Pincher Martin's Bibliothèquewebbie -- Sunday, January 29, 2012 -- 01:39:17 AM
Reviews and commentary on all things related to books. Extended discussions on political, social, and cultural topics sparked by a review of a book are also welcome.This thread is tagged:
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I am delighted you've decided to start talking books again. I've missed your reviews.
Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners by Michael Erard, Free Press, 2012, 306 pp.
One of the most difficult linguistic feats I ever had to pull off in a language that was not my mother tongue was to sit through a forty-minute job interview in Mandarin Chinese. I was applying for a job as a radio broadcaster in Taiwan who would labor on behalf of the ROC government by disseminating soft-core propaganda about the island country. The successful applicant was to broadcast news and feature programs in English, but his working environment would otherwise be almost entirely in Chinese and so the interview was to be conducted in Chinese. Adding to my apprehension on the day I went to the station was the discovery that I was the only white person among the half-dozen or so applicants I saw waiting to be interviewed. I knew that several Taiwanese were already on the English-language news staff, and as a rule Taiwanese who worked in the English media usually had excellent English skills to complement their native Chinese skills.
When it was my turn to be interviewed, I entered a large meeting room. Facing me were six Taiwanese seated at a large rectangular table. I later discovered they ranged in position from the general manager of the station to the head of the English news division. Oh Jesus, I thought, I’m going to have to run the gauntlet. I sat down on the opposite side of the table from my interlocutors and tried to do my best to look like I belonged there, which I was now quite sure I did not. But much to my surprise, the interview went smoothly. I understood everything that was said to me, and my Chinese responses to their questions and remarks were fluent and clear. If I made any mistakes, I’m pretty sure they were minor.
As the final part of the interview, they asked me to do a sight translation of a Chinese news article. A sight translation is when one takes a piece of text and orally translates it on the spot. I had translated many Chinese-language articles before, but I had never done a sight translation for a knowledgable and critical audience. You can’t refer to a dictionary or other linguistic aid during a sight translation. It’s just you and the text. I was given a few nervous moments to scan the article. It was a financial piece about a rise in Taiwan’s credit card interest rates in the third quarter of that particular year. While tedious and repetitive, translating it wasn’t difficult. There was only one phrase in the three-column article I didn’t understand, and it was deep enough in the piece that I just skipped over it without too much worry. The repetitiveness of the article, a common feature in Chinese-language articles, was already allowing me to condense my translation, so I was confident my omission wasn’t noticed.
A couple days after the interview I got a phone call from the station telling me to show up the next day. They didn’t say what for, but I later discovered this was their way of saying I was hired. I could now proudly claim that I had successfully interviewed for a job in a language other than English (even if the job itself required native-like English skills). What was even better is that Chinese is a language learned by most Westerners only with some difficulty. For someone who had been a wretchedly self-conscious monoglot until his mid-twenties, this was an accomplishment of some note, and one which had taken me years to reach. I had previously shied away from strong claims I was bilingual because I felt such a boast should mean more than a mere acquaintance with a foreign language through the classroom, casual conversations on the street, highly selective use in business, or even piecemeal translation work. Perhaps now I had enough evidence on my side to make a justified claim to be bilingual. A multifaceted job interview is both difficult to prepare for and stressful enough in its circumstances to adversely affect a person who is trying to pass with marginal language abilities.
Fast forward several years. I’ve lived in the United States since my return from Taiwan more than four years ago. During this period, I’ve rarely used or read Chinese. One day I give a call to my wife who is in Taiwan visiting her family. Her sister answers the phone and begins jabbering at me in Chinese, just as she has done a hundred times before. While I understand everything she is saying, I’m unable to do more than stammer a few simple Chinese words back at her in response. My sister-in-law is perplexed as to who she is speaking with. Fortunately, my wife grabs the phone from her, and I am saved from further embarrassment. What had happened to my Chinese? How could I perform at such a high level in a stressful environment and yet, just a few years later, be unable to perform at all in the most friendly and casual of circumstances?
