The Art of Mastering Many Tongues

Peter Constantine in the New York Times Book Review:

ScreenHunter_15 Jan. 26 17.59Among the most surprising qualities of “Babel No More,” Michael Erard’s globe-trekking adventure in search of the world’s virtuosos of language learning, is that a book dealing with language acquisition and polyglot linguistics can be so gripping. But indeed it is — part travelogue, part science lesson, part intellectual investigation, it is an entertaining, informative survey of some of the most fascinating polyglots of our time.

How is it, Erard asks, that certain people are able to accumulate what for the average person is a daunting number of languages? What are the secrets of polyglots who can master 6, 26, 96 languages? What are their quirks and attitudes? Are their brains wired differently from ours?

Erard, a journalist who writes frequently on language and whose previous book was “Um . . . : Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean,” begins by visiting Bologna, Italy, the hometown of one of history’s most distinguished polyglots, the 19th-century cardinal Giu­seppe Mezzofanti. The cardinal is said to have known 45, 50, 58 or even more languages, depending on whom you ask. Victorian travelers who met him at ecclesiastical banquets reported that he affably conversed in all directions with foreign visitors in languages ranging from French, German and Arabic to Algonquin and “Californian.” (Lord Byron, who challenged the cardinal to a multilingual contest of profanities, was not only summarily defeated but walked away from the contest having learned a number of new Cockney gibes.)

More here.