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Babel No More / Mezzofanti’s Gift

 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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cathrynm
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 Message 73 of 149
22 January 2012 at 12:18pm | IP Logged 
From the NY Times article.

>Alexander Arguelles, who lives in Berkeley


Ooh, I didn't know he was here in Berkeley. I thought he was in Singapore, or somewhere in Southeast Asia. I should keep an eye out for him.
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Fasulye
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 Message 74 of 149
22 January 2012 at 12:36pm | IP Logged 
cathrynm wrote:
From the NY Times article.

>Alexander Arguelles, who lives in Berkeley


Ooh, I didn't know he was here in Berkeley. I thought he was in Singapore, or somewhere in Southeast Asia. I should keep an eye out for him.


This is a misunderstanding! When Michael Erard did the research for his book, Alexander Arguelles lived in Berkeley, USA, but now he lives in Singapore!

Fasulye
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Iversen
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 Message 75 of 149
23 January 2012 at 10:18am | IP Logged 
Actually ProfArguelles' move to Singapore is mentioned at the very end of the book.

I finished Erard's book Friday evening and repeated the whole thing yesterday afternoon. I wrote my comments to the last part of the book in the evening, but then couldn't post it due to computer problems. Luckily there are such things as USB keys:

----

After page 100 Erard follows a number of leads: a quest for living hyperpolyglots (following the advice of Gunnemark), a visit to a truly multilingual society in Southern India and a theoretical search for neurological and sociological/psychological explanations.

The quest for living hyperpolyglots first leads to 'Christopher', who may or may not be a savant. I have seen a (not too impressive) Youtube video with this man, who translated a few passages in a number of languages into English. Erard adds some more information, including that "Christopher can also switch quite deftly and translate to and from English with ease. (...) Yet when you read more deeply (..) it is not clear that he contributes to an understanding of what language-learning talent may look like.".

Erard then contacts Alexander Arguelles and his father, Ivan Arguelles. Alexander Arguelles was once known here at HTLAL as Ardaschir, but has asked to have this name changed to ProfArguelles. In the book the old name is still used, so apparently this part of the book was written a couple of years ago. We know a lot about profArguelles' methods and opinions from his posts here at HTLAL, and we also know about his stays in Korea and Libanon and flight to USA, while the subsequent shift to Singapore is mentioned at the very end of the book. At this point in the investigation it seems that Erard mainly looked for psychologic factors behind extreme polyglotism. However already the next hyperpolyglot in the row points in a totally different direction, - Helen Abadzi (p. 132ff), a Greek lady who has learned a string of languages to function better in her international career. Where Alexander Arguelles leads a very regulated, almost austere life full of studies, Abadzi has many years had employments all around the world and learned the languages which were related to her many tasks around the world. and there is no sign that she has used strictly organized time tables to regulate this. However Erard notices with glee that she only uses five languages daily, while the other 14 are called into service when there is a concrete need. This is a recurring theme throughout the book, and it continues a theme discussed in connection with Kato Lomb (p. 101). Later it is taken up in connection with a discussion of the Russian reseacher Spivak and his 'rule of seven' (p. 227).

At this point the quest is diverted (at least in the book) to a search for neurological causes, represented by an examination of the brain of the brillant, but socially somewhat unortodox Emil Krebs. And yes, some connections in his brain turned out to be unusually well developed. But one brain doesn't prove anything. The prospect of getting the brain of another hyperpolyglot, Gregg Cox, didn't materialize.

Then in the middle of the neurological trail Erard goes to India, where he discovers a society where polyglots abound, but not on the basis of the all-or-nothing definition which he has been fighting since the beginning of the book. Here learning languages is ubiquituous, but done from practical considerations and to a level decided by necessity and practicality rather than the elusive something which he is searching in the most extreme 'language collectors'.

So instead Erard returns to the neurological angle with a reference to the so-called Geschwind-Galaburda hypothesis, a theory about specific asymmetries in brain development leading to a cluster of 'symptoms' comprising "lefthandedness (or ambidexterity), homosexuality, autoimmune disorders (such as asthma or allergies), learning disorders, and talents in music, art, and mathematics" (p. 166). Erard can refer to a number of hyperpolyglots who fulfill these criteria, and on p. 216 he mentions a few results from his survey: mostly men, more homosexuals than in a random sample, but ... Given the scanty evidence for the hypothesis it seems that Erard has come to a conclusion that doesn't demand any specific neurological explanations, namely that "Hyperpolyglots are a neural tribe" (p.214). And "neural" here is a sociological term rather than a neurological term.

At this point he returns to an analysis of the survey in which some of us participated few years ago. This survey comprised two groups: people who claimed to know 6 or more languages, or being able to learn language more easily than others. Just 17 respondents reported 11 or more languages (Erard's new treshold for being a hyperpolyglot). Of the 82% were male, no less than 12 had English as their mother tongue, 11 grew up with more than one mother tongue, and their skills and proficienses follows a tapering curve, with a relatively small number of strong languages and a number of weaker ones. This is analyzed more closely through one 'test person', a certain Graham Cansdale. Most results are as expected, and those which are not may be a result of the skewed sample (for instance the preponderandance of Anglophones). But a reported tendency NOT to let a related language follow a language learned is unexpected - and it doesn't support the idea that those hyperpolyglots were mere collectors who just wanted to yank up their numbers.