It was of some comfort to me when reading Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, a book about the linguistically-talented men and women called hyperpolyglots, to consider that perhaps the answer is nothing unusual had happened to my Mandarin at all -- that even the world’s best language learners occasionally suffer from these episodes. A language skill I’d cultivated with some care in adulthood had been neglected, and therefore degraded, from lack of use. One famous hyperpolyglot, a nineteenth century Italian cardinal named Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who some sources claim knew as many eighty languages and even reliable sources say was fluent in at least thirty, suffered a breakdown when studying Mandarin that caused him to temporarily forget all the languages he had learned with the exception of his native Bolognese dialect. I sympathized. I had known grown men who became emotional wrecks, and even reduced to teary blubbering, by their struggles to master basic competence in the Chinese language. In a more appropriate comparison to my own melted-down experience with Mandarin, a contemporary hyperpolyglot, a Greek woman by the name of Helen Abadzi, claims that, outside the half-dozen or so core languages in which she possesses native-like fluency, she must keep the rest of the nearly dozen languages she knows on ice, where she can quickly revive them just before she knows she will need them. As one source in the book puts it, “The enemy of the language learner is forgetting. You can only prevent this by regularly studying. It’s not revolutionary.”
The author of Babel No More is a linguist named Michael Erard. But this is not a scholarly book. It’s more of a breezy journalistic account that looks into the mystery of how some men and woman are able to learn so many languages (defined anywhere from at least six to eleven languages). Erard travels to several countries to chase down these linguistic legends, trying to separate the history from the myth of famous dead hyperpolyglots, interviewing the rare living hyperpolyglot he is able to contact, speaking to experts in the field of language learning and neuroscience, and then making some intelligent speculations about what he finds. The result is a fun and informative book that is filled with much fascinating human detail when the author keeps it light, but which falters when Erard turns to more scholarly material that, ironically, he can’t seem to handle competently despite his linguistic training.
The story of Cardinal Mezzofanti is a point of departure for Erard’s account. He begins by traveling to Italy to research the enigmatic figure who reportedly was able to become conversationally fluent in a language in as little as two weeks. Was this true? The evidence cuts both ways, and it should surprise no language learner that a lot depends on how we define fluency. While Mezzofanti was undoubtably talented in acquiring languages, even a few of his contemporaries raised questions about the actual scope and range of his linguistic skills. One critic said Mezzofanti recited foreign languages like a parrot. Another claimed the Italian cardinal had not one single idea in any language rattling around in his mind, which struck me as a not very sound linguistic critique, even if it was true. Still another critic said that there was something unnatural about the way Mezzofanti spoke English, despite it being one of the languages he knew best. Erard corresponded with one modern hyperpolyglot who warned him not to make too much of Mezzofanti or any other hyperpolyglot whose skills he could not personally testify.
The hyperpolyglot cardinal in old age. Some reports claimed he knew over seventy languages.
But the Italian’s admirers outnumbered his detractors, and there seems abundant evidence that whatever number of languages Mezzofanti actually spoke he was a very talented linguist. Pope Gregory XVI reportedly enjoyed holding court by having several of his religious subjects try to mix Mezzofanti up by simultaneously speaking to him in different tongues. To his Holiness’s delight, the linguistically-talented cardinal was rarely left at a loss for words in the language he was addressed in. Lord Byron once lost a multilingual cursing contest with the cardinal and declared him, “a monster of languages... someone who ought to have existed at the Tower of Babel.” On another occasion, a Russian scholar who stumped Mezzofanti by speaking “little Russian” (Ukrainian) to him was told by the cardinal to meet him again in two weeks, whereupon Mezzofanti shocked the Russian by speaking to him in fluent Ukrainian for several hours. This greatly startled the Russian, who felt the Italian must have some secret to learning languages. When Mezzofanti tried to explain that he already knew the Russian tongue, and therefore had a gateway to quickly learning Ukrainian, the Slav replied that this still did not explain how he could have become fluent “in a fortnight.” How had he done it?
