Recently Micheal Erard released his book, “Babel No More”. The book is the, “search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners”. When I posted the link to an article in The Economist about the book on my Facebook page, I was asked if I agree with it. At first I thought about the whole article and then I realised that the question related to a quote in the article by the journalist, “Switching quickly between more than around six or seven is near-impossible even for the most gifted.”
I was never approached during this search for multilinguals, but I don’t feel that switching is so rare amongst the limited number of people I have met able to converse in over 6 languages. In fact I do polyglot-skyping with such individuals regularly. I was interviewed by Luca Lampariello, an Italian polyglot, in 9 languages to demonstrate how this is done. I have had similar conversations with Vladimir Skultety, a Slovak polyglot living in Taiwan, Robert Bigler from Austria and, a few years ago, with Professor Arguelles too (featured heavily in this project).
For me personally I have had roles where I had to switch between 8 languages daily. I did this for work, on the phone and face-to-face with clients and I had to be professional in all of the languages. This was not just a “hello, I will put you through to…”, this was dealing with people to get a job done. Languages for me have always been a tool to get something done. I love them very much for that reason – communication of thoughts, ideas, advice and information.
I cannot comment on the Mezzofanti-types because they are dead and I really cannot say how well they spoke languages. I can say this…I have experienced the phenomenon of someone I don’t know coming up to me and saying, “Aren’t you the guy who speaks 60 languages?”…Chinese whispers are wonderful, aren’t they? 😉