Review by Nathan Seppa
Some people speak several languages — lots of people, actually. But imagine understanding 15 or 30. That’s rare company, and Erard finds such people irresistible. He explores the world of “hyperpolyglots,” superlearners who test the upper limits of language abilities.
The book covers a lot of territory: hypotheses about how specific brain developments might contribute to making a hyperpolyglot, communities where it is common to speak three to five languages, language learning in youth and a brief history of India’s hundreds of languages.
But the real payoff comes from anecdotes of lingual feats. Erard starts with Cardinal Mezzofanti, a 19th century Italian who spoke dozens of languages—some say 30 proficiently—and who could become conversational in any language on two weeks’ notice.