Babel no more

This book by Michael Erard is about the search for world’s most extraordinary language learners – hyperpolyglots. The classical bygone hyperpolyglot is Italy’s Giuseppe Mezzofanti of Bologna. He knew at least 50 languages and his quality was thus described – he speaks each of these language without stuttering or stammering, but with the same volubility as if he had speaking his mother tongue. Compared to Mezzofanti, I’m nothing with a simple repertoire of 3 languages – English, Tamil and Hindi. I tried Chinese to connect deeper with local population but gave up owing to difficulty, want of time and other pursuits – all simple excuses if you have the real passion. But beyond passion, if it involves existential reason, perhaps I’d would have pursued with a more zealous determination. English being the international lingua franca and no doubt Singapore embraces it, everyone switches to that, so the question of existential reason is out and my quest was abandoned mid-way.

Drawing lessons and reasons from hyperpolyglots may provide some solace and impetus to attempt at a new language. Micheal Erard lists them:

  1. If you want to get good at languages, you should find – or construct — your niche: Use your skills to some benefit as Mezzofanti did, providing services to church & business community
  2. If you want to better at languages, you should use native speakers as a metric of progress, though not as a goal. Try to get a sense of what it is that bilinguals you admire can do in their languages. Embrace your linguistic outsider-ness – it’s the way of the world: Which version of English is the best? It depends on the culture that dominates the world – US followed by UK but UK being the most native, I believe their English should be the one, you should aspire to gain, use and converse. But such expectations may not be there on other language that are spoken as second languages.
  3. If you want to get good at languages, you should manage your dopamine: Do it for pleasure. Every pleasurable activity releases a little bit of dopamine to induce more such activity and if you do languages with this mindset – wow!
  4. If you want to promote brain plasticity, you should find flow: You need to feel for it and generate flow states – which is a way to use body’s own power to lift the brakes on brain’s plasticity
  5. If you want to improve at languages, you should build executive function and working memory skills
  6. If you want to improve at languages, you should develop a feel for language: Spend time tinkering with the language everyday – see my experience regarding this point below.
  7. While learning a new language, at a certain point, you have to tolerate the absence of quick success- but keep doing.

During my toastmaster speeches, some have commented that my English neither carries my origin country accent nor local accent but nearer to British accent and I always tell people, it’s very simple….emulate by listening it very often and being with it and loving it in pure unadulterated form – just listen BBC everyday. I’ve been listening BBC since my childhood days, using the transistor radio with a long antenna and I would augment the voice and reception quality by placing the antenna near a long cloth drying wire string, hence my SW1 voice quality bumps. Now I hear it in FM, even sweeter and more native!!

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