Babel No More, by Michael Erard | Literature Review

I was hoping that this would tell me about the legendary Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who was said to have spoken 72 languages. Unfortunately, even the author has not found that much.

Synopsis (Kowlgwel)

The book is divided into three parts, each dedicated to supposed hyperpolyglots. It also has an autobiographical component of Michael Erard researching these historical figures.

Michael Erard

He holds graduate degrees in linguistics and rhetoric. Erard has written about linguistics in numerous magazines, such as the New York Times.

Erard himself has spent time in Europe researching Mezzofanti in order to write his book–albeit blundering through his Italian.

Also, much of the book involves Erard trying to engage in critical conversation with the authors behind studies of polyglots. He points out how they either did not go far enough into their research, or that they had false premises for studying the polyglots in the first place.

Historical Context (Kettesten Hwedheldusek)

During the time of Mezzofanti, there was not a lot written about concerning the “Algonquin” language and the “Indian” language which was really Hindi. As Cardinal, he definitely had access to such rare information.

The book begins with an examination of Mezzofanti, particularly with the burning question of whether Mezzofanti actually did know more than seventy languages. The issue of determining someone’s language skills was not established in that time. What was known was that he had the Lord’s Prayer recited in the languages he attempted to learn to speak, and had conversations with any native speakers who were available.

Erard also mentions a Dalit activist who prefers using the English language rather than the native languages of the Indian subcontinent. He rationalized that Hindi, Marathi, and the other languages represent the caste system of the past, whereas English represents a cosmopolitan future of equality. This is indeed the case, since English is the dominant language used in business throughout the world. Of course, English was itself used as a colonial instrument.

Themes (Themow)

The concept of polyglottery is just as questioned as Mezzofanti’s supposed skills, since it ultimately determines whether someone can truly know more than one language. This not only includes knowing the basic grammar, but also the nuances, such as the idioms and colloquialisms.

The controversy also involves knowing whether someone is actually a polyglot or not. A major barrier to this is how well they can utilize the languages, not just in the marketplace, but also in times of immediacy, such as in air traffic, where not knowing the colloquial English terms could mean life or death. Another barrier is whether the supposed polyglot is simply direct translating the words without an understanding of the grammar, or if the polyglot is able to reciprocate when being in the position to respond. Famed linguist Ken Hale was quite modest in his summary of the languages he is able to speak.

As for the rationale for studying and speaking languages, a common theme throughout the book indicates that utility is one of the prime rationales. As far as the linguistic diversity in Africa, there are people in Cameroon, for instance, who are able to speak multiple languages because their spouses or the neighboring village speaks a language other than their own. The reason why Mandarin Chinese is studied in the West–and why English and French are studied in East Asia–is because of their open opportunities to expand their own market values. However, Erard noting the problem that utility only goes so far, since people who have utility has their rationale would abandon learning more about their new languages when it no longer suited them.

Of course, just like the Cameroonians, utility can be an important rationale for studying and speaking multiple languages. A German-American diplomat Emil Krebs knew this, since he was able to speak multiple languages, due to the people he worked with throughout World War I.

Intertextuality (Tredh-Srifekyans)

Erard references a possible polyglot’s essay where he explained how language speakers during colonization have to speak the languages of their colonizers, while the colonizing language-speakers have to learn the language of the people they want to colonize, in order for them to truly understand the circumstance they will be in. This definitely recalls to mind Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, in which he notes that empires have multiculturalism–with the price of subjugating the very people who would become incorporated into the empire. The same can be said of multilingualism, unfortunately.

Also, it had been 100 pages in the book and I was surprised that Erard did not mention Daniel Tammet, who is the savant who is able to speak multiple languages while also being able to memorize large numbers through his synesthesia. He is mentioned only briefly, which is a shame, because his life would have provided a lot of details to the book; especially because he was medically diagnosed his whole life and there are records indicating that.

Erard also mentions the Critical Years theory, which suggests that children develop the most receptive learning during their early years. This is also discussed by the Hungarian psychologist Lazslo Polgar when incorporation talent pedagogy into his own home. However, Erard would disagree with Polgar–like a lot of the scholarship in the book–that the Critical Years theory holds up, because children also do not have a large attention span and may not be as receptive as originally thought. Perhaps if there were at least two languages spoken consistently in the household, this would result in the child developing a code-switching speech pattern.

