There was, in particular, a mysterious polyglot who haunted the same rooms. He founded the conference partly to pay that debt forward, by creating a clubhouse for the kind of geeky kid he had been, to whom no tongue was foreign but no place was home. A number of hyperpolyglots are reclusive savants who bank their languages rather than using them to communicate.
The Mystery of People Who Speak Dozens of Languages
The more extroverted may work as translators or interpreters. Simcott joined the British Foreign Service.
On tours of duty in Yemen, Bosnia, and Moldova, he picked up some of the lingo. Every summer, he set himself the challenge of learning a new tongue more purposefully, either by taking a university course—as he did in Mandarin, Japanese, Czech, Arabic, Finnish, and Georgian—or with a grammar book and a tutor. It is also political. Standard accents and grammar are usually those of a ruling class. It was his online survey, conducted in , that generated the first systematic overview of linguistic virtuosity. Some four hundred respondents provided information about their gender and their orientation, among other personal details, including their I.
Nearly half spoke at least seven languages, and seventeen qualified as hyperpolyglots. The awe that tribe members command has always attracted opportunists. Erard pursued another much hyped character, Ziad Fazah, a Guinness-record holder until , who claimed to speak fifty-eight languages fluently. Fazah flamed out spectacularly on a Chilean television show, failing to answer even simple questions posed to him by native speakers. When I asked Simcott if he had any secrets, he paused to think about it.
A neurolinguist at the City University of New York, Loraine Obler, ran some tests on me, and I performed highly on recalling lists of nonsense words. Each one bangs more storage hooks into the wall. Back at home, he turned to drills in grammar and phonetics, logging the time he had devoted to each language on an Excel spreadsheet. Erard is a pensive man of fifty, still boyish-looking, with a gift for listening that he prizes in others. We met in Nijmegen, at the Max Planck Institute, where he was finishing a yearlong stint as the writer-in-residence, and looking forward to moving back to Maine with his family.
We had been walking through the woods that surround the institute, listening to the vibrant May birdsong, a Babel of voices. His subjects, he reflected, had been cut from the herd of average mortals by their wiring or by their obsession. They had embraced their otherness, and they had cultivated it.
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Yet, if speech defines us as human, a related faculty had eluded them: the ability to connect. Each new language was a potential conduit—an escape route from solitude. Rojas-Berscia and I took a budget flight from Brussels to Malta, arriving at midnight. The air smelled like summer. Our taxi-driver presumed we were mother and son. By the time we had reached the hotel, he knew the whole Maltese family. Two local newlyweds, still in their wedding clothes, were just checking in. The answer was nifrah. We were both starving, so we dropped our bags and went to a local bar.
It was Saturday night, and the narrow streets of the quarter were packed with revellers grooving to deafening music. I had pictured something a bit different—a quaint inn on a quiet square, perhaps, where a bronze Knight of Malta tilted at the bougainvillea. But Rojas-Berscia is not easily distracted. He took out his notebook and jotted down the kinship terms he had just learned.
Then he checked his phone. A gym is a good place to get the prepositions for direction. He was overdressed, with a lacquered mullet, and there was something shifty about him. Indeed, Rojas-Berscia prepaid him for the session, but he never turned up the next day.
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He had, it transpired, a subsidiary line of work. If we took a taxi to some church or ruin, he would ride shotgun and ask the driver to teach him a few common Maltese phrases, or to tell him a joke. But I was seeing plasticity of a different sort, which I myself had once possessed. With age, I had lost my gift for abandon. That had been my problem with Vietnamese. You have to inhabit a language, not only speak it, and fluency requires some dramatic flair.
Their own history suggests an answer. Malta, an archipelago, is an almost literal stepping stone from Africa to Europe. While we were there, the government turned away a boatload of asylum seekers. Its earliest known inhabitants were Neolithic farmers, who were succeeded by the builders of a temple complex on Gozo.
Their mysterious megaliths are still standing. Around B.
Their language is the source of Maltese grammar and a third of the lexicon, making Malti the only Semitic language in the European Union. As for the rest of the vocabulary, about half comes from Italian, with English and French loanwords. Linguistics gave Rojas-Berscia tools that civilians lack. But he was drawn to linguistics in part because of his aptitude for systematizing.
I suggested we try the university. You want the street talk, not book Maltese. The rules of behavior are at least as important in cultural linguistics as the rules of grammar. The goal is to become part of a society. Like nearly all Maltese, they spoke good English, though Rojas-Berscia valued their mistakes.http://businesspodden.com/una-aventura-prohibida-deseo.php
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On our third day, Rojas-Berscia contacted a Maltese Facebook friend, who invited us to dinner in Birgu, a medieval city fortified by the Knights of Malta in the sixteenth century. The sheltered port is now a marina for super-yachts, although a wizened ferryman shuttles humbler travellers from the Birgu quays to those of Senglea, directly across from them. We ordered some Maltese wine and took in the scene. But the minute Rojas-Berscia opened his notebook his attention lasered in on his task. In , Fisher, then at Oxford, was part of a team that discovered the FOXP2 gene and identified a single, heritable mutation of it that is responsible for verbal dyspraxia, a severe language disorder.
The question inspires bitter controversy. One such quirk has already been discovered, by the neuroscientist Sophie Scott: an extra loop of gray matter, present from birth, in the auditory cortex of some phoneticians. The genetics of talent may thwart average linguaphiles who aspire to become Mezzofantis. Transgenerational studies are the next stage of research, and they will seek to establish the degree to which a genius for language runs in the family. In the meantime, Fisher is recruiting outliers like Rojas-Berscia and collecting their saliva; when the sample is broad enough, he hopes, it will generate some conclusions.
I asked Fisher about another cutoff point: the critical period for acquiring a language without an accent. The common wisdom is that one loses the chance to become a spy after puberty. Fisher explained why that is true for most people. But Simcott learned three of the languages in which he is mistaken for a native when he was in his twenties.
Corentin Bourdeau, who grew up in the South of France, passes for a local as seamlessly in Lima as he does in Tehran.