Saturday, January 28, 2012

Babbling in different languages

As one who is severely handicapped when it comes to learning new languages, I am always in awe of people who can speak many languages fluently. I speak Tamil and English, and if in the course of travel in the rest of India have to speak a few words of Hindi, need to formulate the sentences in my head first before uttering them. Such is my sad state.

That’s why I found this review of a book “ Babel no more” quite interesting.

The ability to speak multiple unrelated foreign languages fluently counts among a short list of showstopping talents, like the ability to play a Bach fugue or fly a helicopter (assuming one isn't a harpsichordist or pilot by profession). It impresses in part because it suggests discipline, time, and effort -- and, perhaps, other hidden skills.

….Harold Williams, a New Zealander who attended the League of Nations is said to have spoken comfortably to each delegate in the delegate's native tongue, or the American Kenneth Hale, who learned passable Finnish (one of about fifty languages he was reputed to speak convincingly) on a flight to Helsinki and allegedly learned Japanese after a single viewing of the Shogun miniseries.

The most famous hyperpolyglot is Giuseppe Mezzofanti, the nineteenth-century Bolognese cardinal who was reputed to speak between thirty and seventy languages, ranging from Chaldaean to Algonquin. He spoke them so well, and with such a feather-light foreign accent, according to his Irish biographer, that English visitors mistook him for their countryman Cardinal Charles Acton. (They also said he spoke as if reading from The Spectator.) His ability to learn a language in a matter of days or hours was so devilishly impressive that one suspects Mezzofanti pursued the cardinalate in part to shelter himself from accusations that he had bought the talent from Satan himself.

I wonder how their brains work. How do they shift from one language to another ? Do they burn up some extra grey cells? Sometimes it can go wrong. I had a colleague who could speak all the South Indian languages. The only problem was he would speak Kannada in Kerala, Tamil in AP, Telugu in Kerala….

1 comment:

Priya Sivan said...

I hear that being born in a multi lingual family is important - we learn 2 languages from parents. Apart from that. Latin is a root for 4 or 5 Europpean languages while German,Russian and Greek are difficult. Grammar, syntax and maybe even syllables help. But some do have a flair for learning languages, I agree.