Review of book about hyperpolyglots
Posted: 28 July 2013 12:04 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Here.

Mezzofanti’s Gift: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners by Michael Erard
Hyperpolyglots can speak dozens of languages, but are their skills rooted in reality or myth?

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Posted: 29 July 2013 08:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Years ago, on a flight to Canada to attend a conference, I was chatting in Hebrew with my colleague and fellow-traveller. Beside me sat a gentleman, who said nothing until he heard me address the air hostess in English. He then asked very courteously what language my colleague and I were speaking. “I have a professional interest” he said. “I am a linguist, and thought I knew most European languages. Was it perhaps Welsh?” No, I explained; my colleague and I were Asiatics, not Europeans (I enjoy describing myself as an “Asiatic”, and the confusion this sometimes creates), and were speaking an Asian (Western Semitic) language, Hebrew.
The gentleman then told me that he (a Basque by birth, surnamed Ochoa) was a Roman Catholic priest, and a professor of languages at the Roman Catholic University at Yokohama.  He said he knew more than 40 languages (without going into detail as to what he meant by “knew"), and could learn a new one in a couple of weeks. Japanese, he said, was an exception - he had had to study hard for seven years to attain the standard of an educated, well-read Japanese scholar, able to translate literary works into and from that language.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the more languages one is familiar with, the easier it becomes to acquire others, particularly if they’re from the same language family. And the earlier one begins, the easier it is.

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Posted: 29 July 2013 12:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I once watched a Polish diplomat move seamlessly between English, French, Spanish, and Russian. I did not hear him speak Arabic, but he listened to the Arabic delegations without using the simultaneous translation headphones, so he had some degree of comprehension of that language too. He did use the headphones for Mandarin. Of course, I assume he was also fluent in Polish, although it not being one of the official UN languages I didn’t hear him speak it.

I suspect the linguist who “knew” forty languages had a familiarity with the grammar and basic vocabulary of those languages, but was no means fluent in them.

Japanese, he said, was an exception - he had had to study hard for seven years to attain the standard of an educated, well-read Japanese scholar, able to translate literary works into and from that language.

Literary translation is just about the hardest form of translation--to do it well, that is. You not only need to know the grammar and vocabulary, but you have to know the subtleties and the idioms of both languages as a native speaker does, so you can preserve the author’s tone and style. Plus, you have to be an accomplished writer in your own right. I can’t imagine someone being able to do professional literary translations in more than one pair of languages. (Maybe there are a handful out there who can do two pairs.)

There is no way in hell anyone can know forty languages well enough to do literary translations in all of them.

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Posted: 29 July 2013 11:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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No, of course not. 

Another thing this man told me, is that in Japanese, the language you use changes, depending not only on what you are talking about, but also on whom you are addressing: a person of equal social status, higher, lower; the degree of difference, etc. --- an infinity of nuances, all of them terribly important. I believe this may also be the case with other East Asian languages; Patrick O’Brian, in those of his books which are set in the Far East, several times makes a point of this. In Western languages there’s relatively little of this kind of differentiation.

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