Inside the Secret World of Language-Learning Superstars

Speaking in tongues.

Speaking in tongues. Photo: Taylor Sloan / Flickr

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.

Posted by | Comments (6)  | March 23, 2012
Category: Languages and Culture, Notes from the collective travel mind

6 Responses to “Inside the Secret World of Language-Learning Superstars”

  1. MacEvoy DeMarest Says:

    I took German all through Jr. High and High School, and passed the AP test- but not with a high enough score to test out of the foreign language requirement for my BA. So I took two years of college French, and followed that up (naturally!) with two years in Slovenia, where I picked up Slovene and some Croatian.

    It takes a little time for me to really knock the rust off of each of them, but there’s no better feeling than understanding street signs in Dutch or Spanish or Czech, because your German, French and Slovene are so similar.

    As for advice, the thing that works for me is to have fun with it. Learn with the intent to make people laugh. Then you’re generally killing two birds with one stone- learning a language and making friends.

  2. Elizabeth Braun Says:

    If you only need to be able to say ‘hello’ in the language to qualify as speaking it, then I’m *easily* a hyperpolyglot!

    If, however, you are required to get to CEFR level B2, then maybe I’m just a triglot….

  3. Adriano Says:

    Just like in many other fields, I am not too sure whether size matters… In this case the “size” of knowledge in foreign languages.
    Just like Elisabeth, I can say hallo in more than a dozen languages, whereas I can express myself easily just in four and I feel confident enough in only three…

    A secret to learn a foreign language? Try to imitate mother tongue speakers. You can go as far as taking the mickey out of them (but for a good cause, not just for the sake of it): in no time you’ll end up with a local accent, by learning a new frame of mind associated with words. This is also a way to “have fun with it”, as MacEvoy suggests.

    One of the few disadvantages is that you could also start automatically to imitate also those who speak your mother tongue, and some of them may not take it easily…

    Learning a language is something you can do 24/7: so going out for a drink with friends can turn out to be a lesson. This was a good way for me to repress my sense of guilt after having spent a whole night out partying, during my (not exactly) studying period in France…

  4. michael erard Says:

    It’s too bad that you didn’t mention my book, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Languages, even though the Economist article you mention is a review of the book and even though the book created the newshook that the NY Times needed to run its article about Doner. I was the one who discovered Mezzofanti’s flash cards!

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