What can hyperpolyglots teach us?

I want to share a really neat clip with you guys. It’s about hyperpolyglots, people who speak a large number of languages.

If you don’t have 15 minutes to spare to watch, I’ll forgive you. For a brief summary: there are people out there who speak an awful lot of languages. They’re mostly men. In this video, they wonder if there might be something special or innate about these hyperpolyglots, that they have some special capacity to learn languages. The most accomplished among them, as well as one who has become a neurolinguist himself, downplay the role of genetics, and point to the hours and hours of work they’ve put in.

It’s probably a little of column A, and a little of column B. I think my own experience proves that memorization is a very, very important aspect of language learning. It’s also important to have some capacity to look at a complex system and understand its workings. Learning a foreign language requires a mind that can memorize, analyze, and synthesize, and it takes determination and time to perform those tasks.

To my mind, there are two main tasks in language learning: syntax and vocabulary. These two tasks call upon different mental skills, and indeed seem to be located in different parts of the brain, although both are in the left hemisphere.

Our brains seem to perform most of our syntactic operations with the Broca’s area. Patients suffering from Broca’s aphasia or who have lesions in the Broca’s area tend to lose syntactic abilities, producing ungrammatical utterances. They may lose the capacity to form complex sentences, or to comprehend which part a of sentence is the subject and which part is the object. Thus they could fairly reliably understand something like “John put the postcard in the mailbox”, because just the three nouns, “John”, “postcard”, and “mailbox”, combined with the verb “put”, can tell the story pretty well. A patient with damage to this area might have difficulty knowing who did what in the sentence, “Mary accused Susan of seducing her mother’s lover”. Without the capacity to process syntax, one can’t suss out who’s batting eyelashes at whom in that sentence.

Vocabulary, on the other hand, seems to run mainly out of the Wernicke’s area. Here we store our collection of nouns, verbs and so on, as well as their meanings and pronunciations. A person suffering damage to this area may be able to visually identify the things around them, but be unable to name them either verbally or in writing. We call this disorder anomia. Sometimes we observe very specific instances of anomia, wherein the sufferer may be unable to use all but the most common nouns. Recent studies have broadened the scope of this sort of processing a bit, and it’s now believed that much of this work is done across the Parietal lobe.

More important to the language learner, though, is the difference in the tasks at hand. Learning syntax is a process of analyzing a system, comprehending it, and applying a set of rules, some of them quite complex. Speaking to my own subjective experience, learning the syntax of a language feels very much like learning the rules of a board game, solving a puzzle, or doing symbolic logic (one of my favorite courses as an undergrad). It feels a lot like taking apart my parents’ VCR and trying to figure out what all of the parts did. To use computing terminology, syntax seems to tax my RAM and processor. Improving your grammar or syntax in a language seems to require comprehension more than practice. If you’ve got a good, analytic mind, you can learn a language’s core grammar very, very quickly.

Vocabulary, on the other hand, is a task of pure, bulk storage and data recall. This is where the mental hard drive gets its workout. Vocabulary skills respond very well to repetition and practice, and for this reason I strongly recommend study tools like Anki or Memrise. To speak a language, you need to have at your fingertips at least 3,000 of the most common words and set phrases. These words need to be accessible by you instantly, so you’ve got to train for volume and for speed. Just as a ballpark figure, I’d point to 10,000 words acquired to call someone really proficient in the language.

I have absolutely no doubt that the gentlemen in the video above have mastered the syntax of more than a dozen languages. After you learn how to do it once, the next language seems like a piece of cake. I noticed this myself when I started dabbling in Mandarin a couple of months ago, and found that the syntax of the language came to me quite quickly and naturally. In fact, given what we know about Universal Grammar, I’d be surprised if that weren’t the case. I’d like to see a fuller test of their vocabulary skills, though, because there is a limit to the amount of time a person can spend drilling flashcards in any one language.

If there’s a place for talent in language learning, it’s in analyzing a language’s structure effectively. However, I don’t believe there’s a huge variance in people’s innate capacity for memorization, at least for adult language learners. Ask me again after I’ve gone through grad school, though. More than innate talent, though, I believe that determination and time spent determine a person’s success or failure at communicating in a foreign language. Look just at the different outcomes for sufferers of Broca’s aphasia (lack of syntax) and anomia (lack of vocabulary). A person can generally get by in a language with a wide enough vocabulary, because most situations make guessing at the meaning easy. John, put, postcard, mailbox can only go so many ways, and only one of them makes logical sense. If your mental hard drive hasn’t stored postcard and mailbox, though, you simply can’t parse that sentence, no matter how strong your syntax skills are.

Moral of the story: keep working those flashcards.

Good luck, have fun!

-Jeff

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English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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