What is a hyperpolyglot? Someone who knows many languages. But how many? Six? Eight or more? Eleven? Or even 30? And what does “know” mean? Being able to speak, write, read and listen like a native speaker? Being able to talk about daily matters? Having a basic conversation? Just saying a few words? Or…?
In Babel No More by Michael Erard, Erard travels around the world to explore what it really means to learn a language, how the brain deals with language, and how you can learn many tongues. He meets researchers, neuroscientists, people who know many languages, and others, and he visits multilingual groups, such as in India.
He shows how our view of language in general and multilingualism in particular has changed over time. Erard writes, “Go back to prehistory, a time of linguistic wildness, when we can imagine that each roving band of humans grunted its own dialect, and uncountable versions of half-congealed speech codes could be overheard at every cave and watering hole. Any one of these codes had a range, not a center nor an edge; not until bands clashed, merged or partnered and settled into villages did they acquire a physical place, a homeland. Over thousands of years, these became city-building empires that swept many languages away. On borders and in cities, people spoke several languages…so did everyone in geographically isolated places where trading and navigating required knowing the languages of one’s equally isolated neighbors. All this was endangered, thousands of years later, in the era of the nation…monolingualism became the standard model in most places, because the boundaries of the nation were drawn to include all the people who spoke alike. This unity was threatened by multilingualism and its taint of barbarity, impurity and unnatural mixing.” (p. 90)
And now, he adds, many counties just want one national tongue. I live in England, where there are people from all over the world, but English is the only language most people know. Young people might study other languages, but not seriously. “Politicians lectured Britons on learning languages so they could get jobs in the European Union, while universities removed foreign-language requirements and shut down language departments when enrollments dropped. Further, the government was constantly exporting English teachers, textbooks, courses, and programs, helping the country to earn £1.3 billion a year. In other words, learning language was for citizens of other countries-who would then compete with Britons for jobs. The irony was underscored by the fact that by 2005, immigrants had transformed London into a place where at least 307 languages are spoken, making the capital of one of the most monolingual countries in the European Union the most multilingual city on the planet.” (p. 71)
In other countries that Erard visits, such as Germany, a number of people want to learn multiple languages. But why? Some because it’s fun or a challenge, while others need to for work. Still others want to understand how language works, so they see learning languages as a sort of course in linguistics. Others learn many languages in order to have many selves. Erard interviews some people who dedicate their whole lives to learning languages, sometimes even to the detriment of their jobs or families.
But how many languages can you really know? Erard suggests we have too high expectations for our language skills. You’ll never speak another language like a native. “If you want to be better at languages, you should use native speakers as a metric of progress, though not as a goal…Embrace your linguistic outsiderness-it’s the way of the world…A language isn’t reserved for the perfectly calibrated native speaker. Words have currency even if they’re not perfectly wrought.” (p. 261)
He also offers advice from hyperpolyglots: “Some studies of successful language learners have suggested that they’re more “open to new experiences” than the rest of us…we have a self that’s bound up in our native language, a “language ego”, which needs to be loose and more permeable to learn a new language. Those with more fluid ego boundaries…are more willing to sound not like themselves, which means they have better accents in the new language.” (p. 238)
So have the courage to continue with your language studies and to dare to speak other tongues, even if you think you’re not that good at it!
Most of us will never know 15 or 30 languages. But it’s fun to read about them and to learn from them in Babel No More.