I read this book as part of the massive data-gathering and synthesizing that I always do when I embark on a new quest, or even a relatively minor project. I’ve coined the term “loremonger” for myself. This time, the quest is to turn my lifelong interest in linguistics into the more practical skill of becoming a conversational polyglot. Fortunately, reading Michael Erard’s book on polyglots was a real pleasure.
The book was published in 2012, meaning that Erard’s research happened before the first Polyglot Conference and before Fluent in 3 Months was published. It seems that all the best-known polyglots who are active online now must have been flying under the radar just a few years ago, because none of them appear in this book. None of the websites or TED talks or podcasts or how-to programs are discussed. Can all these materials really have popped up so quickly? It’s like trying to remember life before Google or Wikipedia, even though all that came along well into adulthood for me.
The premise of the book is to get at the truth of multilingual ability. How many languages can one person learn? How many alleged polyglots are actually frauds? How is linguistic ability best evaluated? Is it nature or nurture?
I learned that knowing more than one language would have been a drawback in many cultures throughout history, because it would make that person look like a spy whose loyalty could not be trusted. I learned that it’s quite common for people in many parts of the world to know anywhere from 4-7 languages, and use them routinely in daily life. ‘Polyglot’ is to ‘multilingual’ what ‘expat’ is to ‘immigrant.’ I learned that polyglots can be regarded as a “neural tribe” of people with similar neurochemistry, and perhaps measurable neuroanatomical differences. That was all I needed to know. If I feel a thrill when I hear foreign voices or see foreign script, that’s enough indication that I will probably find socializing with polyglots to be fun and interesting. I won’t worry so much about my relative lack of expertise because everyone has to start somewhere.
This book is fascinating and even suspenseful. I recommend it for the casual reader, whether you have an interest in language study or not.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.