A Genius for Languages
BABEL NO MORE:
The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.
By Michael Erard.
Free Press. 306 pp. $25.99
A welter of tongues erupted from the assembled crowd, in speech so rapid that individual phrases could barely be made out. Pope Gregory XVI had gathered a crew of international students to test the skills of Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19th-century Italian cardinal who supposedly spoke as many as 60 languages, including Turkish, Hebrew, French, and Chinese. According to historical accounts, Mezzofanti switched swiftly between dozens of dialects to answer the students’ questions one by one, thereby passing the pope’s test. His performance qualifies him as one of history’s first recorded hyperpolyglots—defined as people who speak at least 11 languages.
In Babel No More, a study of so-called language superlearners, journalist Michael Erard argues that examining the cognitive gifts of people like Mezzofanti may help uncover “the upper limits of our ability to learn, remember, and speak languages.” Mezzofanti’s capacity to switch between languages, for instance, is evidence of an extremely well-developed executive function—the set of cognitive skills that help people organize and manage multiple tasks.
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