I have always been fascinated by individuals who can speak multiple languages. It would be such a wonderful gift to walk into a London restaurant and, instead of hearing a cacophony of languages I didn't speak, to at least get the gist of what was going on around me.
Globalization and the Internet have made learning foreign languages a little less attractive, particularly for Americans. It seems that practically everyone we come in contact with speaks reasonably good English, so there is little need for us to learn their languages. As anyone who's traveled abroad can tell you, however, it is never a bad idea to have picked up a few phrases here and there in case you need help and no one who speaks English is around.
In Babel No More, Michael Erard goes in search of what he calls hyperpolyglots – individuals who are capable of speaking more than six languages. He centers his narrative on an Italian priest named Mezzofanti, who appeared to be able to learn languages exceptionally quickly. He returns to the priest's tale throughout the book, whenever the supporting narrative warrants it. Doing so made for an interesting structure, one that I feel was mostly successful. I've read other books where a similar technique worked more effectively, but still more where it was forced and didn't help advance the narrative.
One of the questions Erard addresses is what constitutes learning and speaking a language. Native fluency is certainly the ultimate goal, but it is exceptionally hard for an individual to speak multiple languages at a native level. Unless a person is a true practicing bilingual, meaning they operate in two separate languages in nearly equal amounts over time, they will begin to prefer and increase their proficiency in one language at the expense of the other. Even so, there are some few individuals who have managed to do exactly that..
Some of the characters the author encounters during his search are fascinating from a sociological perspective. One of the individuals is an ultra marathon runner from Northern California who revels in his almost monastic devotion to languages. Other characters, unfortunately, appear to be frauds. These individuals were either unwilling to be tested by the international language community or failed when they were tested.
In the second half of Babel No More, Gerard describes two European Union language contests held in 1987 and 1990. I'll save the results for when you read the the book, but suffice it to say that the winners proved themselves to be competent in a wide variety of languages. I wish Erard's coverage of the contests had started earlier in the book. There were some hints of tests and challenges met by Mezzofanti and other hyperpolyglots, but the description of the contests didn't flow naturally from the preceding narrative. Instead, the transition was rather abrupt. It still worked, but not as well as the author might have preferred.
Despite that slight reservation, I did find Babel No More to be a very interesting book with a fascinating theme and lots of terrific information. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in languages.
Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 20 books, mostly for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media, and has created more than a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.