All of these languages are in front of us in a way that they didn’t used to be. That, along with globalization in general, is creating environments that are giving people who have those brains an opportunity to pursue those languages.
What about their brains makes them so suited to picking up languages?
Those who have looked at those foreign language-learning talents suggest that these people have good memories, that they encode things in long-term memory and can retrieve it quickly. And that those things in memory don’t decay quickly. There are suggestions that people with the ability to mimic pronunciation have brains that are anatomically different and work more efficiently in areas related to processing and producing speech sounds … [But] there’s a lot that has to happen. These people are not born. And they’re not made. They’re born to be made.
Beyond brains, are there other traits that hyperpolyglots typically share?
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.
What’s their secret for learning, assuming these other factors are in place?
They know how they learn, so they don’t waste time with methods that don’t work for them. An example would be knowing that social interaction is a problem and saying, ‘I’m going to spend time with texts.’ Or vice versa. … One thing hyperpolyglots do that the rest of us could do is [utilize their resources]. You could find out where in the U.S. there are very high concentrations of native speakers of French or German. You don’t need to go to the Philippines to learn Tagalog. You just need to go to Los Angeles, or wherever it is.
How much does having a youthful brain matter when learning languages?
Another thing that distinguishes hyperpolyglots is that they don’t give up. They adjust their methods as they get older. But clearly it’s very early learning that gives them the advantage. With Cardinal Mezzofanti [a famous Italian hyperpolyglot], there are arguments about how many languages he actually used and to what level he could use them. Two gentlemen scholars of the 19th century both agreed that he “mastered” 30 languages. In Mezzofanti’s case, those were the languages he had learned by the time he was in his mid-20s.
Can anyone be a hyperpolyglot?
I don’t think so. Certainly there are people who are just ordinary folks who can speak two languages, or three or four. But once you start to get over five, there’s diminishing social returns. Foreign-language teachers don’t want to hear me say that not everyone can become a hyperpolyglot, but certainly everyone can learn another language, which is a much more reasonable goal … In the book, I wanted to get language-learning out of the self and into the brain. It’s not will and motivation that determines your success. That’s part of it, but it’s also about what your brain is capable of doing and set up to do. Hyperpolyglots have been thought of as just eccentric people with an interesting hobby. But there’s more to them than that.
What are the drawbacks to being a hyperpolyglot?
The hyperpolyglots who are the happiest are the ones who have found a social niche where being massively multilingual is not freaky, where it’s encouraged and you have positive social feedback, like [one of the subjects in my book who] is a translator for the European Union … Other people get stuck in environments where language-learning is not prized at all, and they get labeled as dilettantes. Nobody understands them. From an American perspective, we’re always being told that we have to speak more languages, because that’s the avenue to employment and success, but for some of these guys, it just doesn’t have that same payoff. Speaking 25 languages doesn’t make you vastly wealthy. In part because you have to spend a lot of time doing it, and it doesn’t leave a lot of time for the things that lead to success in our world: the social networking, other sorts of degrees.
Should we expect today’s average person to speak more than one language?
What is a pity is that people don’t attempt to have as complex as linguistic system as they can get. Even if your only language is English, that you don’t expand your vocabulary, that you don’t read, that you don’t listen to other accents, that you don’t understand even English in all of its variations. You can get more complexity by going into other languages or your own language. For me it’s a question of cognitive capital. Everyone has potential.
What does it really mean to “speak” or “know” a language?
In industrialized countries, institutions have taken control of what it means to speak a language and have set out to measure that, and set the bar pretty high. It requires literacy, as well as experience with the culture and education to “perform well” on these tests … whereas there are parts of the world, like South India, where they don’t need to have an institution certify their abilities. Their abilities are certified by who they are and their use of the languages.
What are the upper limits of the human’s ability to learn languages?
The person who I consider to be the most lingual person in the world, currently living, is the guy who won the Polyglot of Europe contest in 1990: Derick Herning. He’s a Scottish organist, and he lives in the Shetland Islands. He was given points for having some ability to communicate in 22 languages … After the contest, he continued to learn languages. Now he says he has 31, though the ones he’s able to use on a regular basis without any warming up are 10 or 11.
Is he maxing out human potential?
I think the limit is there. [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.
The inevitable question: how many languages do you speak?
I really only speak one: English. But if I were warmed up, I could talk a certain amount of Spanish or Mandarin. I call myself a monolingual with benefits.