Sunday, March 4, 2012

Babel No More

I told myself I wasn't going to read Babel No More by Michael Erard. I told myself that I didn't want to find out that people who love learning languages are weird, since I've been known to geek out on that front. I also feared that he would go light on the science and play more to the sensational side of people who know abnormal amounts of languages in search of a good story. Or worse, he'd say that everyone could do this if only they knew the magic formula.

None of which happened. Erard starts with an inspiration from cryptozoology, which he barely mentions, because everyone figures that these extremely multi-lingual people cannot exist. The center of the story is the near-mythical massively multi-lingual Cardinal Mezzofanti. Erard tracks him down—or rather his papers—in Bologna, Italy. And Erard finds a man who put in his time with learning his languages. What seems to be amazing with Mezzofanti is that he was able to switch easily between a very large number of languages with seemingly little effort.

He goes around the globe tracking down modern polyglots. This in itself made me envious, as I do not have the money to do this sort of thing. On the other hand it was a nice vicarious trip around the world. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on his foray to India. People in India are often multilingual, as I know from my college physics professor writing his name in five languages on the first day of class. What was most interesting is that the Indians seemed to treat knowing many languages pretty casually. They would grow up in families where Hindi and Tamil were spoken. Kanada was used in the bazaar. English or Sanskrit at school. Marathi at the office. And so on. People picked up whatever mix was most useful in their life, and many of the people mentioned in that part of the book seemed to know four or five. Whatever the particular mix any person had, it was what fit their life. Native Kanada. Able to work professionally in Hindi and English. Enough Telugu to talk to the neighbors and go shopping.

I suppose living in a fairly monolingual part of the country—though not as much as when I was growing up—I envied the Indians on that count. Of course, now that I'm older I'm into dead languages. I suppose that's how I indulge my whims. No need to be practical on language choice in the provinces.

For the remainder of the book he presents accounts of a few polyglots around the world. He also gets into the science of how the brain handles multiple languages, but I found this part the least satisfying. Maybe I'll have to take the class in psycholinguistics to get some satisfaction.

In any case, if you're interested in people who know lots of languages, this book is for you. If you're looking to find the magic bullet for learning twenty languages in three months, maybe not. If you're looking to find out about model trains, you've got the wrong book.