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The Lexical Funk!

Daniel has wanted to be a writer ever since he was in elementary school.He has published stories and articles in such magazines as Slipstream, Black Petals, Spindrift, Zygote in my Coffee, and Leading Edge Science Fiction. He has written four books: The Sage and the Scarecrow (a novel), the Lexical Funk (a short story collection), Reejecttion (short story/ essay collection), and The Ghosts of Nagasaki (a novel).

Book Review: Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners

Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners - Michael Erard

What does it mean to “know a language”? Is there a magic method for language acquisition? Is the ability to learn a language more hereditary or is it driven by motivation? These are the questions wrapped up in the quest to find the secret of the world’s polyglots -- those individual who know (or at least claim to know) many languages.


In his book, Babel No More, Michael Erard takes us on a fascinating journey -- one that is both personal and intellectual -- to discover the secrets of polyglots. This journey starts with the myth of Giuseppe Mezzofanti, an Italian cardinal and university professor who is said to have known over seventy languages. Erard begins with archival research into Mezzofanti’s life. From here, he travels to meet modern day polyglots, interviews researchers of multilingualism, explores the neuroscience of language acquisition, collects data on polyglots through surveys, and performs statistical analysis.


As a work of scientific exploration, this book is a breath of fresh air. Instead of working from an established thesis and then presenting evidence, this book functions as part intellectual exploration, part detective story. The author isn’t afraid to acknowledge intellectual dead ends, to express doubt, to explore his own biases and motivations, and to veer off course from time to time. For these reasons, the book is an important example of an alternative vision of good social science -- closer to what Donna Haraway referred to as “situated knowledge” than positivist science.   


However, perhaps the best way to describe the kind of research Erard undertakes is to use his own terminology. Erard is involved in “polyglot” research. In order to answer his questions on the nature of polyglots, he has to borrow something from different traditions of research. Rather than an “all or nothing” kind of research done within one kind of tradition or field, he instead practices a “something and something” kind of research that borrows liberally. Thus, the book uses a little bit of neuroscience, a little bit of investigative journalism, a little bit of history, a little bit of anthropological field research, and more than a little gumption to uncover its answers.


The book is also brightened by personal insights into his own rationale for seeking out the best language learners. The book’s intellectual journey is punctuated by moments of humor when the supposedly sacred is revealed to be somewhat absurd. One of these moments comes when Erard meets Alexander Arguelles. Rather than a bright social butterfly with divine talents, we instead find a down-on-his-luck hermit who spends his days in a cramped study room. As Erard writes, “See his spreadsheets, his tapes, his books double-stacked on the shelves, and his living room empty, his refrigerator bare. Alexander may be a language god, a kind of archi-polyglot, but the truth about his life is far from divine” (p. 126).  


One of the downsides to this sprawling examination of the topic is that the book often feels like it wanders -- and at times, it’s easy to get lost. There are many stories of “polyglots” -- but there is not one story. The author is cognizant of this -- our minds are wired to look for reductionist answers. But what if there are no reductionist answers? What if our questions lead to many stories with diverging conclusions?


If the book stands as a formal challenge to a social science that is too rigid in method, perhaps it also presents a similar challenge to language teaching. The author writes at one point, “I bear the emotional legacy of teachers and textbook writers who made me submit to pedagogical contraptions that made language learning cumbersome and absurd. One goal of adulthood is to avoid all the irrelevant and absurd things imposed on us in childhood, so the path clearly leads away from the language classroom” (p. 20). The author throws out this challenge without delving into his own theory of what represents good language teaching; and since all of the polyglots that we encounter are models of autonomous learning, we are left to speculate about what exactly represents good language teaching in Erard’s estimation.


However, from the book we can glean some partial answers to this question. An important theme of the book is that the “all or nothing” view of language acquisition -- that a learner must aspire to be like a native speaker -- often forces learners into irrelevant forms of learning that may not bear on the practical and emotional needs of language learners. Instead of an “all or nothing” learning environment, the author seems to suggest a “something and something” environment where learners are able to define for themselves what kind of language abilities they need.  


The book does come up with some answers to the questions of how advanced language learners are able to acquire their abilities. But following his “something and something” polyglot form of research, Erard avoids reductionism. Instead he borrows liberally from his many different kinds of intellectual journeys. Without giving away too much of the ending, one of the conclusions is that there is no miracle method for studying languages. As the author discovers, whatever the method is -- that’s the method. There is no substitute for hard work and motivation. Another conclusion is that there are limits to what can be learned. Though there are several polyglots who have language abilities that reach beyond twenty languages, the reality is that most follow a “something and something” model of language competency. That is to say, polyglots tend to have advanced capabilities in their first two to six languages; after that, their abilities tend to drop off significantly. They may have a number of “surge” languages they can brush up quickly, but after those languages proficiency in other languages becomes far more limited.  

Some readers may find this journey too long and bizarre for such basic, common sense conclusions. As a detective story, many will find the ending a disappointment. But as a work of research on a complex social and linguistic phenomenon, this book is quite an accomplishment.