It is hard to see a conclusion in this, but Erard finds confirmation of the notion of a limited set of core languages, supplemented by 'surge languages' which have to be reactivated before use. I miss a discussion of the difference between passive and active languages at this point - in my personal experience the idea of a limited set of active languages applies first and foremost to active activities, like speaking and writing. I don't feel the same restrictions on passive activities like reading and translating from the language - especially not if the language has been learned properly in the first place. I'm also somewhat puzzled by the ubiquitious references to problems with interference and the perceived difficulty of switching rapidly. I don't feel that this is a problem, except with very weak languages, and the intereference is as much a problem solving strategy as a problem. But the rarity of 'new definition' hyperpolyglots and the immense differences in personality and life style between those described in the book must make it difficult to draw any conclusions, and if Erard - who by now probably is the person who knows the group best - can't be more concrete I doubt that anybody else could or should be more specific.

This could have been the end of the book, but there is an epilogue - Erard finds out about two polyglot competitions in Belgium and interviews the two winners: Johan Vandewalle from Flandern with 19 "communicative competences" resp. Derick Herning from the Hebrides with more than 20 widely scattered languages. Their answers don't really add much to the data, but gives Erard the opportunity to sum up once again. and 9 full pages before the end of chapter 19 he finally formulates something almost amounting to a summary (p. 260): "Based on my observations, you need three things (...): some neural hardware that's exceptionally suited to the activity of leaning languages and to the ability to use many of them; a sense of mission about learning languags; and an identity as a language learner". The one thing I miss in this description is an arsenal of suitable methods, but Erard has already foreseen this by writing that hyperpolyglots apparently can learn with almost any set of methods. However one of the competition winners gives the advice that once you have found methods that suit your style then stick with those methods. "That's the method".



Edited by Iversen on 31 January 2012 at 9:43am

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Iversen
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 Message 76 of 149
23 January 2012 at 11:32am | IP Logged 
Fasulye wrote:

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!"


That's the spirit. However in "Babel no more" rusty, but still somewhat functional languages are also counted. This is actually one of the main points of the book, - you don't learn X languages to perfection, and only those count. Languages are learnt more or less well, and only some of them are permanently active.

As I have written in the second review I fully agree with this view of the language inventories of polyglots, but Erard should be more suspicious of the word "active". Personally I feel that my passive skills remain active even in languages I don't use often, especially when I in some earlier period have learnt them fairly well. The active or not active state of a language first and foremost applies to active skills - which isn't too surprising. And the time it takes to revive a language depends on the both how badly you have neglected it and how good you once were at 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)

seldnar wrote:
I thought 11 was the lower limit, not the upper.


It is, and I don't imply that it shouldn't be. In Gunnemark's list of members of an organisation called Amici Linguarum there are names which are accredited for very high numbers. For instance Pens Nurmekund could allegedly translate from more than 80 languages - and spoke "many of them". And according to his obituaries the cantankerous Krebs could translate from over 100 languages and spoke around sixty of these. But those people are dead and can't be tested (and they might object if they were alive).

seldnar wrote:

...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."


Erard quibs that there is a discrepancy between the numbers claimed for dead polyglots and those obtained by the living ones, and the notion of 'surge language' is one way of dealing with this diskrepancy. But profArguelles is a good example of a hyperpolyglot who actually has learned languages in order to be able to read great works in their original language. And in such a case even passive languages would be relevant.

seldnar wrote:

There's another reference {to HTLAL} 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.


Which is one of the more problematic omissions. We have threads referring to a number of dead and living polyglots, which Erard could have used.


Edited by Iversen on 24 January 2012 at 11:06am

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Sprachprofi
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 Message 77 of 149
23 January 2012 at 12:13pm | IP Logged 
Quote:
So instead Erard returns to the neurological angle with a reference to the so-
called Geschwind-Galaburda hypothesis, a theory about specific asymmetries in brain
development leading to a cluster of 'symptoms' comprising "lefthandedness (or
ambidexterity), homosexuality, autoimmune disorders (such as asthma or allergies),
learning disorders, and talents in music, art, and mathematics" (p. 166). Erard can refer
to a number of hyperpolyglots who fulfill these criteria, and on p. 216 he mentions a few
results from his survey: mostly men, more homosexuals than in a random sample, but ...


For the record: none of all these indicators apply to me.
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michael erard
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 Message 78 of 149
23 January 2012 at 3:59pm | IP Logged 
I would just remind people to please read the book and take issue with that, not to take issue with the book on the basis of a summary.
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jondesousa
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 Message 79 of 149
23 January 2012 at 4:30pm | IP Logged 
I would second Mr. Erard's post. Although it is great to see some of the points that struck a chord with some of our eminent polyglots such as Fasulye and Iversen, The book is IMHO well worth the cost and is in general a great read for someone interested in languages. Best to read it yourself and see what else in there might strike a chord with you personally.
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Sprachprofi
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 Message 80 of 149
23 January 2012 at 8:18pm | IP Logged 
jondesousa wrote:
I would second Mr. Erard's post. Although it is great to see some of
the points that struck a chord with some of our eminent polyglots such as Fasulye and
Iversen, The book is IMHO well worth the cost and is in general a great read for someone
interested in languages. Best to read it yourself and see what else in there might
strike a chord with you personally.


Indeed. Just wanted to answer here before the quote got buried; I'm still waiting for my
book to come in.


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