Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners

I don’t count myself as a hyperpolyglot(!), but I can definitely agree that the key to successful language learning is simply finding a way to enjoy the process.  Judging from the book review in The Economist, this seems to be part of the message of Michael Erard’s new book, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.

from the review: “Hyperpolyglots may begin with talent, but they aren’t geniuses. They simply enjoy tasks that are drudgery to normal people. The talent and enjoyment drive a virtuous cycle that pushes them to feats others simply shake their heads at, admiration mixed with no small amount of incomprehension.”

If you’re an active language learner, are you on an upward spiral, or are you stuck in the language-learning doldrums?  What kinds of things do you enjoy doing that other people might think of as ‘drudgery’?

[*After reading the review, I submitted a suggestion to my local library and they’ve already agreed to order the book.  I honestly can’t say it often enough: I love the Edmonton Public Library!  (update Jan 16/2012:  the book is now in the epl database]

7 thoughts on “Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners

    • No worries! I’m really looking forward to reading the book.

      I wonder, did you end up touching on how high the bar has become for language skills in the 21st century workplace? In the past, it used to be enough–even quite impressive– for North Americans to speak enough of another language to ‘get by’. These days, however, if you’re living in a reasonably cosmopolitan community, multilingual skills can be much more commonplace. What does the average hyperpolyglot do for a day job?

  1. I thought I had subscribed to subsequent comments but I guess not…

    So there are two bars: one in number of languages, one in proficiency in any single one. Your comment (which is referring to the first bar, I think) is a good one. That bar is fairly high, given that companies understand the value of objective tests of linguistic proficiency. This, ultimately, may be more important than number of languages, which (as I talk about in the book) isn’t as clear a measure of something as we would think.

    A lot of hyperpolyglots are underutilized, actually. The happiest ones work in multilingual settings where they not only can use their languages but receive professional support to learn others: think the World Bank, the European Commission, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization, etc.

    • “professional support to learn new languages”…. wow….. what a nice thing to imagine as being part of your job.

      I’ll hold off asking more questions until I’ve actually read the book. Thanks again and best of luck with the release!

      Sorry about the comment subscription—hopefully it was just a temporary wordpress glitch…

  2. As an educator from the UK – a country notoriously bad for learning new languages – I am keen to see language education change dramatically and head in the direction of the so-called hyper-polygot. I am not good at languages but I do study a lot of them – with the intention of being fluent over a course of around 5-10 years. I am fluent already in some but have a long way to go in others. Ultimately, the ones I am fluent with are the ones I USE.

    I think that we should teach people to speak at a basic level to many different cultures as we live in such a global village now. It is better that I can make introductions and make general conversation with a number of people than be able to talk deeply about politics with only one kind of person! With English as the international language, it is likely I can always use it to fall back on. But I find that people are always grateful if you have just tried to speak a little of their language.

    Perhaps, in introducing many languages to children, we can open their minds to the possibility of worlds different to theirs and excite them to learn more…

    • “With English as the international language, it is likely I can always use it to fall back on. But I find that people are always grateful if you have just tried to speak a little of their language.”

      I hear what you’re saying, but sometimes I think it’s a little unfair how much of the burden of cross-cultural communication falls on speakers of other languages, yet English learners get a kind of free pass that allows them to dabble in language learning if it interests them.

      Don’t get me wrong, I have the same temptation you do— I can think of at least 6 languages that I’ve seriously considered studying in the near future; however, for the time being, I’ve decided to hold off until I cross the upper-intermediate hump with Mandarin. I’m really interested in the fact that learners on both sides of the story (speakers of other languages learning English, as well as English speakers learning other languages), so often get ‘stuck’ somewhere around the intermediate stages. One of the reasons I’m looking forward to this book is to read what Michael says about measuring fluency.

      I have to say though– I think it’s really interesting that you’re pursuing a few ‘atypical’ languages— I’ll have to ask some of my friends if they’ve ever met a westerner that speaks Bangla; I’m sure that it’s not unheard of in larger cities in Bangladesh— but if you ever go back to the UK, surely you’re quite unique?

      Thanks again for your comments— I’m not a big debater, so please don’t take my thoughts as a challenge to your views. I’m all about celebrating language learning and talking about the process. Have you written anything online about your memory aid teaching?

  3. I hear you – and I never fear challenges or different points of view! I think you are right – it is unfair and native English speakers (especially us Brits) or terrible in this respect. Personally, I am quite disgusted by the British attitude to language and do hope that my example maybe seen eventually as just one small push to get past this attitude. I have always admired those who are fluent in several languages and, with having many friends from around the world, was fed up of not being able to communicate in anything other than English. However, I cannot change my birth, nor the colonial past and the reality IS that English is the international language. I would be perfectly happy if that was to change, of course, and Spanish certainly seems to be on the increase in popularity (at least in the UK) as the ‘foreign’ language of choice now. Mandarin, of course, in terms of numbers (but not countries) is huge too and I do actually foresee a day when this will become the new international language)

    I originally thought like you did about doing just the one language (when I came to Bangladesh to learn Bangla) but I quickly realised two things – one, that any language needs TIME to become inwardly digested and natural and two, that I was spending a lot of time doing nothing when I could study other languages too! Actually, this is how children learn to be bi or tri-lingual. I study Bangla every day and have lessons daily too as well as using it all the time (with people who DON’T have any English) but I still have time to study my other languages too (on top of a teaching job and doing a masters degree) I don’t spend hours studying – instead I do a little and often. This is no quick fix but a long ride with the aim of fluency developing over years rather than months. Over three years of doing this I have become pretty good at most of the languages now and my Bangla progress has not been slowed in any way at all (in fact it has moved faster as all the languages reinforce each other using my techniques) – but much more to do yet!

    Actually, there are quite a few Bangla speakers in the UK. Many people have done what I do and have learnt the language whilst living in Bangladesh before returning to their own country. Not many of us, though, bother to become fluent with the written word. For me, with ALL my languages, this is actually my strongest area. I do intend to write a book on language learning but, for now, I have not put anything up on the web. A series of books (including learning Chemistry and Biology) using the same memory techniques IS in the pipeline! However, I’ll give you this link – http://kenthinksaloud.wordpress.com/2011/07/04/golden-oldie-of-socks-and-cucumbers/ – which talks about the kind of mistakes I, and others, have made with Bangla over the years! We all get it wrong sometimes and this post celebrates that!🙂

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