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Babel No More: The Search for the…

Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language…

by Michael Erard

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Interesting but Esoteric

I picked this up because I'm working on becoming bilingual, and was intrigued by the title and topic. The author is on a search to diagnose polyglots and draw conclusions about the nature of them. The book has interesting parts describing, unearthing, and in some cases exposing overstated claims of multiple languages mastery. The journey has its moments, but bogs down, especially in the latter part of the book. To his credit the author approaches his investigation in an academic way, but that may cause the casual reader to lose interest as the book progresses. At first I felt I was gaining useful insight, but ultimately I'm not sure I should have invested the time. ( )
  1greenprof | May 9, 2017 |
When I near my marathon season, I like to read inspiring books by and about marathoners and ultramarathoners. In the same vein, as I'm trying to teach myself a new language (Hebrew) I'm going to be picking up some language books for motivation. First on the pile is this gem, which does not actually discuss the mechanics of language, but instead is a detective story with suprisingly revealing curios (hyperpolyglots are mostly male, left-handed and gay; impressionists are superior musically; children mispronounce new words because the words haven't found a place in the brain to "settle"; and much more) and a fascinating loop, where the writer finds himself back where he started to find answers to certain questions he asked in the beginning. He spends much time looking for people who might have surfaced earlier and quicker in his search, which makes me wonder what would have happened had he found immediately what he was looking for. The book may have taken on a different personality and direction. In either event, it was an excellent read. On to books with more mechanics. I've got languages to learn. ( )
  MartinBodek | Jun 11, 2015 |
What does it mean to “know a language”? Is there a magic method for language acquisition? Is the ability to learn a language more hereditary or is it driven by motivation? These are the questions wrapped up in the quest to find the secret of the world’s polyglots -- those individual who know (or at least claim to know) many languages.

In his book, Babel No More, Michael Erard takes us on a fascinating journey -- one that is both personal and intellectual -- to discover the secrets of polyglots. This journey starts with the myth of Giuseppe Mezzofanti, an Italian cardinal and university professor who is said to have known over seventy languages. Erard begins with archival research into Mezzofanti’s life. From here, he travels to meet modern day polyglots, interviews researchers of multilingualism, explores the neuroscience of language acquisition, collects data on polyglots through surveys, and performs statistical analysis.

As a work of scientific exploration, this book is a breath of fresh air. Instead of working from an established thesis and then presenting evidence, this book functions as part intellectual exploration, part detective story. The author isn’t afraid to acknowledge intellectual dead ends, to express doubt, to explore his own biases and motivations, and to veer off course from time to time. For these reasons, the book is an important example of an alternative vision of good social science -- closer to what Donna Haraway referred to as “situated knowledge” than positivist science.

However, perhaps the best way to describe the kind of research Erard undertakes is to use his own terminology. Erard is involved in “polyglot” research. In order to answer his questions on the nature of polyglots, he has to borrow something from different traditions of research. Rather than an “all or nothing” kind of research done within one kind of tradition or field, he instead practices a “something and something” kind of research that borrows liberally. Thus, the book uses a little bit of neuroscience, a little bit of investigative journalism, a little bit of history, a little bit of anthropological field research, and more than a little gumption to uncover its answers.

The book is also brightened by personal insights into his own rationale for seeking out the best language learners. The book’s intellectual journey is punctuated by moments of humor when the supposedly sacred is revealed to be somewhat absurd. One of these moments comes when Erard meets Alexander Arguelles. Rather than a bright social butterfly with divine talents, we instead find a down-on-his-luck hermit who spends his days in a cramped study room. As Erard writes, “See his spreadsheets, his tapes, his books double-stacked on the shelves, and his living room empty, his refrigerator bare. Alexander may be a language god, a kind of archi-polyglot, but the truth about his life is far from divine” (p. 126).

One of the downsides to this sprawling examination of the topic is that the book often feels like it wanders -- and at times, it’s easy to get lost. There are many stories of “polyglots” -- but there is not one story. The author is cognizant of this -- our minds are wired to look for reductionist answers. But what if there are no reductionist answers? What if our questions lead to many stories with diverging conclusions?

