Extreme Language Learning: a hyperglot in overdrive

There are certain endeavours that would seem to be unattackable in anything but a million little duck bites — they’re just too big and complicated. And anyone who claims to have mastered such tasks in a single day immediately sets off the charlatan alarm.

Scott Adams comes to mind. The creator of the cartoon strip Dilbert, who is a genius, lost some cred in my book when he claimed to have changed himself from a bad writer to a good writer after taking a one-day course in business writing. (“I couldn’t believe how simple it was. I’ll tell you the main tricks here so you don’t have to waste a day in class….”)

Learning a new language surely belongs in this hopper. It’s a skill that’s impossible to short-cut in one big cram session. Or so you’d think.

Meet Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia. He’s what’s known as a hyperpolyglot. A polyglot is someone who speaks more than one language. A hyperpolyglot speaks at least eleven.

There’s a kind of compound-interest effect to learning languages: the more you know, the easier it is to learn more — because the roots become familiar, and many words are borrowed. “Each one bangs more storage hooks into the wall,” one hyperpolyglot explained to the New Yorker writer Judith Thurman not long ago.

But even in the rare company of hyperpolyglots, Rojas-Berscia, a 27-year-old man Peruvian man, is an outlier. A linguist who studies the languages of indigenous people in the Peruvian rain forest, he speaks 22 languages. And knows six more dead ones. So he seemed a perfect candidate for an experiment that Thurman devised. The two of them would travel together to a country he had never visited, whose language he had never been exposed to. Starting from zero, how quickly could he become passably conversant? 

Thurman and Rojas-Berscia touched down one recent Saturday night in Malta. Rojas-Berscia hit the ground with both ears wide open. His approach was more loosey-goosey than Thurman had expected. He’s an outgoing guy, so he hadn’t bothered to crack a single Maltese book. Instead he just put himself in the fray, “bathing in the warm sea” of those voices. Thurman, herself a polyglot, was impressed by the tactic, which was the exact opposite of her own shy m.o. of “sleeping with the dictionary.” But really learning a language is an active venture, almost a kind of performance. Genuine fluency, she reckons, requires “some dramatic flair.”

Every taxi ride Rojas-Berscia took, every shop he popped into, he seized the opportunity to try out phrases he’d soaked up at the last stop. He looked for volunteers willing to spend an hour over a drink or a coffee. Thurman suggested they find someone from the university to guide them, but Rojas-Berscia shook his head. “I prefer to avoid intellectuals,” he said. “You want the street talk.”

“It will take me a day to learn the essentials,” Rojas-Berscia had predicted as he and Thurman were planning the trip. (The essentials included numbers, negation, pronouns, qualification – “good,” bad,” etc — predicate formation, basic verbs and “a little shopping basket of nouns.”) And sure enough, Thurman could practically hear the pop of new synapses forming as within hours Rojas-Berscia was communicating. He was speaking Maltese. In one day.

At week’s end, the two parted company at the Amsterdam airport. Rojas-Berscia was on his way to Australia to study aboriginal dialects. Thurman asked him to assess his performance in their experiment.

“The grammar was easy,” he said. “The orthography is a little difficult, and the verbs seemed chaotic.” His prowess had dazzled people, but he wasn’t as impressed with himself, she noted. He was by no means fluent, though he could make small talk and read parts of the newspaper. “He had learned probably a thousand words.”

The cab driver who ferried them to the airport guessed Rojas-Berscia wasn’t a native Maltese. But he was pretty sure the young man lived there.

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