Erard (Um…: Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, 2007) reports the results of his attempts to locate people who are able to learn multiple languages.
These people are called hyperpolyglots, and the most famous of them appears throughout the author’s compelling text: Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19th-century Bolognese priest who supposedly knew more than 20 languages, maybe even more. Erard pursued Mezzofanti’s story to Bologna but was frustrated by the camouflage of history that hides the priest’s true accomplishments. How much did he really know? How can anyone know that many languages? Are there comparable people today? During his journey, Erard discovered some other troubling questions: What does it mean to “know a language”? The author visited multilingual cultures, viewed slides of a thin-sliced brain, reviewed research on language and the brain and talked with some contemporary hyperpolyglots—one of whom studies and reviews most of the day. There are some moments of density in the narrative, but moments of lightness as well—e.g., the fact that gum chewing improves the recall of memories. Near the end the author looks at a competition in Belgium that gathered some of the most noted hyperpolyglots, and he concludes that such folks need the “neural hardware” to reach such lofty levels as well as a sense of purpose and a self-definition as a language learner.
A mesmerizing voyage into the thickets of questions about what it means to be human.