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Putting Ellen Jovin, hyperpolyglot (?), in perspective

Dick Hudson sent me this WSJ article about Ellen Jovin, who is trying to outdo Katherine Russell Rich (of Dreaming in Hindi fame) and Deborah Fallows (of Dreaming in Chinese fame) by learning 13 languages in 3 years. From the article, I gather that’s Italian, Chinese, German, Russian, French, Korean, Arabic, Hebrew, Dutch, Greek, and Portuguese, with two languages unnamed.

Here are some thoughts about Jovin’s ambitious project. The article is vague on whether she’s learning only to speak or to read and write these languages, but let’s just point out that these 11 languages come from 7 language families that require 7 writing systems. These parameters aren’t unheard of. In research for Babel No More, I surveyed a small number of extreme language accumulators who know languages spanning an average of 9 language families (with a range from 5 to 17) and work in an average of 5 writing systems, assuming that they’re learning how to write and read (with a range from 2 to 9).

The article is also vague on whether or not she intends to accumulate languages (so that at the end of 3 years, she’d be a quatordecglot — that is, her 13 languages plus English), or whether she’s going to be serially bilingual. For Babel No More, I met and talked to people who try to do both, though the serially multilingual is the more common mode, simply because keeping all of one’s languages activated, even among the really talented people with good memories, takes up too much time. There’s another model, though, which is where the polyglots truly excel: the serially multilingual also keep a set of languages on ice, priding themselves on their ability to “reactivate” the languages.

There’s also the fact that no one I talked to said they had all of their languages activated to the same degree of proficiency, fluency, or skill. These are very smart, very serious, dedicated learners. There appears to be some sort of cognitive limit to the number of languages one can activated at the same time, which has to do with the limits of one’s executive function skills, though the mechanism involved in switching among languages is just starting to be understood. It’s important to note that bilinguals and natural multilinguals living in communities typically don’t have all their languages to the same degree of proficiency, either. So you can’t use the non-equivalence across proficiency levels as evidence that someone can’t really do what they claim.

Actually, the article doesn’t say a lot of things that I’d like to know: in what order is she learning them? What tools is she using? What sort of Arabic is she learning? We know she likes to get out and chit-chat, so her basic standard is a communicative one, as opposed to a literary or strictly textual standard. My guess is that she’s happy to be serially bilingual, and at the end of 13 months will have retained 1) her most recently learned languages 2) her most frequently practiced languages 3) the parts of various languages that are structurally related to each other and/or share vocabulary and 4) the languages with enough morphological complexity to provide hints where memory of grammatical rules has started to slip.

The languages that she’s chosen, as a set, are rather predictable brand-name languages, either world languages (Chinese, Arabic) or those with significant cultural capital (Hebrew, Dutch, Italian). If she gets a book deal to write about her experiences, it will really be a book about trying to claim the cultural capital of the polyglot, to license herself as a multilingual person in a country where monolingual English speakers can both be global citizens (by virtue of having English) and by unlicensable as multilinguals. Most of the real language talents I’ve met don’t set out with a list of languages like Jovin’s, but let a repertoire emerge from interest, travel, and necessity. For instance, one guy I met was learning Turkish, and wanted to learn the languages that had influenced Turkish, but those were mainly written about in Russian, so he learned Russian. Still, she’s to be admired for so confidently setting out on a project that sort of makes sense for an American in today’s world. There are a lot of people like her out there, all over the world, and as I write in my book, they represent the impulse that’s the converse of the economic and cultural hegemony of English.

One last point: Ellen, as a woman, makes for a very rare polyglot. In my sample of extreme accumulators, fewer than 20% were women. Why the gender imbalance is a question that I’m still trying to answer.