Babel No More

I’ll come clean. When I was asked as a child in primary school, “What would you do if time and money were no obstacle?” the answer I wrote was, “Travel the world and learn as many languages as possible.” Whether you grew up in a multilingual family or were raised in a largely monolingual environment like I was, those of us who have worked in the language industry have an undeniable love of and penchant for languages — especially those of you who speak English as a second language and who, with great devotion, just underlined the word penchant to look it up in a dictionary later.
When I first heard about Michael Erard’s book on hyperpolyglots, Babel No More, I had never even heard the word hyperpolyglot before. But once I knew what it meant (someone who speaks along the lines of 10 or 15 languages), my childhood dreams of becoming one were immediately rekindled. As a court-certified interpreter for Spanish and English, I was always glad to have obtained an advanced mastery of two languages, but my formal and admittedly erratic studies over the years had left me with a smattering of six additional languages spoken with varying levels of proficiency. I could never really claim to speak them fluently, only to have studied them, but I always made it a point of saying so with pride. After all, to study a language is to show interest and appreciation for that language and its people, right?  
Yet, in the language industry, most people measure language proficiency with a much harsher yardstick. There is a taboo around claiming that you “speak” a language unless you have mastered it to the degree that a translator or interpreter would. The pervading notion of quality revolves around the idea that only native speakers should produce translations into their language.  
But never mind how we view language proficiency in the language industry bubble. What if our entire conception of what it means to speak a language is wrong? Is a child who speaks its first few words in any language not really speaking it? Imagine saying to a five-year-old, “Well, you don’t really speak English yet — not until you can discuss more complex topics and speak with perfect grammar.” As odd as it sounds, that’s how many of us view adult language learners. In the language industry, the standards applied to “speaking” a foreign language — that indeed, you need to speak with the level of an educated native speaker — are much harsher than the ones we apply to the littlest of language learners who are just starting to speak their mother tongues.  
The reason for this introduction is to frame some of the points in Erard’s book in a way that will make sense for those of us who deal with translation and interpreting every day. I imagine that many MultiLingual readers will assume, as I did, that a hyperpolyglot must speak all of their languages fluently. Erard explains that a hyperpolyglot can speak, not just at a word-level or a sentence-level, but at a conversation level, in all of their languages. However, it might take a little bit of work for a hyperpolyglot to activate some of the languages that they do not use on a daily basis. Those languages are essentially sitting “on reserve.” Imagine a storehouse of languages that you can tap into and quickly converse in. It isn’t that you will immediately be able to dive back into them with your former prowess, but once you get warmed up, you can use them again and find yourself recalling verb conjugations and obscure terms that you thought your brain had long forgotten, soon speaking them again with apt proficiency. Sound familiar? It did to me. It even made me think that perhaps there might still be hope for me to become a hyperpolyglot. Contrary to what you might think, you don’t necessarily need to start the journey at a particularly early age. Some of the hyperpolyglots profiled in Erard’s book started learning large numbers of languages later in life. The point is, they don’t stop. They continue on what seems to be a fairly uninterrupted journey, adding languages and continuing to memorize vocabulary lists even when they are senior citizens. But, perhaps disappointingly for many language industry folks, hyperpolyglot status cannot be reached through sheer will power. There are physiological and even personal characteristics that these extreme language learners profiled by Erard tend to have in common. Most of them have a natural gift for learning foreign languages, including in many cases, a musical ear. They also are more likely to be left-handed. Erard’s research also included a somewhat controversial finding, noting a higher prevalence of homosexuality among the hyperpolyglots he surveyed than in the general population. So what are the things you can control if you want to be a hyperpolyglot? Erard’s book is an account of his search for hyperpolyglots, not a roadmap to becoming one. However, there are many great lessons for those of us who still have fantasies of roaming the world and conversing in countless tongues. Chapter 19 of Babel No More lays out some helpful advice for all learners of languages, so I’ll share a few of the suggestions Erard provides. First, he advises finding a group where you can have social interaction and become a language “insider.” Network with others who use multiple languages. Note to self: count my blessings to work in an office where I regularly hear Italian, Spanish, French, German, Arabic and Russian.
Second, Erard advises people not to use native speakers as a metric of progress. Huh? I can imagine translation industry colleagues scratching their heads at this one, but Erard’s argument is well-reasoned. He explains, “A language isn’t reserved for the perfectly calibrated native speaker. Words have currency even if they’re not perfectly wrought.” This concept is perhaps the hardest one for those of us with a translation background to wrap our heads around, since we’re used to insisting on such things as “native-level translation quality” and “unaccented speech,” although no such thing really exists.  
Third, Erard points to the value of learning languages for the sheer love of it. When he surveyed hyperpolyglots, many explained that they found language learning pleasurable, appreciated the beauty of human speech sounds and loved flexing their cerebral muscles. In fact, it appears that many language learners enter a “zone,” in which the repetitive exercises have a positive effect on the brain, dopamine is released, and the effect is a truly enjoyable one.  
Fourth, he points out that many hyperpolyglots talk about the importance of getting “a feel for a language.” This recommendation resonated strongly with me, as it reminded me of some of my best language learning experiences. My Japanese teacher, who was simply excellent, taught me to count with some cute Japanese songs for children that are forever ingrained in my brain. Lately, I’ve taken to watching the Irish soap opera Rós na Rún so that I can get a good feel for the diverse accents of the characters speaking Irish Gaelic. It’s absolutely true that the best way to do this is often through immersion, but there are other ways to give your brain a sense of a language.
Fifth, Erard explains that if you want to learn a language, you need to find a method and stick with it. The methods of hyperpolyglots do not appear to be any different from most language learners — yes, hyperpolyglots even use flashcards and read grammar books. After all, while it might be easier for hyperpolyglots to learn languages than the average person, learning a language at any level requires some hard work. For hyperpolyglots, it just turns out that they happen to derive pleasure from that work.
What I found most enjoyable about Erard’s book, aside from its subject matter, was the writing style itself. While reading it, I underlined many beautiful word pairings and well-crafted sentences related to language that struck me as unique and well-devised. These included quotes such as “Encounters between non-native speakers have always textured human experience” and “Living and working in a context where multiple languages are used, and where learning and using them . . . where one’s capacity in languages, at whatever level, is regarded as ‘meaningful multilingualism.’” Meaningful multilingualism is a concept that resonates, I imagine, with most people who work in translation. But for individuals who work with languages every day, I found the most important takeaway to be Erard’s remark about the necessity for people to reconsider the notion of “native-like” abilities in a language. The language learning industry, valued at $83 billion by the Nielsen Company in 2009, is much larger than the translation industry, which as of 2011 was valued at $31 billion by Common Sense Advisory. As the author points out, in China alone, the market for English learning is valued at $3.5 billion and has 30,000 companies offering as English classes. As China continues to rise in importance in the world and as English grows to be spoken by more nonnative speakers than native ones, contemplating how we view the issue of what it means to speak a language is something that all of us should be doing. Even those of us who naïvely dream of someday speaking them all and are not giving up just yet.