This general question -- how do hyperpolyglots learn languages so easily? -- propels Erard from country to country, searching for one marvelous language learner after another. He meets colleagues of the late Ken Hale, a linguist at MIT, who was famous for his sponge-like ability to absorb languages. Some of the stories about Hale’s linguistic prowess must be apocryphal. He reportedly learned to speak Japanese by watching the Shogun miniseries with subtitles and was fluent in Finnish after studying a How to Speak Finnish book on the flight to Helsinki. To his credit, Hale tried to discourage talk of his linguistic talents, claiming to be completely fluent in only three languages (English, Spanish, and Warlpiri -- an Australian aborigine tongue). Erard also corresponds with the Swede Erik Gunnemark, who died soon after an intriguing exchange of emails with the author. It is Gunnemark who warns Erard not to make too much of Mezzofanti. The Swede, who could translate more than forty languages, also shares his theory that hyperpolyglots have photographic memories. This explains why most of them can read so many more languages than they can fluently speak.
The late Ken Hale was a colleague of Noam Chomsky at MIT
Interestingly, given Erard’s background in linguistics and his interest in this subject, he is not that talented in learning languages. He lived for a period of time in Latin America and my old home of Taiwan, and so he knows some Spanish and Mandarin. But he modestly jokes that he is “a monolingual with benefits.” His attempts to do research on Mezzofanti in Italy occasionally flounder because he speaks and reads no Italian. He oddly insists on scanning Mezzofanti’s documents (few of which are in English) to find some pattern that will help explain the cardinal's extraordinary language-learning abilities. Erard is always modest and even self-conscious about his limited linguistic abilities. He begins his book by warning the reader not to expect a scholarly account of the subject. His tone throughout is appropriately light. But there is still a glaring contradiction between Erard’s serious interest in how hyperpolyglots become who they are and his own limited knowledge of the subject and of languages. In too many parts of his account, he reverts to where he began the book: the illiterate man shuffling through Mezzofanti’s papers hoping to find some smoking gun to explain the Italian’s linguistic talents -- like one of the proverbial blind men touching some part of an elephant so he can describe the beast to his audience.
Had Erard stay focused on the personal characteristics of hyperpolyglots he met, and gave a few preliminary insights into what he found, I think he would have written a better book. Instead, he eventually becomes bogged down in cataloguing the various scientific experiments he has been introduced to during his search. Some of the experiments and scientific findings are interesting and some are not, but they blur together in Erard’s account and become just one thing after another. There’s no structure or priority given to them. Erard is always a clear writer and so I assume this lack of clarity is because Erard isn’t sure himself what to make of the findings and leaves it to the general reader to glean what he can. I was left with a general sense that we don’t know very much about what separates hyperpolyglots from the rest of the population. Perhaps that was Erard’s point, but he could have made the lesson for the reader less painful by making it more directly. Erard also seems dubious about the value of IQ to learning languages quickly, but the evidence he provides seems mixed to me. Thankfully, the core of this book is about the author’s adventures in search of hyperpolyglots and it is here, in Erard’s own discussions with these talented men and women and his amateur insights into what makes them tick, that the book is fascinating.
Rating: Six out of Ten Stars. ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
Synopsis: A fun and occasionally informative book on an interesting subject, but it fails to engage the reader at a deeper level.
See, I've been convinced for most of my life that language acquisition is an attribute separate from intelligence, something that can appear in people with IQs of any measure. My father, who has a relatively low IQ (sub-100) is conversationally fluent in pretty much any language he's been in contact with for more than a few weeks. I've seen him pick up conversational and working Greek, whatever language our driver spoke in Kenya, whatever Gaelic he could convince people to teach him when were in Scotland, enough Tagalog to impress the crew of Filipino mechanics he worked with, casual French (a language he never liked) and that's not counting genuine fluency in Arabic. He couldn't read or write a word in any of these languages, but he was also far beyond restaurant ordering and getting around in a taxi. (He is also an impressive improvisational musician, which I wonder is somehow connected).
