Book Review: “Babel No More” by Michael Erard

“Babel No More” by Michael Erard focuses on a particular group of people who know and learn multiple languages, known as hyperpolyglots. Although I do not aspire to be a hyperpolyglot, I do like to read about languages and language learning.

I enjoyed the many stories about polyglots of past and present. Language is as much about the people who learn them as it is about the nuances of grammar and pronunciation. The book consists of multiple stories, some layered upon others. The overall story is that of Mezzofanti, a 19th century cardinal who was known to have spoke 72 languages. Erard takes on a journey to find out more about Mezzofanti and his secret to learning all those languages. I really don’t want to spoil it, you’ll have to read the book! Erard also introduces us to modern hyperpolyglots and their language habits. The personalities and characters of these hyperpolyglots are rather fun.

I learned that the definition of fluency and “knowing” a language is fluid. The definition is different for each individual. For some, it means being able to use a language in a specific context: at work, at the market, etc. Although hyperpolyglots learn many languages, native-like fluency may not be the ultimate goal.

There are also various age cutoffs for flexibility in language learning. Five or six is a cutoff for attaining native-like pronunciation. It is unlikely to sound native after the age of twelve. By fifteen it is difficult of attain native-like grammar. Adults are able to learn words and meanings, but grammar is more difficult. So now, I can say that I have native Taiwanese Mandarin pronunciation and native American English pronunciation because I learned both before the age of five. I probably cannot say the same for French, because I started learning it when I was twelve.

From the stories in the book, I am in awe of hyperpolyglots who have the organizational skill, brain power, and ability to learn so many languages. It has also given me new motivation to maintain native fluency in my native languages.

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