Polyglots and Hyperpolyglots

In the author’s note at the end of The Bone House by Stephen Lawhead (Semicolon review here), Mr. Lawhead writes about Thomas Young, a polymath of the 18th and early 19th centuries who is also a character in the book:

“Born in the tiny village of Milverton in SOmerset, England, he was an infant prodigy, having learned to read by the age of two. . . . He was able to converse and write letters in Latin to his no-doubt perplexed friends and family when he was six years old. . . By fourteen years of age he was fluent in not only ancient Greek and Latin—he amused himself by translating his textbooks into and out of classical languages—but had also acquired French, Italian, Hebrew, German, Chaldean, Syriac, Samaritan, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and, of course, Amharic.”

Thomas Young went on to become a doctor and to study physics, proving that light behaves as a wave as well as a particle and experimenting with wavelengths of light and electromagnetic energy. He was also an amateur archaeologist, particularly interested in the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Serindipitously, I heard about the book Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners by Michael Erard on NPR and saw a tweet about this news article, an excerpt from the book, all on the same afternoon that I finished Mr. Lawhead’s book. The idea of being able to learn twelve or more languages and speak them all fluently is fascinating. In fact, I learned when I was studying Spanish in college that most people can’t learn to speak fluently like a native in any foreign language if they start learning the language after about the age of puberty. Something in the brain “sets itself”, and it is very difficult to learn to make sounds that were not a part of your language learning before age twelve or thirteen. This hypothesis is not accepted by all language learning scholars, but it does seem to explain why an intelligent person such as Henry Kissinger who learned English as a young man speaks the language with such an accent even though he uses sophisticated vocabulary and syntax.

There’s also a phenomenon called language interference, I think, which causes me, whenever I try to learn a third language, to speak with a Spanish accent. For instance, I’ve tried to pick up some German and some French, but whenever I read vocabulary in those languages aloud, it comes out sounding Spanish-accented. So I can’t really understand how these “hyperpolyglots”, mostly men, could learn so many languages.

But it is another fascination. And Babel No More is another book to add to my TBR list.

3 thoughts on “Polyglots and Hyperpolyglots

  1. Amy

    Interesting! I’ve witnessed both of the phenomena you mention: older people not being able to make new sounds or use a new accent, and speaking a third language with the accent of a second language. My mother, for instance, cannot for the life of her pronounce my in-laws’ names correctly (they’re Pakistani), although she has made strenuous efforts. I have no trouble with it. And my children, who have studied Arabic for many years and are now starting to learn German, constantly try to pronounce German words with Arabic accents.

  2. michael erard

    Hi, Sherry,
    Thanks for mentioning my book and raising such interesting questions. I tackle both the interference question and the critical period issue in the book (the critical period issue much less, though, just because it is a mulberry bush that the experts go around and around, and I had other topics to explore). If you have any questions, please get in touch!

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