Another edit: I personally do not believe that successful language learners are the product of special ‘genes’. Everybody with an L1 is perfectly capable of learning an L2 (or more).
However, as a linguist who has spent time studying Second Language Acquisition there are a multitude of factors that should be taken into consideration and examined when we’re dealing with extraordinary cases of language learning (whether it’s ‘hyperpolyglots’ or adult learners achieving near-native fluency in one other language). To say that the men in the picture above ‘just worked harder’ is a pathetic oversimplification of the issue.
I’m not arguing that special genes are the cause but my point is to say that it definitely warrants research and this includes affording linguists (those horrible academics who have never lived in the real world or learned another language <– *rolls eyes*) the opportunity (and respect) to do things like study the brain.
I stated that I’m fascinated by the plausibility of the Geschwind-Galaburda hypothesis below, not because I’m arguing in favor of it, but because it’s one of many avenues of research examined to explain a very curious phenomenon (certainly a little better thought out than ‘they worked really hard’).
If you haven’t already seen this here’s a very interesting segment called Word Play that’s just been aired on the Canadian current affairs show 16×9 – The Bigger Picture.
It takes a close look at hyperpolyglots and the question of whether or not their brains work differently to other people enabling them to learn multiple languages with apparent ease. Among the guests are Steve Kaufmann, Richard Simcott, Timothy Doner, Keith Swayne and Michael Erard.
The thing that really fascinates me is the plausibility of the Geschwind-Galaburda hypothesis (which Erard talks about in his book).
According to the report, most of these language learners tend to be male (due to testosterone circulation during brain development) and very often have autoimmune disorders (picture the stereotypical nerdy kid with asthma and allergies), are left-handed, and musically or mathematically talented.
[Edit: Let me make it perfectly clear that I’m not taking sides by suggesting that males perform better at languages than women. I’m merely stating the views shared in this segment and asking for your opinion.]
Are you a polyglot or hyperpolyglot? Can you relate to any or all of the “cluster” of attributes mentioned here (autoimmune weakness, left-handedness, etc.)?
I’d like to hear your thoughts on the questions raised by this segment in the comments section below.