In How Many Languages Do You Live?

Photo Courtesy: The New York Times

Photo Courtesy: The New York Times


Peter Constantine’s book review from last January of “Babel No More” by Michael Erard investigates the enigmas and nuances of the world’s most impressive polyglots.  Among the questions addressed in the book are how these individuals learned so many languages, what approaches they undertook, and what differences their minds may have from less accomplished linguists.

One of the most interesting excerpts takes place in Bologna, Italy: “The hometown of one of history’s most distinguished polyglots, the 19th-century cardinal Giu­seppe Mezzofanti. The cardinal is said to have known 45, 50, 58 or even more languages, depending on whom you ask. Victorian travelers who met him at ecclesiastical banquets reported that he affably conversed in all directions with foreign visitors in languages ranging from French, German and Arabic to Algonquin and ‘Californian.’ (Lord Byron, who challenged the cardinal to a multilingual contest of profanities, was not only summarily defeated but walked away from the contest having learned a number of new Cockney gibes.)”

Erard also interviews specialists for their understanding of what truly defines a polyglot.  That of linguist Claire Kramsch, referring to the challenges that polyglots face when trying to summarize their various levels of proficiency, is among the most perceptive: “Asking how many languages you know is only asking half the question. You should also ask, ‘In how many languages do you live?’”

In other words, it isn’t just the vocabulary and grammar that define your understanding of a language, but also how you use it in everyday life.

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