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Gift of the Gab, New Scientist, January 8, 2005

THE news arrived as an unexpected email. “Sir,” it began. “First, let me apologise for bothering you, but I saw an article you wrote and had to write.” The writer, N, went on to describe how his grandfather, a Sicilian who had never gone to school, could learn languages with such remarkable ease that by the end of his life he could speak 70 of them, and read and write in 56. (To preserve the writer’s anonymity and that of his family, N is not his real initial.)

The recipient of the email, which arrived in October 2003, was Dick Hudson, a professor emeritus of linguistics at University College London. N had belatedly come across a 1996 posting by Hudson to Linguist, a popular listserve for language scientists, in which Hudson had casually asked who held the world record for the number of languages they were able to speak. A flurry of postings listed the names of well-known polyglots, such as Giuseppe Mezzofanti, an 18th-century Italian cardinal, or Vernon Walters, a US intelligence officer who died in 2002.

According to N, his grandfather was 20 when he moved to New York in the 1910s. There he found a job as a railroad porter which brought him into contact with travellers speaking many different languages. N said that he once watched his grandfather translate a newspaper into three languages on the spot.

When N was 10 years old, in the 1950s, he accompanied his grandfather on a six-month world cruise. Whatever port they called at, N said his grandfather knew the local language. Their trip took them to Venezuela, Argentina, Norway, the UK, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, South Africa, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan. Assuming the grandfather spoke the local language at each port, not just the colonial language, he had to know at least 15.

Even more amazingly, N claimed that this talent ran in his family. “Every three or four generations there is a member of my family who has the ability to learn many languages,” he wrote. His grandfather once told N that his own father and great-uncle could speak more than 100 languages.

When Hudson read the note, he immediately recognised the potential significance of N’s claims and posted them on the Linguist list. His posting coined the term “hyperpolyglot”, which he defined as a person who speaks six languages or more. He chose six because there are some communities where everyone speaks five fluently.

Upper limits

Language is agreed to be a part of humans’ unique cognitive endowment, and scientists have long studied how language abilities can be impaired by disease or trauma. It is less clear, however, what upper limits this endowment has, if any. After a long period of silence on the topic, linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists are now looking to hyperpolyglots for answers. Do these people possess extraordinary brains, and if so, what makes their brains so special? Or are they just ordinary folk with ordinary brains who manage to do something extraordinary through motivation and hard work?

Hudson’s own interest was simple: he reckoned that understanding how hyperpolyglots attain their extraordinary powers might help teach ordinary people to learn more languages. This has attracted the attention of the US intelligence services, whose so-called “translation gap” is said to have led to crucial documents not being translated in time to stop Al-Qaida’s attacks. They are anxious to produce language experts more rapidly, and help them maintain their expertise more efficiently. “We go to great pains to keep people in language training,” says a foreign language expert with the US government. “I would like researchers to come up with the best methodology for language learning that will help our workforce now that we can also use in universities and colleges.”

Until recently, there was more anecdote than science about hyperpolyglots. Mezzofanti, for example, was claimed by his biographer Charles Russell, an ecclesiastical historian at St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland, to have been familiar with 72 languages, and to have spoken 39 of them fluently. Modern readers often greet such tales with scepticism. In the discussion that followed Hudson’s post to Linguist, a reader named Robert Johnson in Texas disputed the Mezzofanti story. “I find this whole thing… absolutely preposterous,” Johnson wrote, citing the time it would take to learn 72 languages. If you assume that each language had 20,000 words (which he acknowledged was too low), and that Mezzofanti could remember a word infallibly after seeing or hearing it once, he would still have to learn one word a minute, 12 hours a day for five-and-a-half years. “Does anyone feel like that is feasible?” Johnson asked.

Professional linguists are divided on this question, even though many of their number are hyperpolyglots. For example, Ken Hale, a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who died in 2001, was said to speak 50-odd languages. Philip Herdina, a linguist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, is one of the sceptics. He doubts that anyone has the cognitive capacity to speak 72 languages, arguing that maintaining this ability would take resources from other activities. Herdina’s own research focuses on people with a different language talent: they have learned only one to three additional languages, but they speak with near-native fluency even the ones they learned as adults. This is considered exceptional because language learning generally becomes more difficult once people reach puberty.

But other linguists see no reason why people shouldn’t be able to learn a huge number of languages. “There is really no limit to the human capacity for language except for things like having enough time to get enough exposure to the language,” says Suzanne Flynn, a psycholinguist at MIT who studies bilingualism and trilingualism. “It gets easier the more languages you know.” Harvard University psycholinguist Steven Pinker agrees. Asked if there is any theoretical reason someone couldn’t learn dozens of languages, he replied: “No theoretical reason I can think of, except eventually interference — similar kinds of knowledge can interfere with one another.”

But if Flynn and Pinker are correct, and an ability to learn a huge number of languages is the norm, why are so few people able to exploit it? Stephen Krashen, a professor emeritus of education and linguistics from the University of California, Los Angeles, believes that exceptional language learners simply work harder at it, and have a better understanding of how they learn.

As evidence, Krashen likes to point to Lomb Kat�, a Hungarian who worked as an interpreter and translator during the cold war. Lomb began with German in primary school; by the time Krashen met her in Budapest in 1996, the then 86-year-old could speak 16 languages, including Chinese, Russian and Latin, and was working on Hebrew.

