The cult of the hyperpolyglot
- 21 February 2012
- From the section Magazine
Many people want to speak a second language, but for some people two can never be enough. Welcome to the world of the hyperpolyglot.
Ray Gillon speaks 18 languages. To be precise, he only speaks eight fluently. His grasp on the other 10 is merely conversational.
Throw anything at him in Portuguese, Thai, Turkish, Russian, Polish, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Bulgarian or Mandarin and he will banter back.
In the UK, where there has been a growing anxiety over the failure to learn additional languages, Gillon might seem to be a bit of an anomaly. More and more children have been giving up languages since the last government made learning foreign languages optional in England from the age of 14.
Publisher HarperCollins has been searching for the UK's most multilingual student, and has discovered a 20-year-old Oxford University undergraduate who can speak 11 languages. And a new book, Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners, by Michael Erard, suggests Gillon is among a set of people who are learning languages for fun.
So what makes some people learn language after language?
For self-taught polyglot Gillon, 54, his love affair with language started by accident. He 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 says.
It was during this chapter of his life, while designing audio visual systems for a cruise liner, that Gillon was introduced to Italian through colleagues.
"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," he says.
Gillon's next job took him round the world, and pretty soon he was up to speed on German, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese and Swedish.
He says he used half a dozen languages every day for 10 years and his current job, which involves supervising foreign language versioning of Hollywood movies, means he has to stay on top of his skills.
"I have a massive foreign language book library, so I regularly keep up to date, revising grammar, reading newspapers, watching satellite television.
"My much better half is also Swedish and speaks six languages - we probably speak them all every day," he says.
According to author and linguistics expert Erard, there are not many hyperpolyglots like Gillon in the world. He has identified 11 languages as a significant watershed. Those who speak more than this are very rare.
But he says it is difficult to define hyperpolyglots and polyglots because essentially it has to be about speaking and knowing rather than reading and writing. In some cases literacy is not possible, or a language does not have an alphabet.
He says the question of "how much a language weighs" is also significant in determining how unusual a linguist is.
"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.
People who are gifted linguists also often have to make the choice between getting very highly developed skills in a smaller number of languages, or focusing on one aspect like the oral language, he says.
For language-lover Matt Withers, 32, who speaks German, Portuguese, Luxembourgish, French and Welsh, it is not his vocation, but a fascination with language and the world that fuels his hobby.
But rather than relying solely on books, he also signed up to a series of courses.
"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 accumulate 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 concedes 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 enables hyperpolyglots to seemingly pick up a new language at the push of a button?
Erard says it is hard to explain, but whatever an individual's biographical reasons are, he believes there is something that distinguishes hyperpolyglots neurologically.
"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," he adds.
But Gillon says he has no idea what the secret to his success is.
He says some "blocks" - Germanic, Slavic, Latin - make it "easier to go with the flow, and language becomes intuitive". He agrees that by the third or fourth language, it also gets easier to assimilate vocabulary and grammar much more quickly.
"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."
But he concludes: "I can't explain it - if I could, I would bottle and sell it."
Additional reporting by Sophie Robehmed