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Author Topic: New book explores the upper limits of being multilingual  (Read 2306 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: January 01, 2012, 11:46:47 PM »

Many of us learn to speak one or more foreign languages on top of our mother tongue, but what would it take to learn, say, 20 to 70 languages in all? Indeed, to what extent can the human brain manage to be massively multilingual? The answers to these questions are explored by writer, journalist, and linguist Michael Erard in Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Free Press, 306 pages), a book scheduled for release in the United States this coming January 10.

Erard chronicles the language-learning secrets of such massively multilingual individuals as the 19th century Italian cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who was said to speak 72 languages; the turn-of-the-century German diplomat Emil Krebs, 68 languages; and a modern-day polyglot whom Erard identifies only as Alexander, dozens of languages. He explores various hypotheses to explain the language-learner’s gift, among them the near-autism of hyperpolyglots in which an “extreme male brain” seeks to master systems; the “Geschwind-Galaburda” cluster of traits that supposedly result from abnormal antenatal exposure to hormone; and the discovery of the FOXP2 brain gene, a mutation of which could cause language loss. However, as the Economist magazine observes in a review of Babel No More in its December 31, 2011 issue, “In the end Mr. Erard is happy simply to meet interesting characters, tell fascinating tales and round up the research without trying to judge which is the best work.” (This book became available as an ebook under the title “Mezzofanti's Gift” in 2013.)

Read “The gift of tongues,” a review of Michael Erard’s Babel No More in the Economist now!

Read a Google preview copy of Michael Erard's “Mezzofanti's Gift” on ebook now!

Michael Erard is a writer and journalist with graduate degrees in linguistics and rhetoric from the University of Texas at Austin. He has written about language, linguists, and linguistics for Science, Seed, Wired, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and New Scientist and is a contributing writer for The Texas Observer and Design Observer. His first book, Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, is a natural history of things we wish we didn’t say (but do), as well as a look at what happens in our culture when we do (and wish we didn’t). He was awarded the Dobie Paisano Writing Fellowship in 2008 to work on Babel No More.    

In “The Muses of Insert, Delete and Execute,” an article that came out in the December 25 issue of The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler reports about the quest of Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, to recover the lost and murky literary history of word processing. Schuessler quotes Kirschenbaum as declaring during a recent lunchtime lecture at the New York Public Library: “The story of writing in the digital age is every bit as messy as the ink-stained rags that would have littered Gutenberg’s print shop or the hot molten lead of the Linotype machine.”

Read Jennifer Schuessler’s “The Muses of Insert, Delete and Execute” in The New York Times now!

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