As Scott Young indicated in Ultralearning, there needs to be perpetual feedback if someone intends to become an expert on any subject. This is the way in which the learner can feel validated for learning a narrowly focused subject. In the case of languages, feedback is incredibly crucial, since there will be nuances that can be missed.

Writing Style (Gis Skrifedh)

Since this book is part biographical, it is expected that physical descriptions of everything around Erard would play a part in the book. In all else, the issue of how a language is learned among many other abstract ideas predominate the book.

Throughout the book, Erard uses the word plasticity a lot in order to illustrate the adaptability of the brain in order to adapt to new information. In this case, languages are that new information being imputed. He also points out that while the brain can make many neural connections, it is also limited due to inactivity of an activity or memory loss.

As for the brain itself, Erard makes the analogy of the world, with each country representing a specific part of the brain.

Real-World Application (Omrians Vys-Wir)

Erard mentions that a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese has a completely different rationale for speaking the native language than a businessman in his fifties trying to learn it. He puts more expectation on the language-leaning process–perhaps for the economic viability of it as a market-tongue–than the native speaker, who would have been immersed in the language beyond the marketplace. It is important to have a clear rationale behind learning a language, since it is all-encompassing and practically a world in of itself. I want to keep this in mind when learning languages.

As for the determination of whether someone can be described as a fluent speaker, a component that is overlooked in this book is the fact that language is a means of communication with other people. So, fluency would absolutely be determined by the company a polyglot keeps. It is especially the case with Belgium, since as Erard noted, citizens speak the multiple languages that exist within the small country. If you live in a diverse, metropolitan area, or at least the area within circumference of the metropolitan area, then it is best to not take it for granted if you want to become a polyglot.

Also, Erard noted that the polyglots that he wrote about had a common trait, which was that they developed an interest in languages in the face of a distressing event, such as the death of a family member. It is important to note, as Erard did, that when you learn a new language, you are taking on a new identity; which is of course the reason why language courses tend to start with you picking a glottopseudonym from the language itself.

As Erard mentioned, repetition is key to success in any language. Mezzofanti knew this too well, since he had notecards and many notes to study by himself.

Recommend This To… (Komendysen Ma Dhe…)

  • There is really not a lot of people to recommend this book to, not because of its quality, but from the utility that this book may have. There are not a lot of people, in America at least, who are interested in learning a second language. Most Americans barely have a grasp on Spanish, and even then they are not obligated to speak it even for a useful purpose. As such, polyglottery would definitely be more of a niche subject in America, whereas it is a daily reality for people all over the world. As such, I would recommend this to…
  • Anyone who lives in a metropolitan area, since this would be useful. You may not need to learn the languages, but if you are interested, then an in-sight into many polyglots would be useful when trying to communicate with different language-speakers.
  • Anyone who wants an overview of polyglottery. The expectations I had in this book were not that high, since I could not find a comprehensive biography of Giuseppe Mezzofanti. So, until that day ever comes, this book did suffice with the information that Erard worked with.

Relevance To Cornish Identity (Bri Dhedhi Honanieth Gernowek)

Kernowek was indeed one of the many languages that Mezzofanti supposedly spoke. It is a shame that it fell into a state of dormancy for a long time until fairly recently. But, of course Mezzofanti proved that even an endangered language like Kernowek was worth speaking.

Sources (Pednfentydnyow)

  • Erard, Michael. “Babel No More: The Search For The World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.” Simon & Schuster. 2012.
  • Harari, Juval Noah. “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” 1st Edition. Harper-Perennial. 2018.
  • Polgar, Laszlo. “Raise A Genius!” Translated from Esperanto by Gordon Tisher (2017). Translated into Esperanto by Josefo Horvath (2004). 1989.
  • Tammet, Daniel. “Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant.” 1st Edition. Free Press. 2006.
  • Young, Scott H. “Ultralearning: Accelerate Your Career, Master Hard Skills and Outsmart the Competition.” Thorsons. 2019.

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