polyglot on steroids

In my dream to learn more languages inherited directly from you, mom,
I loved this peak into hyperpolyglotism.
Another book to add to my list.


On a quest to find the person we could say spoke the most languages in the world, I stumbled on the online personae of a language learning guru and hyperpolyglot, Alexander Arguelles, who invited me to Berkeley, California, where he was living at the time. It was my first introduction to the life of the contemporary hyperpolyglot. On many mornings, once Alexander has greeted the sun doing extensive writing exercises in Chinese, Arabic, Latin, Russian, Persian, German, and other languages, he goes for a long run in the arid hills of the park above his neighborhood, while listening to a German audiobook tape on his Walkman. (So far, he eschews the MP3.) Marathon lengths are easy for him—once, he says, he got lost in the woods and ended up running more than thirty miles, though he felt faint. Later someone told him that long-distance runners have to eat every two hours, which came as a revelation; he finds the carbohydrate goo disgusting. He eschews that, too.

One morning, he discovered the campus of a theological seminary that he now covets for a polyglot academy he dreams of starting. The school was made up of low, Mission Revival–style buildings surrounded by redwoods and eucalyptus trees stirred by the wind. Alexander pointed to a fire trail cutting down the hill, saying that it would be good for shadowing. Shadowing is how he gets to know a language’s sounds: put a tape in the Walkman and, while briskly walking and arms swinging, you shout the sounds as you hear them. Though you won’t know what the words mean, later you read the dialogues and translate them, then you shadow the same material again. For him, parsing the sounds first then adding meaning later makes it stick. Shouting now is also an inoculation against embarrassment later.

At first, I assumed that his ambition was to speak all of his languages—otherwise, what’s the point of shadowing? This turned out to be wrong. I also assumed that he might like to talk to people. That, too, wasn’t right. His goal is to read literature from all over the world, classic and contemporary, in the original languages. He had shown me a recent novel by a Dutch author. “Reading this puts me in tune with the living spirit, the resonance of the language,” he’d said, waving the book, “not being able to go to Amsterdam and go into a caf√© and get a hash brownie and have them think that I’m one of them, not an American tourist.” He wants to explore his consciousness, to encounter a language as a living entity, and to collect the esoteric knowledge of these encounters. “Most of the languages I’ve studied I’ve never spoken, and I probably never will,” he told me. “And that’s okay with me. That’s nice if you can do that, but it’s rare that you have an interesting conversation in English. Why do I think it would be any better in another language?"

As we walked around the seminary grounds, he pointed out a cloister, also a good space for shadowing. He cut the air with his finger, imagining himself the school principal: here he’d put Korean, here Chinese, over there Japanese, letting students drift from area to area. He’d do this, he said, because he encounters languages not as finite, divisible things, but as fuzzy clouds. Labeling something “French” or “Italian” is a convenience, not a reflection of the reality he perceives. His students should have that experience, too. What the rest of us call a “language” is, to Alexander, a minor variation on a broader linguistic theme. “For me to learn any Romance or Germanic dialect, just put me in the environment, and it would come alive,” he said. “It would be building upon thousands and thousands of hours of active conscious study of other languages.” Even if he were to set out today to learn a language unrelated to one he already knows, he said, “I would have to put in fewer hours than compared to, say, you.”

A sunlit courtyard with a dry, cracked fountain at its center beckoned us to stop. “The way I see it,” he said, “there are three types of polyglots. There are the ultimate geniuses, the ones who are so rare, the ones who excel at anything they do, and one of those happens to be languages.

Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners By Michael Erard 320 pages. Free Press. $25.99


  1. Thanks for writing about my book! I'm glad you discovered it and hope you get to read it.
    Michael Erard