4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Hardcover)
With memories of failing college French, mangling German in Berlin, and being unable to even hear the critical difference in some letters in Polish, I was looking forward to Michael Erard's Babel No More, a book about successful language learners.
Erard takes an already interesting topic and makes it a little more irresistible by turning it into a multi-faceted mystery. Are the occasional reports of super linguists, people who learn languages with ease and speak dozens, true or are they urban myths? Are there any of these hyperpolyglots, as he calls them, alive today? If they exist, is there something we can learn from them, some secret language-learning method that will make sad uniglots like me potential hyperpolyglots?
Erard sets out to verify or debunk the story of a 19th century Italian who was supposed to have spoken over fifty languages and learned new languages in weeks. From there he tracks down and meets some current-day polyglots and starts to find some unexpected and disturbing similarities. Most of the self-identified polyglots are men, many are left-handed, and quite a few seem to exhibit some autistic tendencies. Erard is reluctant to make too much of these similarities, yet he can't explain them away either.
And then there's the most vexing problem - what does it mean to speak a language, or to know a language? Does it mean with native fluency? With ease? Able to get by? Everyone has a different standard and this makes it hard to compare or group these hyperpolyglots in any meaningful way.
Erard is best when he is interviewing the polyglots and finding out how they learn languages. When he gets into the science of learning languages and especially neurophysiology and brain imaging, it just serves to remind us how little we know about our own brains. In the end, we learn that the superhyperpolymultiglots learn languages in much the same way everyone does, with regular practice, a disciplined method, and a lot of self-motivation.