The Way of the Polyglot

No one can deny how useful it is to speak more than a single language. Many see fluency in two or more tongues as a sign of intelligence, too. But beyond being a convenience or novelty, multilingualism has the power to open closed doors. It can create job opportunities, enhance cross-cultural understanding and promote unity among diverse peoples.

In Canada, for example, where English and French are both official tongues, bilingualism stands at 17.5% among the general population and 42.6% in the Francophone province of Quebec. In Malaysia, trilingualism is common among 31.9% of the population: the national language, Bahasa Melayu, is taught in schools; English is the second language of choice, used extensively for commerce; and the country’s Indian and Chinese minorities continue to speak their ethnic languages—Tamil and Cantonese, respectively—at home.

It is easy to understand how someone might pick up two or three languages in communities where people of more than one culture live in close daily contact. In land-locked Luxembourg, most university students who grew up speaking Luxembourgish are also conversant in German, English and/or French, the languages of their surrounding neighbors. But what of individuals who can handle five or six languages or more? What factors cause someone to become a “polyglot?”

Mastering Many Languages

The English term “polyglot” was coined in the mid-17th century, a combination of the Greek words poly (many) and glōtta (language), to describe a person who is capable of speaking or writing numerous languages. It is most often applied to those who are fluent in at least three or four languages, while the term “hyperpolyglot” is reserved for persons conversant in six or more tongues.

Several explanations exist for polyglotism. Some say that hard work, coupled with proper motivation, is the critical factor. They theorize that any moderately intelligent person with an interest in language learning will find each new language easier to acquire than the last, as learning techniques are optimized with experience. They also point out that many languages overlap in the areas of grammar and vocabulary, which makes it easier to acquire connected languages, such as Spanish/Italian or German/Dutch.

A very different theory is expressed by those who believe neurology is the key component. A spike in a baby’s testosterone levels while in the uterus can increase brain asymmetry, which might be responsible for greater language capacity in polyglots than among the general population at large. The part of the brain responsible for language—the Broca’s Area—tends to be larger in polyglots in comparison to the brains of monolinguals, but whether it is larger because of more use or used more because it is larger is still subject to debate.

Linguists do not typically make a distinction between mastery of written and spoken languages when describing a polyglot. However, it has been pointed out that less mental effort is required for reading and translating activities than for speaking, and encounters with individuals capable of understanding a dozen written languages or more are much more common that those with persons who can fluently converse in as many.

Trailblazing Polyglots

Tales of extraordinary language learning date back to Mithridates VI of Pontus (134~63 BCE). It was said that he could speak the languages of all 22 nations within his kingdom. Another ancient leader, Cleopatra VII (69~30 BCE), was credited by Plutarch with speaking nine languages while she served as the last ruling Pharaoh of Egypt.

Many noteworthy personalities of literature have also been hyperpolyglots, including the English poet John Milton (1608~1674) who spoke ten languages, the Slovak writer Adam František Kollár (1718~1783) who reportedly knew 25 tongues, and lexicographer Noah Webster (1758~1843) who mastered 23. But history’s first documented super-hyperpolyglot was Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (1774~1849), an Italian cardinal who was born and educated in Bologna.

By his own whimsical account, Mezzofanti could speak “50 languages and Bolognese” by the time he served as Custodian-in-Chief of the Vatican Library in the 1830s. His biographer, Charles Russell, cited evidence of 29 different “languages frequently tested, and spoken with rare excellence” plus eight others known but insufficiently tested.

A famous tale of the prelate’s language proficiency is how he once bested the British poet Lord Byron in a multilingual cursing contest. The scribe later wrote that Mezzofanti was “a monster of languages, the Briareus of parts of speech, a walking polyglott (sic), and more—who ought to have existed at the time of the Tower of Babel, as a universal translator.”

When asked how he could possibly be familiar with so many tongues, Mezzofanti replied, “I cannot explain it…. God has given me this particular power…. I can only say, that, when once I hear the meaning of a word in any language, I never forget it.” Was he, then, simply born that way? Or was he actually hiding a secret?

The Case of Emil Krebs

An even more prolific super-hyperployglot than Cardinal Mezzofanti was the German sinologist Emil Krebs (1867~1930). In his lifetime, he mastered 68 languages in speech and writing and studied 120 others, causing researchers to ask, “Is there any limit on how many languages a person can learn?”

The son of a master carpenter from Freiburg, Krebs spoke German as his mother tongue and learned Latin, French, Hebrew and Classical Greek in school. On his own, he also studied Modern Greek, English and Italian and later Spanish, Russian, Polish, Arabic and Turkish—all by the time he was 20 years old. Then, at the University of Berlin, he took up Chinese and within three years became a certified interpreter with mastery equivalent to the language skills of a well-educated native.

In 1893, Krebs journeyed to Beijing as a diplomatic interpreter. He worked there in various capacities until his 1917 return to Berlin, where he remained until his death, but not before mastering all of the languages of the current European Union and dozens more. He also amassed a private collection of over 3,500 volumes and writings in some 120 languages, which are today stored in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Krebs’ brain was a matter of great interest to the scientific community, too, and his family allowed it to be donated to the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research. There it was examined in detail and compared with the brains of other mental giants, such as Albert Einstein. Researchers identified “extra neural equipment” in all three areas of Krebs’ brain responsible for learning words, being sensitive to grammatical structure, and parsing and mimicking speech sounds. Apparently, the super-hyperpolyglot was born with his great capacity for languages.

The Secret to Becoming a Ployglot

Based upon the Krebs case alone, the hope of mastering dozens of languages might seem rather dim for those who are not gifted from birth. But innate potential is just one factor in becoming a polyglot. Perhaps a much more important one is time.

“There’s really no limit to the human capacity for language,” says MIT psycholinguist Suzanne Flynn, who specializes in bilingualism and trilingualism, “except for things like having enough time to get enough exposure to the language.” For most people who want to learn a new language, there is no short cut to putting in long hours of study.

As an example, the author of “Babel No More,” Michael Erhard, describes 32-yearold hyperpolyglot Alexander Arguelles trying to learn “at least one language of each representative type or from each language family, in order to read the world’s great books in their original languages.” His methodology was to work on “thirty different languages each day in fifteen- to twenty-minute chunks” over the course of five years for 12 hours a day.

Erhard collected many multi-language learning tips while researching his book. Among them were “listen and read a lot,” “relax and enjoy the language,” “accept mistakes and uncertainty,” and “spend an extended period of time in a country where the language is spoken.”

But perhaps the most eye-opening technique Erhard discovered in the course of his research was buried in the archives of Cardinal Mezzofanti himself in his hometown of Bologna, Italy. There Erhard found a box containing numerous stacks of “thin paper slips, darkened with age. On each slip of paper was written a word with a corresponding word in a different language on the reverse.” The super-hyperpolyglot’s secret was revealed at last—flash cards! It just goes to show that in language learning, like most other skills, practice makes perfect and there really is no substitute for hard work.

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