For many people, learning another language seems like a daunting, boring, only-do-it-if-it’s-necessary sort of task. We got through either Spanish or French or German in school, and haven’t used a lick of it since. Even in countries like the UK, the number of people learning a second language have dropped considerably ever since the government made learning a foreign language optional in England past the age of 14.
Even in this age of globalization, multiculturalism, immigration, and diversity, it seems multilingualism is falling by the wayside. Is it because even though we have never been more diverse, we have also never been more cut off from one another?
Due in part to computers and the internet, most of the social activities that were done face to face before, are now done in the solitude of our own homes. Instead of talking to people on the bus or sidewalk, we are listening to our iPods, lost in our own heads. Even if we need to communicate with someone who speaks another language, we have technology like machine translators and apps that will be able to provide us with the basics to get by without having to have the knowledge ourselves.
So why in the world would anyone want to learn another language, not to mention 3, 5, 11…18 languages?? According to a hyperpolyglot, the answer is simple: It’s fun.
For self-taught polyglot Ray Gillon, 54, who speaks 18 languages (8 fluently, 10 conversationally) it is more of a game than anything else. “Etymology is a sport for me. I enjoy looking up the origin of words and seeing which particular invasion was responsible for bringing that word into our vocabulary. I am immersed in it for my work and it will continue to intrigue me for every day of my life,” says Gillon.
Gillon first learned French and Latin when he was 11, and then later studied French and German as electives while obtaining his electronic engineering degree.
Gillon says he first learned French and Latin at the age of 11, and later studied French and German as elective courses while studying for his electronic engineering degree. “But it wasn’t until I got my first job, and was sent to live in the south of France, that I had any real enthusiasm for languages.” he states. “I went to Italy for a weekend, and fell in love with the language. I bought books and started teaching myself. By the end of my three years in France, I was fluent in both languages.”
Due to his field of work, Gillon was able to travel around the world and after awhile, he was able to pick up German, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese and Swedish as well.
So how does he stay on top of so many languages so as not to “lose” them? In his current job, Gillon supervises foreign language versions of Hollywood films. “I have a massive foreign language book library, so I regularly keep up to date, revising grammar, reading newspapers, watching satellite television,” says Gillon. It also doesn’t hurt that his wife also speaks six languages, which means he is able to speak half a dozen languages conversationally every day.
So how common are hyperpolyglots? According to linguistics expert Michael Erard, not at all. Even for hyperpolygots, 11 languages seems to be a significant achievement. Any more than 11 is extremely rare. But what matters, says Erard, are the specific languages spoken. “If the languages are English, French, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi and Russian – that would be more significant from a learner’s perspective than 11 Romance languages such as Italian, French and Spanish,” he says.
Another linguist, Matt Withers, 32, who speaks German, Portuguese, Luxembourgish, French and Welsh, it is not part of his work, but a fascination with language that sparks his interest. “When I lived in Germany, I shared a house with three Brazilians, so I did an evening course in Portuguese to converse with them – it was interesting trying to learn Portuguese through the medium of German,” he laughs. “For the past few years, I’ve been living in Wales – I share an office with predominantly native Welsh speakers, so I’ve been learning Welsh.”
Withers thinks that fluency in one language allows people to learn others more easily.
“Most monoglots in this country aren’t really able to explain English in terms such as the perfect past tense and past tense. When you learn about cases and tenses and grammatical formations, I think the tool box is there for other languages,” he says.
But he admits it is not always the case, “as Welsh isn’t like any other major European language, in terms of the way it is constructed, and is incredibly different”.
So what makes some people more prone to pick up so many languages than others?
According to Erard, it is something neurological. “They have a neurological hardware that responds to the world, that’s fed by the world, that is suited to a pattern that is recognition-heavy, sound-heavy and memory-heavy – that is very structured, and also very sociable…They have an ability to switch between languages very easily, and that involves cognitive skills which are often heritable.”
If you ask Gillon, however, he has a much simpler response: “I can’t explain it. If I could, I would bottle and sell it.”
With that in mind, I suppose that is what some companies such as Translation Cloud have done. However, instead of using one hyperpolyglot in a bottle to translate all different languages, there is a cloud of over 10,000 bilingual speakers who perform the task.