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Are you a hyperpolyglot?

Many of us, at one point in our lives, have wanted to learn a second or third language. Learning a foreign language and being absorbed into an entirely new culture, can be a very rewarding experience indeed. Many people want to speak a second language, but for some, a second language is never enough. Speaking multiple languages is not uncommon, and there are many people around the world today that can communicate in a number of different languages. Recently, there has been a lot of excitement regarding a new phenomenon referred to as hyperpolyglotism: the ability to be fluent in over 11 languages. So what exactly is a hyperpolyglot and what makes such an individual so interesting? 

A hyperpolyglot is someone who is capable of learning a number of languages, usually over 11, very quickly and can use them in everyday communication. They possess a particular neurology that is well suited for learning language. The human brain is a highly adaptive organ and any type of cognitive activity, whether it is doing a puzzle, playing an instrument, or learning a language, can build new neural pathways. It is therefore not surprising that there is a distinct difference in the neural brain activity of hyperpolyglots and people who only speak one language. 

One of the most famous hyperpolyglots in history was Emil Krebs, a 19th century German diplomat, who mastered 65 languages by the time of his death in 1930. What made Emil Krebs quite famous was the fact that in 2003, his brain was dissected by scientists who were able to document distinct differences in the region of his brain responsible for language, known as the Broca area. They were unfortunately unable to determine whether the differences were present from birth or whether they grew from the acquirement of each new language throughout his life. 

Michael Erard holds a PhD in English language and linguistics and is the author of “Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.” In his new book, he researches the highly sceptical phenomenon of hyperpolyglotism. Michael Erard spent much time searching for hyperpolyglots in history and living among us today. He claims that “hyperpolyglots are neither born nor made, but rather born to be made – the fortunate beneficiaries of good genes and disciplined study.” Unlike multilinguals, who learn languages through exposure from their environment, he states that “hyperpolyglots dedicate their lives to actively learning and mastering languages.”

Obviously, hyperpolyglotism is a trained skill. No one just wakes up speaking multiple languages, but there may be factors that make it easier. There is no conclusive evidence regarding the physiology of a hyperpolyglot, but a number of speculative correlations certainly exist. Hyperpolyglots study a lot. After the first five or so languages, they acquire a deeper understanding of how language systems work, making it easier to learn other languages. This takes hours, a lot of focus and a number of vocabulary drills. 

In Michael Erard’s acclaimed book, he discusses a number of observations from his research which include the fact that most hyperpolyglots tend to be left handed, they tend to have immune disorders and are likely to have high IQs. He assures us that these variables may be random or attributed to those who responded to his surveys. 

Although most of us may not have the interest or ability to learn 11 languages, we are still language enthusiasts in our own right, sharing the love of learning, culture and exploration. I hope that after reading this article, your quest to learn another language will seem less daunting. Imagine having to learn over 11 languages!

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