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Babel No More / Mezzofanti’s Gift

 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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Super Polyglot
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 Message 129 of 149
04 March 2012 at 3:43pm | IP Logged 
Michael Erard has certainly the right to be proud of his book, which is the best possibility right now to learn about those language learners who have learnt the most languages. And for those who have read the threads here at HTLAL about different polyglots it must be clear how difficult it must have been to research this field, where many top achievers either choose to remain anonymous or at least to downplay their achievements (cfr. Kenneth Hale, who claimed that he only knew three languages well - he could just say a few things in the others). And I do mean it when I hope that there will be a sequel where he concentrates more on showing what those he choose to portrait actually can do, what they know, how they function with their languages and how they got there.

Before the functions of the brain in connection with language learning and speaking/writing have described in more detail on the basis of members of the population at large (including less extreme polyglots) there won't be much basis for drawing conclusions from a sample of maybe 17 persons from the survey and a number of participants in the two competitions mentioned in the books. You need to have a stable background for describing features which may or may not differ qualitatively from those of less extreme language hoarders.

The conclusion from Erards description of the situation in India seems to be that most of the population could become polyglots if they had a good reason for it. In societies with less demand for polyglotism you need some special interest or fascination with languages to start accumulating them, and here it might be worth having a look at the motives that makes people become fascinated with bugs, computers, steam engines, roses or birds. Are hyperpolyglots different from people who become specialists in other areas? The thing that makes us different from for instance railway buffs is that our test objects fall in big chunks called languages, and each one takes a long time to learn, whereas there basically only is one kind of steam engine with slight variations (or at least that's what I think - the real steam engine fanatics may have a different opinion about this).

My guess is that Erard had hoped to find some common denominator that somehow eased the acquisition of languages for some persons (like having skinny legs gave runners from Kenya an inborn advantage, which coupled with traditions for running opened the way for a ton of world masters in this sport from a relatively poor country). But as long as language and brains aren't better known this hope has not materialized, and Erard honestly didn't claim so - some readers may just be tempted to draw that conclusion from the discussion of a few examples in the book.

The life styles of the language learners in the book are very different, except that language learning of course takes time which has to be taken from other activities. But then you are still back at the question: why did those individuals choose to devote so much time to languages?

It is of course relevant to ask whether extreme language learning could be a spiteful revenge on a world which stopped to admire good, but not necessarily excellent achievements in school once those persons left their classes and got into the real world (that's how I understand translator2's message above). But so far we don't even know whether those hyperpolyglots who have been identified fit this pattern. We simply don't have exemples enough to draw even the simplest conclusions about the motives for language learning, and even less for determining why some persons actually succeed in learning more languages than others.

Edited by Iversen on 05 March 2012 at 11:43am

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 Message 130 of 149
04 March 2012 at 6:53pm | IP Logged 
Does the book mention the eccentrics of the Victorian age and 1900s? I ask because a
somewhat similar sounding book, Strange Brains by Pickover, is filled primarily with
people from the 19th and early-mid 20th centuries.

Also, does the book mention what the polyglots do with their languages? Any of them
discover new things in some project like IBM's Watson, or is just learning languages with
no ultimate purpose besides enjoyment?

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 Message 131 of 149
05 March 2012 at 3:50am | IP Logged 
The people who discovered the relationships between languages and formulated the principles behind sound shifts were certainly polyglots and mostly hyperpolyglots even after the strict definition (people like William Jones, the brothers Grimm and Rasmus Rask), and this also applied to those who succeded in dechiffring the old writing systems, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs (to some extent Thomas Young and others, but primarily Champollion), the cuneiforms writing systems of the Middle East (Grotefend, Rawlinson and others) and other writings systems from ages gone by.

Even old-time erudits without such singular achievements to their credits often learnt tons of languages - at least for reading, as speaking them wasn't relevant for people who didn't travel much. But those who needed them for talking were apparently also able to learn them as active means of communication, witness Burton and Krebs. With the advent of the internet and cheap travelling (and better typography in dictionaries and grammars!) we should be able to compete successfully with the old guys, but when I see how the best of the old guys compiled dictionaries and grammars and developed personal skills with the limited sources of information they had back then, then I'm duly impressed.

So where did this polyglot tradition go? Was it lost with television and other distractions? Maybe, but it is allowed to be somewhat sceptic about the claims about certain dead hyperpolyglots because their language lists weren't systematically separated into active and passive languages and into languages at different levels. Some sources have ascribed up to 127 languages to Mezzofanti, but more sober assessments have reduced this to around 30 languages which he according to trustworthy contemporaneous wittnesses knew well. The same kind of 'cleaning up' process might reduce the skyhigh numbers of other old hyperpolyglots to something equally manageable.

As Erard has written in the book, the attested numbers for recent polyglots lie lower than those for certain polyglots from the 19. century and before, but the apparent difference could be an effect of better control and criteria which include active skills. Whether the great minds of yesterday actually were more versatile when you take these things into account is an open question.

Edited by Iversen on 05 March 2012 at 11:38am

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 Message 132 of 149
05 March 2012 at 4:12am | IP Logged 
hrhenry wrote:
...the book isn't about you.

As the book is about hyperpolyglots, and as I am a hyperpolyglot, the book is about me, just as it is about all hyperpolyglots. Furthermore, I did complete the survey in detail, so I am, in a real sense, buried somewhere in the data.

Fasulye wrote:
Somebody who reads "Babel No More" carefully will not find any statements in his book which are reductive (= All hyperpolyglots are...), so in that sense even hyperpolyglots without any of these traits (enumerated in the Geschwind-Galaburda theory) fit well into the findings of Michael Erard.

