Lingusitic prodigies: all talk?

Globalisation is demanding that we learn more and more languages but what can we learn from those who can speak in 50 tongues or more? Vision investigates 

Sit in any Dubai cafe and the range of languages you hear – sometimes used by the same person in the same sentence – is dazzling. Arabic, English and Urdu all bounce against one another in an intoxicatingly multicultural fashion. But what if these people were not limited to three or four languages? What if their talking talents extended to double figures, or even more? Welcome to the intriguing world of the hyperpolyglot.

The term is relatively recent – it largely refers to those who can speak more than six languages – and is distinct from multi-lingualism. The hyperpolyglot is someone who learns or studies multiple languages rather than picking them up naturally in the way that, say, someone in Lebanon would probably be able to speak French, Arabic, Lebanese Arabic and English.

“For natural language acquisition, there is a limit that a normal human can get to,” says polyglot extraordinaire Alexander Arguelles.

Quest for knowledge

He should know. At the last count, Arguelles could speak more than 50 languages, although he doesn’t like to tot up the figures himself. “That’s for other people to say,” he smiles. “I would really prefer to think in terms of words rather than numbers. Individual languages are just manifestations of a quest for knowledge.” Incredibly, Arguelles says he wasn’t naturally adept at languages, but a combination of learning German at university and the encouragement of his father led him to investigate Latin, French, Greek and Sanskrit. Before long, he was totally obsessed with language, as, indeed, are most polyglots (he doesn’t like the term hyperpolyglot).

The polyglot community is expertly investigated in Michael Erard’s new book, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, in which Arguelles features. Linguists have traditionally dismissed people who claim to speak a lot of languages as eccentrics and Erard takes an attitude of curious scepticism toward his subject. But he tries to find out not only what we can learn from them as a group of people, but also the way we might approach the learning of languages in the future.

He had his doubts to start with. “Oh, totally,” he laughs. “It goes with the territory about them being these strange, slightly marginal people. I mean, Gregg Cox is the world record holder with 64 languages, but when you ask him how many he can actually speak, he will dance around the question. And it does make you think, well, if you could really do this, you’d bust out those 64 languages.”

Proficiency in language

But in writing the book, Erard came to realise that it is not necessary to speak a language like a native in order to say that you are proficient in it. It is simply not realistic for the hyperpolyglot to be a native speaker in 64 languages – in fact it’s not realistic for someone who is trilingual either.

“Take Dubai,” says Erard. “There are probably a lot of expat workers who say they don’t speak Arabic, but you find they can have conversations. They might not pass a test, but on the street they can perform their life in that other language. To me, that is good enough.”

Of course, Dubai is the classic example of a place where feeling comfortable in more than one language is key not just for business but culturally too. So what tips would Arguelles give to the potential polyglots of the future?

“I’m asked this every day,” he laughs. “And I’m really sorry but there is no better way than formal study of the grammar of each language and hard work. I studied Arabic very assiduously on my own for many years, going through books and manuals. That was a good base, but going to live in Lebanon and hiring a private tutor really helped. There’s no replacement for hard work and immersion in the language.”

Which is something Hemmat Lashin, the Director of the Confucius Institute at the University Of Dubai, recognises only too well. The institute is dedicated to enhancing the understanding of Chinese language and culture in the UAE, but she concedes with Arguelles that it is an incredibly difficult language to learn.

“The non-Latin alphabets don’t help, and writing in Chinese is one of the big obstacles because of the huge number of different characters,” she says.

“But I do agree that if you love the language and are committed, it’s much easier to learn. It will be even easier if you have frequent interaction with native speakers of the language, which we offer here."

Fifty languages might be asking a bit much, but Erard hopes that if his book does one thing it encourages people to “commit themselves to the plasticity of their brains”. One more language might be within us after all.