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There are many theories to explain the existence of polyglotism in some individuals, including differences in intellect and brain structure.
It is difficult to judge which individuals are polyglots, as there is no uncontroversial definition of what it means to "master" a language. Nonetheless, many people have been described as polyglots. This includes some cases of "polyglot savants", people who show mental disability in some areas but unusually high ability to learn or use languages.
Numerous theories exist as explanations for polyglotism. For example, it has been recognized that someone who is interested in languages, with a sufficiently developed intellect, and who optimizes his/her learning technique with experience, will become increasingly efficient as each new language is learned; therefore, such an individual is able to master new languages with less effort than the average person. Also, different languages overlap in the areas of grammar and vocabulary, and this makes it easier to acquire connected languages, such as English and French words (the overlap is much smaller between English and German, and other Germanic languages).
One theory suggests that a spike in a baby's testosterone levels while in the uterus can increase brain asymmetry, while others have suggested that hard work and the right type of motivation—which any adult can apply—are the key factors of polyglotism. Neuroscientist Katrin Amunts studied the brain of German polyglot Emil Krebs and determined that the area of Krebs' brain that was responsible for language—the Broca's area—was organised differently in comparison to the brains of monolinguals.
Due to the advent of computers, linguists obtained a better understanding of what it can mean to "know a language". It is estimated that the most frequently used 2000 words—in all or most of their multiple senses—cover approximately seventy-five to eighty percent of a general text in English and other European languages; such a limited vocabulary also allows one to express more complicated concepts, whereby they are described by means of circumlocutions (e.g. as a rule, 30,000 to 50,000 words in modern English learner's dictionaries are defined with merely 2000 to 3000 defining vocabulary words). On the other hand, a native speaker with an American college education may possess a 25,000- to 30,000-word passive vocabulary—of which various parts can be activated—that increases to possibly 50,000 words, or more, by the age of fifty to sixty years.
It is therefore difficult to objectively judge many claims of polyglotism, because what is ostensibly "fluent speech" can be achieved with the assertive use of a very limited general-purpose or specialized vocabulary.
Savants are typically individuals with significant mental disabilities who demonstrate profound and prodigious capacities and/or abilities far in excess of what would be considered normal, including the capacity for languages. Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant, is a notable example who, as of early 2005, spoke seven languages and was also devising his own languages.
A well-known case of a polyglot savant is that of "Christopher," who participated in studies with Dr. Neil Smith, Ianthi-Maria Tsimpli, and Jamal Ouhalla. Christopher is fluent in approximately sixteen languages and possesses the capacity to acquire new languages very easily, although his representations of the sound systems of these languages is relatively poor and his ability to use language communicatively is highly restrained. Researchers taught him new languages, controlling the methods and exposure, so that they could study his language-learning process and extrapolate the results to determine how most people acquire languages. Christopher was taught two completely new languages: Berber language is a real language spoken in Africa, while Epun is an invented language. Some of Epun’s structures and rules were made to violate the parameters of universal grammar, which are hypothesized to underlie all human languages. Christopher was able to learn Berber as easily as he could any other foreign language, but had difficulties learning Epun. For example, he had trouble processing sentences structures that weren’t in the S-V-O order. This provided further evidence for the theory that there is a Universal grammar shared by all human languages which defines what is linguistically possible (in terms of word order, syntax, structure, etc.). The researchers applied what they discovered from studying how Christopher learned Berber and Epun to the general process of acquiring an L2 (a language that it is non-native). They conclude that L2 learning consists of transferring familiar rules from one’s L1 (native language) to the new language system and of applying the principles of universal grammar.
This research demonstrates the hope that studying how extraordinary individuals, such as polyglot savants, will help reveal how humans in general acquire languages.
Christopher learned languages by quickly "devouring" introductory self-teaching books, interacting with native speakers, and receiving explicit instructions. Christopher is also capable of identifying many different languages by looking at their written form, although he cannot speak or translate them. However, with a keen eye and a little bit of training this skill can be relatively easily acquired. For example, Christopher correctly identified Bengali, Chinese, Czech, Gujarati, Icelandic, just to name a few, when shown examples of these languages. This is especially interesting because these languages are from a range, both genetically and typologically. However, many of these languages differ largely in aesthetic characteristics of their writing styles, making the task of identification simpler.[dead link]
While polyglot savants such as Emil Krebs may have anatomical or biological differences that allow them to organize language in a different and more efficient manner, it has also been suggested that the entire language acquisition process for polyglot savants is different from the process most humans undergo. This ability, though, is also seen in individuals with no apparent deficits in any cognitive, linguistic, motor, emotional or other domains, adding further complexity to the picture. It has been proposed that these individuals with unparalleled linguistic abilities undergo the same first language acquisition process over and over again with each new language. Because they are able to consciously or unconsciously learn the pragmatics, grammar, syntax, etc. of a language as if they were learning a language for the first time they are able to acquire it as proficiently as a native speaker. Most humans allow the grammar of previously learned languages affect and influence their ability to learn a second, third, etc. language. This is an issue that these polyglot savants do not struggle with. This ability may be tied directly to how these individuals organize Broca’s area of the brain however; their learning abilities for languages are unparalleled and still not 100% understood to this day.
There is still much research that needs to be done regarding the mechanisms through which polyglot savants acquire language. Although it is apparent that polyglot savants, such as Christopher, have amazing linguistic abilities, quite often, their general intellectual ability is impaired. Poor hand-eye coordination, weak problem solving abilities, and social and conversational problems, make every day tasks very difficult for Christopher. This, paired with his incredible ability to process languages, demonstrates the fact that there is still much to learn about the nature of learning new tasks, and how it ties in with learning new languages.
- polyglottism - Definition from Collins English Dictionary
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- Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. By Michael Erard. Free Press; 306 pages. ISBN 978-1-4516-2825-8
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