By Elise Schoening
Linguistics specialist Michael Erard spoke about language super-learners from the past and present, as well as what we can learn from them, during a lecture on the “Myths and Realities of High Intensity Language Learners” on Monday, Feb. 2.
Erard holds a PhD in English language and linguistics and is the author of “Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.” He has done extensive research into the history and behavior of multilingual individuals, often referred to as polyglots.
Anyone who speaks six or more languages is considered a hyperpolyglot. Erard, however, has expanded this definition to include fluency in at least 11 languages. Hyperpolyglots have unparalleled linguistic abilities, Erard said. He spoke about numerous historical and contemporary hyperpolyglots from around the world that have learned to speak between 30 and 50 different languages.
Erard is a self-proclaimed “monolingual with benefits” since he is only fluent in English, but has also studied Chinese and Spanish. Still, Erard firmly believes that, “hyperpolyglots make visible the myriad strands of our linguistic destinies, whether we speak only one language or many.”
There is a common misperception that a polyglot’s ability to learn and retain several languages is innate. Erard explained, however, that polyglots are largely ordinary people that emerge from unwavering dedication and relentless hard work.
“They are not born and they are not made, but they are born to be made,” Erard said. “So they are special in that way, and they are ordinary in that way.”
According to Erard, what separates a polylgot from the average person is that polyglots are very confident language learners. They view challenges and difficulties as opportunities for growth and knowledge instead of as barriers. Erard says polyglots have fully embraced their status as language outsiders. As such, the fear of imperfect grammar and pronunciation will not stop a polyglot from speaking or writing in another language. It is in fact through these mistakes that they learn and are therefore able to master any language.
Erard explained that language acquisition is often thought of in terms of an “all or nothing” model, where people tend to view their linguistic abilities as failures if they cannot speak like a native.
Hyperpolyglots, on the other hand, approach language learning with a “something and something” model. No matter how many languages they learn, hyperpolyglots can only have between five and nine languages at their fingertips. The rest require constant maintenance and must be warmed up before use. Hyperpolyglots recognize that they cannot master every language. Nevertheless, they commit themselves to learning as much as possible.
During his lecture, Erard encouraged students to learn from the attitudes and approaches of hyperpolyglots. While everyone may not have the time and energy to become a polyglot, they can at least dedicate some time to learning a new language and embracing a new way of life.
He urged the audience to challenge their comfort zone and commit to learning new skills. Erard promised great reward and self-discovery for those up to the challenge.