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Stacie Nevadomski Berdan Headshot

Learning Two or Twenty Languages: Is There a Secret?

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In my line of work, I am constantly talking about the importance of learning a second or third language in order to effectively compete on a global scale. Americans, in particular, are at a disadvantage in this space. Studies indicate that approximately half the world is bilingual, while Americans hover anywhere between 8-17 percent. I hear countless numbers of stories about how difficult learning a second language can be and why some people just seem to have a knack. I wonder if it has to do with cognitive ability (perhaps) or something to do with our education system (I believe it does) and how we can improve our odds at learning at least two languages proficiently.

I'm surrounded by people who speak several languages. My parents grew up bilingual as children of Polish-American immigrants. My husband speaks fluent French, passable Spanish, knows some German, and he picked up Swedish easily during his one year working and living there. When we lived in Hong Kong, we took Mandarin lessons together (three times a week from 7:00 to 8:30 pm, a difficult environment to learn anything!), and he was adept despite the Cantonese environment in which we lived. To boost their global success odds, my twin daughters are learning both Spanish and Mandarin to complement their English. My best friend, who is Italian, speaks (Italian) English, French, Spanish and German fluently and although she might graciously demur, I bet she could learn most any language easily if she tried.

I, however, am monolingual, or a monoglot as Michael Erard, the author of Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners (FreePress 2012), might refer to me. Someone who can only speak one language. And so it was with a great deal of interest that I recently read his book on both living and dead super language learners and how they do it. Erard attempts to learn whether these superlearners' talents lie inherent in all of us, or if it's a function of a rare sort of brain wiring.

Because we're not talking about two or three languages but rather at least six, which Erard deems to be the number that defines a polyglot, or 10 plus, the number which determines a hyperpolyglot. Whether six or 12 it is an unusual feat and one that deserves the in-depth look Erard has given these superlearners. He does a fabulous job of taking the reader on an international, historical adventure and his book reads much more like a novel at times than an academic treatise. And that's a good thing.

The colorful characters past and present are quirky, interesting and make one gasp with their abilities to master 20 to 50 languages, sometimes in just a manner of weeks. These superlearners are dubbed hyperpolyglots, such as the 19th century Italian cardinal Joseph Mezzofanti, who was said to speak more than 38 languages, and who learned Ukranian in two weeks once challenged. He also found a "living legend" in Alexander who showed Erard tricks of learning a language and from which I took away the "secrets" to hyperpolyglot success.

1. All languages are not spoken equally. Depending on the most recent use, how the language is used, for example business or pleasure travel, can have an impact on the level at a hyperpolyglot speaks.
2. Learning languages requires commitment. Everyone has to work at it, even if it comes more easily for some. Practice, dedication and commitment yield positive results.
3. If you enjoy it, it's a whole lot easier.

All of these not only make sense but they're often the same tips that language teachers offer to anyone attempting to learn another language: You don't have to be perfect, just practice and have fun.

If you're interested in languages, whether you're monolingual or a polyglot, check out Babel No More. It's got all the right elements for a great read, and one that's important to our current trends: Beyond just an interesting intellectual exploration, Erard agrees that the need for language learning is growing. We all could use some greater insight into who can and how to learn more languages in our interconnected global world.