I've always been horrible at spoken languages. I've also seen, in both Hispanic and Asian students (anecdotal, but a sample size of at least 200 in each group), kids who pick up languages rapidly and kids who struggle after years. So, for example, Kid A might have just come from Korea last year as a freshman but speaks English more fluently than Kid B, who has been in the country since kindergarten. Likewise, I've seen Hispanic illegal aliens just over the border for a couple years with verbal and written English skills stronger than kids who have been born here but grew up speaking Spanish until the age of 6.
This isn't hyperpolyglotism(?) per se, but my experiences have long since convinced me that language mastery is an innate skill that has little to do with intelligence or practice, past the age of 6 or so. For that reason, I'm also pretty impatient with all the prattling about teaching kids language in elementary school.
That's really interesting about blanking out on the language once you're out of practice. I'll have to ask my dad if he's noticed the same thing.
Do you think PE and Irving Snodgrass at the Fray would qualify as polyglots or hyperpolyglots?
I've always liked this metric of "native fluency" : if you were speaking with someone on the telephone in his native language, how long could you fool him you were also a native speaker ? I've known people who could maintain a perfect "native" accent for a sentence or two or three or four even, but then the rhythm flags at some point even if the individual words continue to be pronounced "natively". Or sometimes strange expressions and idioms creep in which may not be grammatically incorrect but are alien to the conventional modes of expression in the language.
Yes, you only speak 10 languages, not 30.
To clarify, I don't think my dad is a hyperpolyglot. His ability just did a lot to suggest to me that a facility with languages is not connected to intelligence per se.
There's no precise definition, but Erard defines a hyperpolyglot as someone who is fluent in at least six and preferably no fewer than eleven languages
So PE might. And if he doesn't qualify right now (because some of his languages have fallen into disuse), I imagine he could quite easily. I think he knows English, Urdu, Japanese, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Latin, Classical Greek, Turkish, some Arabic, and a smattering of other languages -- but to what degree, I don't know.
I don't think Snodgrass would count as one. If memory serves, Snodgrass was acquainted with numerous languages, but knew only three or four quite well. Hashke might have been one, when he was alive.
That's right, I forgot about Hashke. What was his real name, do you remember?
A lot of this comes down to how carefully we choose to define fluency and even how we choose to define a language. How do we classify dead languages, for example? Or closely related languages like Dutch and Flemish, which some contemporaries credited Mezzofanti with two languages, but modern scholars would claim is just one?
Here is how hyperpolyglot Erik Gunnemark described his own abilities:
No clue. And I really don't even know the extent of his language skills, which might have been more modest than I remember. He certainly was an eager language learner, taking up Hebrew under RustlerPike's tutelage just a few years before his death, but whether he became fluent in the languages he studied is another matter.
The lesson you draw from your father's experience mirrors one of the subjects in the book -- a man named Christopher who seems to pick up languages spontaneously despite being borderline retarded (IQ never tested above 76), unable to do simple self-care tasks, and possibly autistic. Most of the time he speaks only in monosyllables, but he's also able to translate to and from twenty languages.
But I'm a little leery of these unusual specimens. For every case like Christopher or (on a much higher level) your father, I bet there are a half-dozen cases like PE. And Erard does cite evidence in the book that suggests this is true. In one survey, among those claiming to know more than six languages, 46% reported IQs over 140 and another 42% claimed IQs from 120 to 140. Erard downplays this finding by saying that the results are self-reported.
I suspect that's true, because how many people of below average intelligence have the opportunity to learn many languages? My dad is a remarkable guy--a gifted mechanic and musician, he jumped at an opportunity to live in Saudi Arabia, where he rose from mechanic up to general foreman and higher, working with Greek and then Filipino mechanics, Arab pilots, and then travel around the world. I don't think most low IQ people would have the sort of life experiences that would allow them to learn new languages.
I've also noticed no real correlation between Hispanic students and language abilities. I can think of four students right now, all of them in this country two years. Two of them are well above average ability in math, but almost no fluency in English. Two others struggle in math, have no verbal skills to speak of, but are extremely fluent. The first two have passed the CAHSEE in math and English, but not the CELDT (the test that qualifies them out of ELL status). The second two barely passed in English, didn't pass in math, and tested highly fluent on the CELDT.
