Hyper-polyglots and the sublime delight of learning a foreign language

Hyper-polyglots and the sublime delight of learning a foreign language

By Larbi Arbaoui

Morocco World News

Taroudant, Morocco, October 11, 2012

The purposes and uses of foreign languages cannot be limited to the need for cross cultural communication. Some students study foreign languages for the purpose of finding a rewarding career in the international marketplace. Others are interested in the intellectual challenge, cognitive benefits and social status that accrue to those who master multiple languages. Still others study the others’ languages as a means to exhaustively understand the humane behavior and the culture of that community. Sadly, in our schools, nearly all students learn foreign languages simply to meet a graduation requirement. Yet, there are some people who experience a personal delight in learning more languages; so their appetite cannot stop at three, six or even ten languages.

As a foreign language teacher, I am in restless quest to find the best method of learning a foreign language, precisely English language. Being aware of how foreign languages are being learnt will for sure make my work methodical, structural and easier. Many times, I went back through the years to my experience as a foreign learner.

I have been to a language training center, and I read some books and articles dealing with methods and approaches to better learn and teach a foreign language. All the methods, techniques and approaches I have come across so far make it clear that much time, energy, and brain power is required to learn a foreign language. I cannot hide my astonishment of the extraordinary gifts of some language super-learners, technically hyper-polyglots, throughout history and the secrets behind their mastery of several languages easily. How they managed to learn those numerous languages is still a mystery!

The freedictionary.com defines a hyper-polyglot as “one who can speak six or more languages fluently.” Michael Erard in his new book, Babel No More, believes that there is something that distinguishes hyper-polyglots neurologically. He adds: “they have an ability to switch between languages very easily, and that involves cognitive skills which are often heritable.”

Many people want to speak a second language, but for some people their lust won’t stop at two languages or even three. Those are hyper-polyglots. Throughout history, there are very few people recognized as hyper-polyglots, but their ability to speak and understand foreign languages was outstanding and their skill in switching off between more than six languages easily was beyond ordinary.

Joseph Caspar Mezzofanti (1774-1849) was a religious and a nineteenth-century Italian scholar, who became Cardinal of the Catholic Church, and was a renowned linguist and hyper-polyglot. Mezzofanti was committed to a lifelong process of language acquisition, and he definitely got to high levels in several languages. There are speculations about the number of languages he mastered; some say 38 and 58 dialects, others say more, but he was confirmed and tested to be perfectly fluent in 38 languages. He never left Italy and yet managed to learn how to speak languages. How did he do that?

The lesson I get from the story of Mezzofanti and other polyglots is that nothing comes easy. It is obvious that a learner needs to sacrifice more time on the study and practice of the target language. Mezzofanti and other polyglots had the habit of translating from target languages to their first languages. This may sound an old method for some language teachers, but it proved efficient for those supper learners and still places a challenge to the learners. Practice of the target language was also one of the powerful elements that helped those language learners keep a fast hold on the foreign language they were learning. Most important is the devotion we hold for learning a new language and our determination to go beyond the linguistic and cultural barriers with other communities.

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