To understand the cognitive machinery of such feats, Erard set out to find modern-day Mezzofantis, from an eccentric Berkeley-based language learning guru and hyperpolyglot -- hyperglottery, Erard notes, begins at 11 languages -- to the Lebanese-born, Brazil-based one-time Guinness record holder for 58 languages, who proceeded to embarrass himself on Chilean national television by not understanding a simple question by a native speaker. In the process, Erard scrutinizes the very nature of language, its cultural role, and where it resides in the brain, weaving a fascinating story about our most fundamental storytelling currency.
To grasp the power of language learning as a social facilitator, one need only stroll into a busy Manhattan restaurant, where mapping the native origin of the staff and patrons might produce a near-complete world atlas. Erard marvels:
It's amazing that the world runs so well, given that people use languages that they didn't grow up using, haven't studied in schools, and in which they've never been tested or certified. Yet it does.
(For some related fascination, see David Bellos' Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, which delves into what translation reveals about the human condition.)
And in an age where geography and nationality have been shuffled the forces of globalization, ubiquitous connectivity, cheap travel, and the Internet, understanding how language lubricates our social interactions is crucial to making sense of our place in a global world. Erard observes:
Ideas, information, goods, and people are flowing more easily through space, and this is creating a sensibility about language learning that's rooted more in the trajectories of an individual's life than in one's citizenship or nationality. It's embedded in economic demands, not the standards of schools or governments. That means that our brains also have to flow, to remain plastic and open to new skills and information. One of these skills is learning new ways to communicate.
(The Daily Beast has an excerpt to give you a taste of Erard's signature blend of absorbing storytelling and rigorous research.)
Captivating and illuminating, Babel No More is as much an absorbing piece of investigative voyeurism into superhuman feats as it is an intelligent invitation to visit the outer limits of our own cerebral potential.
Image: Free Press.
This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.