We all learn at least one language as children. But what does it take to learn six languages, twenty . . . seventy? Such feats of linguistic prowess provide a glimpse into what the human brain is capable of—and hold up a mirror to our desire to live without language barriers on a shrinking planet.
In Babel No More, Michael Erard, “a monolingual with benefits,” sets out on a quest to meet language superlearners and make sense of their mental powers. On the way he uncovers the secrets of historical figures like the nineteenth-century Italian cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who was said to speak seventy-two languages and was such a legend that when he died people all over Europe vied for his skull. Emil Krebs, a pugnacious fin de siècle German diplomat, spoke sixty-eight languages, and Erard sees the evidence of this in Krebs’s dissected brain. Lomb Kató, a Hungarian hyperpolyglot who taught herself Russian by reading Russian romance novels, believed that “one learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.” These massive multilinguals have long offered a natural experiment into the limits of the brain; here, at last, we can inspect the results.
On his way to tracking down the one man who could be called the most linguistically talented person in the world, Erard meets other living language-superlearners. Among them is Alexander, a modern-day polyglot with dozens of languages who shows him the tricks of the trade and gives him a dark glimpse into the life of obsessive language acquisition. “I came to consider him as a holy man,” writes Erard. “Others do yoga; Alexander does grammatical exercises.”
With his ambitious examination of what language is, where it lives in the brain, and the cultural implications of polyglots’ pursuits, Erard explores the upper limits of our ability to learn and to use languages, and illuminates the intellectual potential in everyone. How do some people escape the curse of Babel—and what might the gods have demanded of them in return?