A couple of months ago, I read Michael Erard’s excellent bookBabel No More. In this book, Erard introduces us to people who really like foreign languages. I like foreign languages and I speak a few of them. I also have some familiarity with some dead ones, such as Latin and ancient Greek (as opposed to Modern Greek). However, the people he features like languages enough to master scores of them.
Erard takes us on a journey to Italy, where he looks through the papers of the late Giuseppe Cardinal Mezzofanti, sometime Vatican librarian and an accomplished learner of languages. It was said that he had mastered somewhere in the range of 70 languages. While Cardinal Mezzofanti isn’t around for us to test, there are nevertheless accomplished polyglots around, some of whom have been tested.
One such polyglot is Alexander Argüelles. Dr. Argüelles has studied scores of languages. I have corresponded with him a couple of times to ask for advice in learning Korean. I found him to be quite helpful. He also has a website with links to a number of videos he’s made. Anyhow, a few weeks ago, The Guardian did a profile on him. It’s worth a look and you may read it here. His reasons for learning languages aren’t just to be able to speak with many people. His main reason is so as to be able to read the Great Books of both east and west not in translation, but as they were originally written in their original languages.
There were a number of other polyglots featured in the book besides Dr. Argüelles. One interesting polyglot is the late Kató Lomb, a Hungarian polyglot who mastered her languages through reading. (She learned a lot of Russian by reading trashy Romance novels left behind by previous tenants in her apartment.) Johan Vandewalle, who won the Polyglot of Europe prize, was able to switch back and forth from 22 different languages. The book is well worth reading and has quickly become a favourite. Anyhow, in case you were wondering what it takes to keep all those languages up, here’s a short video which describes Dr. Argüelles’ daily activities.