Lomb told Krashen that she felt she had no special talent for languages. She took classes in Chinese and Polish, but the others she learned on her own, reading fiction or working through dictionaries or textbooks. Her favourite input was novels. In her 1970 memoir This is How I Learn Languages , she describes learning Russian from romantic novels and Spanish from a translation of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes . According to Krashen, Lomb, who died in 2003, was an ordinary person with no special qualities apart from a desire to learn a lot of languages and an effective way of doing it. “What Lomb had was a heroic drive to get comprehensible input and to retain it,” he says.

Exceptional brain power

Other researchers, however, say that exceptional brains play a bigger role. In thelate 1980s, neurolinguist Loraine Obler of the City University of New York found a talented language learner she called “CJ”. He was 29 years old and working towards a master’s degree at Harvard. He grew up monolingual; his first foreign language was French in high school, where he also learned German, Spanish and Latin. In college he majored in French, and after graduating he worked in Morocco, where he learned Arabic. He was also homosexual.

Obler and her colleagues looked at how CJ scored on a battery of IQ and personality tests. People often think polyglots must be exceptionally smart, but CJ had an IQ of only 105. As a child, he had been slow to read, and he was a mediocre school and college student. However, on the Modern Language Aptitude Test, which predicts aptitude to learn a new language, CJ scored extremely high. He also excelled on any test that required him to spot complex patterns. His verbal memory was very good: he could remember prose and lists of words for week. But he forgot images and numbers as quickly as anyone else.

Other attributes also suggested that CJ was born with a brain predisposed to learning languages, though not necessarily superior in other areas. CJ said he had problems reading maps and finding his way around. He also displayed characteristics of what is known as the Geschwind-Galaburda cluster, a high coincidence of either left-handedness or ambidexterity, homosexuality, autoimmune disorders, learning disorders and talents in music, art and mathematics; Obler suggests it extends to language, too. This seems to indicate that CJ’s language talent was inborn, according to Obler, even though he has an identical twin brother with no apparent special language abilities. The characteristics also tie in with a suggestion made in the 1980s by linguists Eta Schneiderman and Chantal Desmarais at the University of Ottawa in Canada, who said that adults who can learn to speak new languages as fluently as their mother tongue tend to have weaknesses in visual-spatial skills.

The only detailed study of a hyperpolyglot’s brain to date was published in 2004 by a group headed by neuroscientist Katrin Amunts at the J�lich Research Centre in Germany. Amunts and her team examined the preserved brain of German Sprachwunder Emil Krebs, who worked as an interpreter at the German embassy in China and was reputed to speak 60 languages fluently when he died in 1930. Using standard histological techniques, they found that an area of Krebs’s brain called Broca’s region, which is associated with language, was organised subtly differently from the equivalent region of the brains of 11 monolingual men. But was Krebs born with a brain primed to learn languages or did his brain respond to the demands he put on it? Amunts says we can only speculate, but she assumes that Krebs had a genetic predisposition.

The idea that there is a genetic component to hyperpolyglottism is supported by evidence that the trait might run in families. When Hudson sent news about N and his family to the Linguist list, one of the respondents was Richard Sproat, a linguist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is intrigued by the possibility that language talent might be a heritable trait. Since the 1990s, scientists have linked language deficits to a genetic component, as in the case of the KE family, whose inability to produce certain grammatical expressions led to the location of a gene called FoxP2 in 1990, and a specific mutation in 2001.

But when it comes to exceptional language talent, rather than a deficit, it is difficult to get families to subject themselves to a genetic study, perhaps because they don’t need to be cured of anything. Sproat exchanged a few emails with N, but then the replies stopped. And when I contacted N, he said he had discussed the issue with his family anddid not want to be interviewed.

Before N stopped corresponding, he gave Sproat a few more details about his grandfather. “When we arrived in Thailand, I was sure he did not know any of the language,” N said. But after two weeks his grandfather was arguing with market vendors in Thai. In the late 1960s, N spent 18 months in Thailand with the US military, where he learned some of the language. When N later tried conversing with his grandfather in Thai, “he was able to communicate on a higher level than I knew”.

N’s disappearance is doubly frustrating for linguists who study hyperpolyglottism. In his original message he mentioned another member of his family: a 7-year-old granddaughter. “She can count in three languages up to 100 and she is able to pick out words spoken in other languages in public and tell you what it means,” he wrote. N and his hyperpolyglot family may have retreated from public view for now. But they, and others, could yet provide more fascinating insights into our language abilities.

Champion linguists

Michael Erard

Cardinal from Bologna who could speak 72 languages, 39 of them fluently. Once learned a language overnight in order to hear the dawn confession of two condemned prisoners.

Hungarian translator and interpreter who spoke 17 languages and could read 11 more. Claimed to have learned Russian by reading romantic novels.

Professor of linguistics at MIT renowned for his ability to communicate in dozens of diverse languages. As a teenager in Arizona, he learned Hopi and Jemez from schoolmates.

German interpreter who could speak 60 languages fluently. Reportedly taught himself Armenian in only nine weeks. His brain is preserved in the Vogt collection at the University of D�sseldorf.

US intelligence officer who, despite a complete lack of formal academic training, mastered eight foreign languages including Russian and Chinese, and learned the basics of several more.

Michael Erard is a writer based in Austin, Texas