So it wouldn't surprise me that there are more known high IQ polyglots than low IQ, but I'm just not convinced that language facility is correlated to IQ.
And of course, part of that is about my own abilities, too. I can feel how my relatively weak spatial skills interferes with my ability to work with higher level math (calculus is about my limit, at this point), while I also know that within my capabilities, I'm far above average at math because of my IQ. But I'm far worse at learning any language and that doesn't feel at all related to IQ--it feels much more like my inability to hit a three pointer or throw a baseball.
ETA: Again, to clarify, I'm not denying that more polyglots may have high IQs. I just don't think it's a function of IQ in the way math or vocabulary acquisition is.
In matters linguistic I have no accomplishment or demonstration of talent which can compare with Pincher's. If he can sight translate a Chinese newspaper article orally, or survive a job interview in Mandarin, a language he learnt as an adult, that is an accomplishment in language beyond me.
The first 20 years of my life were packed with a diverse experience of languages living and dead. As an adult with a brain now too mature for real language learning, I simply coast on the inextinguishable imprint of those two decades.
I can pull a Mezzofanti with members of the Indo-European language family. That is to say, I can turn to my knowledge of several IE languages in order to quickly grasp the essential grammar of an unknown IE family member. I would then identify as many cognates as possible, or at least learn how to convert words from one language to those in another closely related language. By doing that I know I could speak passable Icelandic or Bulgarian or Catalan or Oriya in a few weeks. (But then within 2 weeks of disuse I would have to restart from zero!) (( Outlier IE languages like Albanian or Gaelic would take longer...))
That's not the same as studying a truly alien language as an adult and mastering it. I've never done that.
Pincher mentioned Turkish in relation to me. Turkish is not an IE language. So its grammar is just a little odd at first, but still not outlandish for a speaker of European languages. The real learning curve is in the vocabulary. Although perhaps half of its words are borrowed from English/French/German and Persian/Arabic, the core vocabulary is completely alien and learning it requires memorisation unaided by knowledge of cognates. When I studied Turkish in my 30s, I found it easy to utter sentences filled with loanwords, such as "Ataturk's glorious constitution and the independence of the great army experience destruction under the Islamist government which seek to return the nation to the era of the Ottoman caliphate". (All but a handful of words here have foreign origin.) But much simpler sentences with few loanwords (e.g. "the fresh cheese your wife made is so much tangier than the street vendor's") required much more effort. I can still utter cognate-rich sentences in Turkish with fair grammatical and idiomatic accuracy, but, after the waning of the once intense interest in the language, I would now grope for the more "everyday" words.
Yet Turkish is nowhere near as alien as Cambodian or Xhosa, whether in grammar or vocabulary or pronunciation.
Mezzofantism is easy ; acquiring a truly alien language is not, at least for me.
By the way, Pincher, that was a great review. It combines an appealing personal intro to the book, a sagacious alert to its flaws, and an enticing sale of its strengths.
But please, if you are going to post relevant images, don't do captions in small font and italics, as though you were vanity-publishing a physical magazine article ! Also, stay away from stars and synopsis !
I like the captions! But I agree about the review.
One interesting part of the book is when Erard writes about those undeveloped areas of the world -- West Africa, South India, and the Amazon are his specific examples -- where most people speak several languages as a natural result of their multilingual environment. Some of these areas have been documented as regions where the inhabitants have very low average IQs -- much lower than anything we find in the states. And yet most inhabitants there chatter away in several tongues without thinking it at all unusual or themselves special because of it.
Erard points out that these aren't really examples of a community filled with polyglots because the languages most people in these communities use are very limited and only for certain circumstances. They might be able to speak fluently about meat in a neighboring tribe's tongue where they go to buy meat, for example, but be completely lost when the subject there turns to, say, textiles. So they speak five or six languages, but only in a very limited fashion.
