Review: Babel No More by Michael Erard

Most of us have an idea of whether we’re “good” or “bad” at learning languages. It might have come from our first language class in school (giving that first teacher a great deal of power), from our first experience abroad or simply from finding flash cards exceedingly boring (or fun). Regardless, by the time we’re adults, we tend to feel that speaking a foreign language is either within our capabilities, or far beyond them.

It’s silly, really. Obviously there will be varying levels of ability, just like some of us are better dancers, or bakers, or organizers. But with few exceptions, all humans are born to language, and the particular language(s) we happen to speak are a product of circumstance, not of predisposition. And while most of us will never learn a second, third or fourth language to the level of, say, writing novels in it, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn enough vocabulary and phrases to get us through an eating holiday in Peru.

That said, there are definitely people out there who are really, really good at learning languages and have collected a fair number of them. Michael Erard, who calls himself a “monolingual with benefits” and not a polyglot, wrote Babel No More with the goal of tracking down some of these people at the end of the bell curve and figuring out what makes them tick: not only how did they learn so many languages, but why? And what does it mean to be multilingual?

The result is an entertaining book that mostly hits its goal of uncovering some of the world’s top polyglots. I say mostly because it did feel there were some gaps in the book – gaps that are likely not Erard’s fault, as sometimes, with a project of this nature, the right subjects just don’t appear or say the right things. But there are some real gems here, like the time the author spends with a family and community in India where it’s normal to switch between multiple languages on a day-to-day basis, even among immediate family members. This section would be especially eye-opening to anyone who lives in a strictly monolingual environment and is unaware of how messy the real world is – and, for the most part, always has been – from a linguistic point of view.

Erard didn’t mean for this to be a how-to guide, so I think critics who fault the book for lacking a big list of specific tricks are off base. Neither is it an academic study, and for this reason it might have been a good idea to back off even more on the neuroscience and the links between a predilection toward language study and other personality traits such as Asperger’s and autism. (As a female language learner, I also found a couple of his statements about gender and language – namely, that men might be “better” at learning multiple languages – offputting and gratuitous, given that a) this wasn’t the focus of his research and his data are incomplete and b) there are a lot of cultural and socioeconomic factors that come into play here.)

Caveats aside, I did enjoy the book, and it reinforced what I’d always thought: that the real trick to learning languages is time. Some people are quicker than others at learning, and some have more time and resources than others (ie., the socioeconomic factors above). If you take someone who is a fast learner and also has (or chooses to have) a lot of time to study languages, they’re going to rise to the top of the heap when it comes to multilingualism, especially since language learning gets easier the more you do it. And that’s the real trick.

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