Fair and true enough. However, Erard does conclude that hyperpolyglots have a tendency toward homosexuality, visual-spatial disorders, etc. All I am saying is that I don't see where the claims about this common cluster of typical traits come from in the first place, and that those traits that are stigmatized or downright negative bother me.

Look, it is great that there is a book validating the passionate love of learning languages, and I really enjoyed reading about the lives of the people profiled. But then at the end, there is an attempt to psych them out that I don't really get because of the conclusion that hyperpolyglots are inclined to be gay, get lost easily, etc. What I want to know is, where does all that come from?

How many of the people profiled were gay? That was only said about one.

How many of the people profiled get lost easily? That's never shown in the biographical narratives, and only implied or inferred about those who can't drive.

Then it turns out that the one who is unable to learn how to drive and the gay one are one and the same, namely Graham Cransdale.

So let's imagine that, instead of him, someone else were profiled. Iversen, let's say. Would the conclusion then be that hyperpolyglots are likley to have a history of surrealist painting and musical composition?

Let's get some distance by imagining that this is a forum for those who are passionate about something else, such as a tactical game of strategy. Some of us are confessedly obsessed with this game to the degree that it is one of the more important aspects of our lives. The world as a whole is largely indifferent to the pursuit, and incomprehending, critical, or even skeptical about people like us. Then, for the first time ever, an author writes a book about the game that is relatively widely read and discussed. He affirms that the game sharpens the intelligence, and he profiles fifteen of the most proficient players.

The rest of us, reading the book, would feel validated, and we would enjoy getting to know those profiled.

So far so good. But then the author, attempting to answer why some get so into the game, would conclude that people who get so passionate about it are prone to being red-green color blind bipolar epileptics even though, of the fifteen profiled, only one was said to be epileptic, and she was also said to be prone to bouts of depression.

Wouldn't that trouble you? Wouldn't that seem unwarranted? Wouldn't you mind the fact that people who knew you and read the book would think that you might well be a red-green color blind bipolar epileptic because of your love of the game?

I would think that any hyperpolyglot who was not a spatially disoriented homosexual would object to being gratuitously painted as a gay who gets lost all the time. I really cannot understand how anyone can be blasé about this, or how anyone can object to my objecting to this.

Edited by Zwlth on 05 March 2012 at 4:57am

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 Message 133 of 149
05 March 2012 at 5:52am | IP Logged 
Zwlth wrote:
I really cannot understand how anyone can be blasé about this, or how anyone can object to my objecting to this.

So... what is it that you expect?

What is the next logical course of action in your mind? I'm asking because the book is already published. (I am reminded of the phrase about closing the barn door after all the cows got out.) It's not as if they can all be recalled and burned.

It is not my intention to be disrespectful. I'm just wondering what YOU want. Do you want what you feel is a more accurate representation? Do you want the author to confess to you on the thread that he made a mistake? (Human nature tells me that is quite unlikely to happen, by the way.)

You may never get the resolution you desire. I'm sorry that you have to feel the frustration. If you think he's scientifically wrong, then perhaps you could write your own book or journal articles. Write the counter-argument that will reach an audience beyond those people who have read this thread.
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 Message 134 of 149
06 March 2012 at 9:47am | IP Logged 
What do I hope for now if I have finally succeeded in making my point? Well, since we know that Erard reads this thread even if he doesn't contribute very often, I hope he gets the message that the sentiment of a segment of the very population he is investigating is as follows:

Babel No More is an excellent book and we truly appreciate his writing it to open the field of polyglottery to serious investigation. However, while the narrative bulk of the book, documenting the lives of prominent hyperpolyglots, is wonderful, we are troubled by an aspect of the conclusion. To wit, the categorization of hyperpolyglots as tending to have traits fitting the Geschwind-Galaburda hypothesis is not supported by the biographies of those profiled. Thus, given the small sample size, this conclusion seems precipitous, particularly as many of the traits can be perceived as stigmatizing.

That's nothing but constructive criticism, coming straight from the hyperpolyglot "tribe." I don't imagine he can get that anywhere but here, and I should think he would be very glad to get it.

Erard's own 5th point was that he wanted this book to encourage further research and investigation. For the time being, he could modify his position in a 2nd English edition down the road, and right now in all the forthcoming translations into other languages.

I'll leave the writing of books and articles investigating hyperpolyglots to others, as I myself would rather continue to work away at being one.

Edited by Zwlth on 07 March 2012 at 1:10am

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 Message 135 of 149
09 March 2012 at 2:50am | IP Logged 
It was amusing to discover professor Argüelles doesn't drive a car, because I don't either. And not as a result of some identifiable condition; it simply doesn't appeal to me.

While it rests on top of one of my book piles, I haven't read this work yet. From the comments here and elsewhere as well as from some of the interviews with the author however, it seems to me the book might fail to illuminate the most important and interesting element concerning the practice of multiple language-learning: meaning. What does the knowledge of many languages entail and what does it reveal to its possessor about human nature, knowledge and culture?

In place of this it appears we're treated to a collection of superficial and meaningless facts about language learners. Facts. The obsession of modernity. A modernity that reviles the subjective and that incidentally -or perhaps, in consequence?- renders noble pursuits such as polyglottery into curiosities bordering on morbidness.

Of course all this might amount to naught as I have yet to read the book. Let us limit then for the moment my impressions to the discussion surrounding the book rather than attach them to the book itself.

Edited by Juаn on 09 March 2012 at 2:42pm

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 Message 136 of 149
14 April 2012 at 9:34am | IP Logged 
One hour of interview after Michael Erard's webinar on Live Mocha with him.

Live Mocha interview with Michael Erard April 2012


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