Last fall, a group of friends and I decided to throw an outdoor brunch. About halfway into our meal, several of those friends mentioned seeing an online article about individuals who have the uncanny ability to learn and speak dozens of languages. Using the Internet as both an information repository and a practice tool, these highly motivated and seemingly gifted individuals have created a global community of multilinguals. Fascinated by friends’ discussion, I marveled at the abilities of such people. Who knows, I thought to myself; maybe someday I might even read a book about them.
Recently, I happened to be strolling along the shelves at my public library and what did I find but a copy of Michael Erard’s Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. While inspecting it, I remembered my friends’ discussion and figured this book would be a great place to start if I wanted to learn more about super language learners. Also, the more I looked at it, the more I realized I had read a review of this book on someone’s blog. (But sadly, I can’t remember which blog! If you’re reading this and you think it was yours, just leave me a comment.) So, curious as ever, I threw the book in my bag and headed towards the automated checkout machine.
Published in 2012, Babel No More is Erard’s world-wide search for individuals who are fluent in more than six languages. Labeled hyperpolyglots, some can speak as many as a dozen or more languages. According to Erard, history’s greatest hyperpolyglot was Cardinal Joseph Mezzofanti. Besides being the Vatican’s librarian he also spoke over 70 languages and was fluent in about 30 of them. A close second was Emil Krebs, Germany’s ambassador to China, who spoke 68. (And was a bit of a jerk.) Today there are a smattering of individuals around the globe who’ve been verified to possess the ability to speak as many as several dozen. And, just to make things interesting there’s a few fakes who say they are language rock stars, but after being rigorously examined are later discovered to be capable of speaking only three or four. (But heck, compared to most people that’s pretty darn good!)
While this is a decent book, I thought Erard wandered a bit when it came to telling his story. Therefore, as a result Babel No More seems to lack a strong focus. While I loved the case histories, some of the anecdotal and perhaps all scientific parts were the least entertaining sections of the book. But I thought it was worth it just so I could read about Mezzofanti. His is a story worthy of an entire book. Heaven knows I’d read it.