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Authors: Michael Erard

Babel No More

BOOK: Babel No More
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“You’ll be awed by the incredible characters in this eye-opening book. How do they do it? And what can the rest of us learn from them?”
—Joshua Foer, author of
Moonwalking with Einstein
“Babel No More is a thorough delight. An informed and even addictive guide to why some people pick up new languages so easily and how maybe you can too.”
—John McWhorter, lecturer, Columbia University,
New Republic
contributing editor, and author of
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue
“Erard gets beneath the surface of the hyperpolyglot, piercing the myth of perfect competence, to show the actual landscape of motives, obstacles, and satisfactions that texture the world of long-distance language-learners. [They] are revealed as a tantalizing tribe, individually reticent and even charming, as they offer their incomprehensible fluency to the world at large.”
—Nicholas Ostler, author of
The Last Lingua Franca
“A fascinating look at the unusual ability to learn multiple languages. This opens up a new area of research in the study of giftedness.”
—Ellen Winner, author of
Gifted Children: Myths and Realities
“Part biography, part detective story, Erard’s spellbinding book offers us a window through which we may view the lives of these remarkable (and remarkably diverse) characters, telling their stories while trying to answer the fundamental question: how did they do it?”
—Claude Cartaginese, editor,
The Polyglot Project
“An intrepid and savvy linguistic explorer, Michael Erard sets out to find the world’s masters of multiple languages. He discovers the best of them, and much more about their talents and brains, their motivation and habits, and their places in society. Babel No More brings the genius language learners to life. It will delight the enthusiasts who love the challenge of learning foreign languages and will comfort the weary who dreaded facing Latin verb conjugations.”
—Deborah Fallows, author of
Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language

e all learn at least one language as children. But what does it take to learn six languages, twenty . . . seventy? Such feats of linguistic prowess provide a glimpse into what the human brain is capable of—and hold up a mirror to our desire to live without language barriers on a shrinking planet.

Babel No More
, Michael Erard, “a monolingual with benefits,” sets out on a quest to meet language
superlearners and make sense of their mental powers. On the way he uncovers the secrets of historical figures like the nineteenth-century Italian cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who was said to speak seventy-two languages and was such a legend that when he died people all over Europe vied for his skull. Emil Krebs, a pugnacious fin de siècle German diplomat, spoke sixty-eight languages, and Erard
sees the evidence of this in Krebs’s dissected brain. Lomb Kató, a Hungarian hyperpolyglot who taught herself Russian by reading Russian romance novels, believed that “one learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.” These massive multilinguals have long offered a natural experiment into the limits of the brain; here, at last, we can inspect the results.

On his way to tracking down
the one man who could be called the most linguistically talented person in the world, Erard meets other living language-superlearners. Among them is Alexander, a modern-day polyglot with dozens of languages who shows him the tricks of the trade and gives him a dark glimpse into the life of obsessive language acquisition. “I came to consider him as a holy man,” writes Erard. “Others do yoga; Alexander
does grammatical exercises.”

With his ambitious examination of what language is, where it lives in the brain, and the cultural implications of polyglots’ pursuits, Erard explores the upper limits of our ability to learn and to use languages, and illuminates the intellectual potential in everyone. How do some people escape the curse of Babel—and what might the gods have demanded of them in return?

has graduate degrees in linguistics and rhetoric from the University of Texas at Austin. He has written about language, linguists, and linguistics for Science, Slate, Wired, The Atlantic, The New York Times, New Scientist, and many other publications, and is a contributing writer for Design Observer. He is the author of one other book, Um . . . : Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders,
and What They Mean. Michael was awarded the Dobie Paisano Writing Fellowship in 2008 to work on Babel No More.


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Um . . . :
Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean

Free Press
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New York, NY 10020
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Erard
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Free Press
Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
First Free Press hardcover edition January 2012
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BOOK: Babel No More
7.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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