Inside the Secret World of Language-Learning Superstars
In how many languages do you know how to say “hello”? If you can answer, “11 or more,” you qualify as a hyperpolyglot, according to this article in The Economist: Foreign Languages: The Gift of Tongues.
The article starts with a historical figure, Cardinal Mezzofanti of Bologna, Italy. He was famed as a master of languages. Native speakers from points far and wide would come to test his fluency, reportedly coming away stunned at the count’s way with words. No one knew for sure how many tongues he could speak in, but it was obviously far greater than the norm.
A piece in The New York Times shined a spotlight on a rising star in the scene: A Teenage Master of Languages Finds Online Fellowship. Timothy Doner is a 16-year-old from New York who claims to speak over a dozen languages. The article contains a video with Doner showing off his multilingual chops.
YouTube is a hotspot for these types, as it gives them the chance to record themselves and hopefully get feedback from native speakers. Another active community is How to Learn Any Language. It’s fun to check out their profiles of various languages, ranging all the way from Arabic to Turkish. There are comments on “usefulness,” “chic factor,” and “travel.” All to help aspiring polyglots choose the next one to master.
Getting back to Cardinal Mezzofanti, many speculated about how he pulled off such feats. Was it talent or hard work, or a mix of both? There was one clue discovered after he died:
At the end of his story, however, he finds a surprise in Mezzofanti’s archive: flashcards. Stacks of them, in Georgian, Hungarian, Arabic, Algonquin and nine other tongues. The world’s most celebrated hyperpolyglot relied on the same tools given to first-year language-learners today.
Talent certainly helps, but there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned practice. Even geniuses need to brush up to maintain their skills.
How many languages have you learned? What tips and tricks helped you progress? What’s your favorite language? Please share your experiences in the comments.