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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Adventures in Hyperpolyglottery: Inside the Mind of Extreme Language Learners

Admit it. At one point or another, the words "Learn a new language," have appeared on your list of New Year's Resolutions. Like most resolutions made with the best of intentions, this one frequently fizzles out well before the year comes to an end. But speaking multiple languages is not uncommon -- it's the normal state for many human beings all over the world. So why is it so hard for people to achieve such a simple goal?
As it turns out, learning languages is easier -- and more pleasurable -- for some folks than for others. In fact, there is a group of individuals who find the process so enjoyable that they take it to another level entirely. They're known as hyperpolyglots. Take Emil Krebs, who reportedly spoke 68 languages. Or Elihu Burritt, who could read 50 languages. And then there's Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti, who learned to speak 39 languages.
Who are these people, and why on earth do they learn so many languages? A new book by Michael Erard sheds light on extreme language learners and how they operate. Erard has been researching hyperpolyglottery since 2005, when he wrote an article on the subject for the New Scientist. His book profiles many hyperpolyglots, both those that are no longer alive to tell their stories, as in the examples above, and those that walk (and speak) among us today. As a self-confessed language addict, I couldn't resist asking him some questions about his research on hyperpolyglots. Thankfully, he indulged me.

Nataly Kelly (NK): Why did you write this book?

Michael Erard (ME): The changing linguistic world needs polyglots! We need to know what makes them tick so we can find out how to reproduce or mimic what they are able to do. We also need to get a grasp on our own fascinations (and suspicions) of massive multilingualism. This was a topic that had never been covered from a scientific perspective. In hyperpolyglots you have people who are running in essence a natural experiment into the limits of language learning, but no one, until now, has examined the results of that experiment.
NK: What exactly is a hyperpolyglot?
ME: I started my investigations with the definition that a hyperpolyglot is someone who speaks six or more languages, based on work by Dick Hudson, a University College London linguist, but that ought to be revised upward, to 11 languages or more.
For completed article, click here

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