If the book stands as a formal challenge to a social science that is too rigid in method, perhaps it also presents a similar challenge to language teaching. The author writes at one point, “I bear the emotional legacy of teachers and textbook writers who made me submit to pedagogical contraptions that made language learning cumbersome and absurd. One goal of adulthood is to avoid all the irrelevant and absurd things imposed on us in childhood, so the path clearly leads away from the language classroom” (p. 20). The author throws out this challenge without delving into his own theory of what represents good language teaching; and since all of the polyglots that we encounter are models of autonomous learning, we are left to speculate about what exactly represents good language teaching in Erard’s estimation.

However, from the book we can glean some partial answers to this question. An important theme of the book is that the “all or nothing” view of language acquisition -- that a learner must aspire to be like a native speaker -- often forces learners into irrelevant forms of learning that may not bear on the practical and emotional needs of language learners. Instead of an “all or nothing” learning environment, the author seems to suggest a “something and something” environment where learners are able to define for themselves what kind of language abilities they need.

The book does come up with some answers to the questions of how advanced language learners are able to acquire their abilities. But following his “something and something” polyglot form of research, Erard avoids reductionism. Instead he borrows liberally from his many different kinds of intellectual journeys. Without giving away too much of the ending, one of the conclusions is that there is no miracle method for studying languages. As the author discovers, whatever the method is -- that’s the method. There is no substitute for hard work and motivation. Another conclusion is that there are limits to what can be learned. Though there are several polyglots who have language abilities that reach beyond twenty languages, the reality is that most follow a “something and something” model of language competency. That is to say, polyglots tend to have advanced capabilities in their first two to six languages; after that, their abilities tend to drop off significantly. They may have a number of “surge” languages they can brush up quickly, but after those languages proficiency in other languages becomes far more limited.

Some readers may find this journey too long and bizarre for such basic, common sense conclusions. As a detective story, many will find the ending a disappointment. But as a work of research on a complex social and linguistic phenomenon, this book is quite an accomplishment. ( )
  DanielClausen | Jun 11, 2015 |
This book is filled with quite a bit of interesting information an anecdotes, but it's hard to walk away from this and feel like I really learned much about how hyperpolyglots actually come to be. But the author acknowledges as much and even discusses some of the reasons for his failure to discern the answer to this question. In fact, if anything, some of the most interesting points in the book are about why this is such a difficult, if not impossible, thing to determine. ( )
  tlockney | Sep 7, 2014 |
Pay attention to the subtitle... this is a book, not specifically about the world's most extraordinary language learners, but rather the search for them. Along the way, we are treated to a discussion, never truly resolved, on what it means to learn a language, how the brains of a polyglots work, and what would motivate a person to learn so many languages.

As a lifelong learner and lover of languages myself, I was interested to find similarities to myself, but also many differences. It really caused me to consider what my goal is in language acquisition.

This was an interesting read, and although it did not contain many answers, to be fair, it did not purport to. Instead, it presented one man's quest to research this phenomenon, to understand it, and to subject it to greater scientific inquiry. ( )
  shabacus | Jan 20, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
The book chronicles his adventures in tracking down hyperpolyglots and the evidence they left behind, and Erard charms with his indefatigable curiosity. Babel No More tells an extraordinary tale of extraordinary people.
Although Babel No More is dense with . . . well-observed detail, Erard flounders when he attempts to locate the physical basis of hyperpolyglots' abilities in the brain.
added by Katya0133 | editWilson Quarterly, Nathalie Lagerfeld (Mar 1, 2012)
Erard's engaging account follows his research into Mezzofanti and other multilinguals . . . as he attempts to learn whether their talent lies inherent in us all, or is a function of a rare sort of brain wiring. And, most intriguingly, whether hyperpolyglotism extracts a cost in some other area of cognitive function.
added by Katya0133 | editMaclean's, Brian Bethune (Feb 13, 2012)
Among the most surprising qualities of “Babel No More,” Michael Erard’s globe-trekking adventure in search of the world’s virtuosos of language learning, is that a book dealing with language acquisition and polyglot linguistics can be so gripping.
A mesmerizing voyage into the thickets of questions about what it means to be human.
added by Katya0133 | editKirkus (Nov 1, 2011)
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Catch a young swallow.

Roast her in honey.

Eat her up.

Then you will understand all languages.

--Folk magic incantation
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To sea-going travelers of 1803, pirates in the Mediterranean posted a terrifyingly reliable threat.
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Assesses historical "hyperpolyglot" linguistic high achievers who demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for learning and speaking languages, and explains the sources of such abilities and what it reveals about the nature of memory and language.

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Michael Erard is a LibraryThing Author, an author who lists their personal library on LibraryThing.

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