Book Review: ‘Babel No More’


I have been following this book’s progress for some time now. I don’t remember where I first heard about Michael Erard and Babel No More, but I know it was in 2011 because this book has been on my reading list before it even came out. My university library was slow in acquiring it (I still don’t think they have it), so I decided to wait until I came home to read it.

Overall, I loved the book. Erard’s focus is what he calls hyperpolyglots, or those polyglots who speak an incredible amount of languages, usually eleven or more. Erard begins the book by writing of his journey to Italy to learn more about Cardinal Mezzofanti, an Italian who lived in the nineteenth century who knew an extraordinary amount of languages (I’ve most commonly seen thirty-nine as the alleged amount he spoke). My favorite Mezzofanti anecdote is one in which he met a Russian prince who spoke Ukrainian. Mezzofanti was fascinated by Ukrainian and learned to speak it in two weeks. (If only I could learn Ukrainian in two weeks!)

Erard then tracked down living hyperpolyglots, including Alexander Arguelles. One misconception about hyperpolyglots is that they have equal abilities in all their languages, all the time. This simply isn’t the case, as the author found time and time again. Hyperpolyglots participating in a language-speaking contest had to reactivate and review some of their languages prior to competing.

Some studies have shown that hyperpolyglots have different brain structure than the rest of us. For example, scientists found that the arrangement of cells in a preserved hyperpolyglot’s brain was different compared to other people.

My only complaint about the book relates to the author’s amusing anecdote about taking a Russian class. He criticized the teacher for teaching the students to write the Cyrillic alphabet in cursive right from the start. This is normal because everyone writes in cursive in Russian – if you don’t, people will think you’re illiterate, according to my Russian professor. I don’t dispute that the author’s experience in the Russian class was frustrating due to bad teaching – I just wanted to say that some of his criticisms are unfounded.

Overall, Babel No More is an excellent book and I would highly recommend it. (Michael Erard is also a very nice person who will talk to you on Twitter, if you so desire.)

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Babel No More’

  1. Thanks for the nice review! Let me say one thing about the Russian class: I’m certain that everyone writes in cursive eventually, but I’m also certain that teaching it in the first six weeks of a Russian 101 class along with everything else is bad teaching practice. A first or second semester Russian student probably has much bigger concerns than whether or not they would be considered literate by Russians. Again: if the professor wanted me to learn cursive Cyrillic at the start, I would have, but only if it were one of the few things that we were doing. Also remember that I was (am) an adult with a full-time job, so cramming in study whenever I could. Maybe it’s normal to start Russian that way — did you?
    Again, thanks for the review. Should I try Russian again?
    Michael

    1. Michael, thanks for your comment! I was going to reply here, but then it turned into an epic post!

      And yes, you should DEFINITELY try Russian again. I’m not even joking, I would totally teach you Russian.

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