Erard speculates that this was probably the rule for most of the planet's inhabitants for most of their history. If he's right, there might be a natural basic competency in language learning that even the least intelligent among us possesses and that is independent from IQ. This basic linguistic competency could vary widely on the individual level depending upon the learner's sociability, ear, and other traits that we don't see as strongly connected to learning ability. But this competency is probably also limited to low-level fluency. I would guess that the further you go in learning a language, the more a high IQ reasserts itself in importance to the task. Basic chit-chat in a foreign tongue? You probably either have a knack for it or you don't. (I don't; your father apparently did.) But high-level fluency? I would guess that IQ plays an important role.
I knew many, many, many language learners who I'm sure were about average or even below average in intelligence, but picked up Mandarin much faster than I did. It was very frustrating for me to watch during my early days on the island because I feared there must be some permanent linguistic defect in me that I would not be able to correct. There's no worse feeling in the world than having some smug dumbass, who thinks he's smarter than you, proceed to give you his thoughtful, heartfelt advice on how to improve your language skills.
But after a year or two, hard work and patience began to pay off for me. And many of the dumb language learners I knew who started off fast began to level off and never improved dramatically beyond the street corner language they quickly mastered in their first few months on the island, even though they continued to take language classes and live in the same environment they had benefitted from so vividly before.
Having said that, there's no doubt that a lot of cases defy easy categorization. Some people just seem to have a gift for languages, even though they are not high achievers in other areas. Other people struggle like the dickens no matter how competent they appear at most other tasks in their life.
It's quite obviously not beyond you. I'm sure you could do it in short order if you chose -- certainly in a much shorter time frame than it took me to accomplish it. You simply had, and have, other priorities and intellectual pursuits, that's all.
I beg your indulgence. I'm preparing to publish a speciality blog focused on book reviews at the end of the year. This thread is sort of a trial run for that effort. I'm using it to build up a store of reviews, experiment with form, and get some feedback.
I agree with you about the stars and synopsis, but I hope to have visually interesting elements of a similar sort in the blog. I like clean blogs, but I dislike large blocks of text that aren't broken up with a few interesting and consistent items that attract the eye to the page. I want to lure that marginal reader who might want to read a review, but still prefers his online content in a stimulating format. I think a photo of the book and a few other relevant pics put judiciously in the text helps in that aim. I'm eventually hoping to use many of my own photos for this purpose, as well as become more adept at using, and manipulating, what I find online. But for this thread, my use of photos is more pro forma -- like a reminder of what I need to do for the future.
I agree with you about the star system. I don't like it. I'm working on a radically different and more visually stimulating way of ranking the books, but this will take some time. In the meanwhile, I'm using the star system as a mental note to myself, so that once I do start the blog I can easily re-sort the stars I have assigned into my preferred ranking system for the reviews I choose to recycle on the blog.
I'm inclined to junk the synopsis before I do anything else. But I'm also still thinking of ways to incorporate a similar item into my reviews, but once again do so in a more visually stimulating way. So for the time being, I'll keep the homely-looking synopsis around until I'm either sure I won't use them or I develop a new form to take its place.
Pincher's 18 seems exactly right to me. Many adults can quickly achieve a breezy competence in pidginised forms of a foreign language. They string together a bunch of words with enough skill to make themselves understood, and they know enough words to understand native speech -- but only up to a point, without nuances. That kind of fluency is ubiquitous in the world up and down the social and intellectual ladder, in the scale of billions. It takes confidence, perhaps brashness, a decent memory and immersion to pull it off. But it requires altogether a different set of skills -- not to mention diligence, patience, discipline and attention to detail -- to attempt a simulation of native speech in pronunciation, grammar, and idiom.
There are many different ways and degrees of fluency. People who are fluent in a language may or may not…
* speak with an accent recognised as native ;
* speak with complete ease and spontaneity, but in a pidgnised fashion ;
* be able to read beyond simple prose ;
* be able to write with ease or with formality or at length ;
* speak in a manner indistinguishable from a native, as long as the subject does not require detail, nuance or complexity.
Then there are those who can read even complex literary or technical writing with little difficulty, but lack the ability to speak at all or beyond simple phrases. The key here is the difference between active and passive vocabulary. It's possible to have a fairly large passive vocabulary in languages one can't even begin to form a sentence in.