Do Polyglots Have A Genetic Predisposition For Language Learning?

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
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Do Polyglots Have A Genetic Predisposition For Language Learning?

If you haven’t already seen this, there was a very interesting segment called Word Play on the Canadian TV ‘current affairs’ show 16×9 – The Bigger Picture a while back.

It took a close look at hyperpolyglots (a fancy word for polyglots who speak dozens of languages) and the question of whether or not their brains work differently to other people came up.

Do their genes enable them to learn multiple languages with apparent ease?

Among the guests were Steve Kaufmann, Richard Simcott, Timothy Doner, Keith Swayne and Michael Erard.

The relation of the Geschwind-Galaburda Hypothesis to language learning

The thing that really fascinated me in the Word Play segment was the plausibility of the Geschwind-Galaburda hypothesis (which Erard talked about in his book).

According to the report, most of these exceptional language learners tend to have the following characteristics:

  • male (due to testosterone circulation during brain development)
  • autoimmune disorders (picture the stereotypical nerdy kid with asthma and allergies)
  • left-handed
  • musically or mathematically talented

I suppose I should make it clear that I’m not necessarily taking sides by suggesting that males perform better at languages than women.

Genes and language learning

These are the views shared in the segment.

The controversy of even asking the question of male (or female) genetic superiority in language learning

These days it’s risky to even ask some questions. 🙂

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).

In fact, I’ve encountered some incredibly talented women in my travels who speak more languages than I do.

However, as a linguist who has spent time studying Second Language Acquisition there are always a multitude of factors that should be taken into consideration and examined when 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 *eye roll*) the opportunity (and respect) to do things like study the brain.

I’m fascinated by the plausibility of things like the Geschwind-Galaburda hypothesis (and other genetic studies), not because I’m arguing in favor of it, but because it’s one of many avenues of research examined to explain a very extraordinary phenomenon.

“They worked hard” is lazy (see some of the comments below).


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.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
Greek

COMMENTS

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Judith

Judith

"Most of these language learners tend to be male and very often have autoimmune disorders, are left-handed, and musically or mathematically talented."

This remarkable insight in Erard's book was based on a survey of 17 (!) individuals, who also weren't selected at random but volunteered (hence increasing male participation). There is no science to this claim and I'm surprised to see you repeat it here.

-- Judith, female polyglot, right-handed, no autoimmune disorders, no musical or mathematical talent

Rick

Rick

On the other hand, everyone in this vıdeo put in pretty much the same amount of time as any other language learner would do, polyglot or not. None of them learned their languages any quicker. I suppose you could say that they've gone full-throttle at the beginning, giving the illusion of learning quicker, but I really don't believe that's the case.

Hours put in are hours put in.

michael erard

michael erard

I haven't seen the 16x9 segment yet, but if it says that I (or Loraine Obler) said that all polyglots are left-handed, etc., then that's not only wrong, but it's not what I say in the book. The full account is in the book, so you should go directly to that.

mezzoguild

mezzoguild

No, 16x9 does not assert in the video that all hyperpolyglots have these features. It merely raises it as a possibility and then asks Steve Kaufmann and the other guests if they possess any of them.

People seem to be erroneously attributing the Geschwind-Galaburda hypothesis to you, Michael. Hopefully I haven't done a disservice by making it sound like it's your own argument.

That being said, some people really need to put their reactionary impulses aside for a moment and consider various arguments and hypotheses that they might not necessarily like or agree with it.

I received this message in response to this post:

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I always found that hypothesis odd, and was actually going to write the author of Babel No More, about how much he made of it. My circle of friends are all polyglots or "hyperpolylots," (a term we're all annoyed by, as far as I can tell), and we're 50 female (like the general population), none are autistic, and I think one (of 10~) is lefty.

They stumbled upon a group of people mostly on the HTLAL forums and it sounds like they found a group of lefty, autistic, male polyglots and extrapolated a bit more correlation than my admittedly anecdotal experience would corroborate. Then again, the author of BNM didn't know any polyglots or where to find any, and seemed content after simply stumbling over HTLAL and the Arguelles followers, who I'd wager are predominantly autistic, lefty, and male (no judgement!). I don't get the impression anyone looked further, since they assumed they wouldn't find any hyperpolyglots elsewhere. For what it's worth, I bet you'd find a ton of non-autistic female polyglots in, say, the corridors of the UN. Or the EU headquarters. Or the Hague. Or the CIA (maybe?).
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Simon

Simon

I'm a polyglot with five fluent languages, basic conversational ability in five others, and a basic knowledge of five more. I'm male, right-handed, with no autoimmune disorders, and with some musical ability (I sing, write songs, and can play seven instruments fairly well, and can coax tunes out of a number of others). My mathmatical abilities are fairly undeveloped.

Some of my polyglot friends have musical and/or mathematical abilities, and some of my musician friends are into languages.

Luba

Luba

I am a polyglot: Russian, English, Hebrew, Spanish and Greek plus in past I studied French, Latin, Old Russian and Old Church Slavonic, and as a kid i used to speak Polish and Azerbaijan language.
I am a woman, right-handed, no autoimmune disorders, very moderate abilities in music and no math talents whatsoever.

Aaron

Aaron

Hey Donnovan,
I appreciate your diving into the topic and opening up the discussion. It seems plausable to me that there may be some more gifted or pre-disposed to becoming a polyglot. And that if that is the case, that there may be some traits that many polyglots share, patterns even. It in no way means that anyone else can't work hard and become a polyglot too. I suspect that many of the guys on the video wouldn't say they had a particular gift, just passion and determination. I agree with Rick in this accord - they put in the time.

Nothing wrong with having the discussion, with exploring what the patterns are (if there are any) and trying to learn from them. Kato Lomb breaks the "male" pattern, but held degrees in physics so I assume she was good at math. In the end though she seems to have just lost herself in good detective and romance novel and put in the time.
Aaron

michael erard

michael erard

I appreciate your post here, Donovan. I need to put together a blog post or video on this topic, but there's something else at work here, which is the fact that no single individual can introspect on the "normalness" of his or her brain. It's absurd for someone to say, "I'm not talented, I have an entirely normal brain." I understand why people say that. Mainly it's because they are teachers, or run businesses that promote their method; having to acknowledge that there are factors besides hard work and motivation that produce better outcomes is a real drag on business.

The other reason people say that is because it's a cultural story. In the West, people don't get credit for being blessed by God; they get credit for having worked hard, being disciplined, and having willpower. To put it another way: You can tell only the stories about your behavior that your culture gives you to tell. I find that only a few hyperpolyglots are well-read in the language acquisition or cognitive neuroscience literature, so they inevitably end up drawing on their own experiences or those of their friends, which reinforces those cultural stories. (Now, I'm not saying that scientific approaches are entirely culture-neutral, but science is the best tool we have for getting a sense of what's going on that's not ONLY a cultural story.)

My book takes the scientific approach, and I like it when people give it credit for opening up a discussion and following up on the literature. Up to this point, everything has been anecdote, self-report, and Guinness Book of World Records. Let me say that again: Until I published Babel No More, no one had compiled the various parts of the story, including making sense of historical figures and contemporary people, in service of answering this one question: what are the upper limits of the ability to speak, learn, and use languages?

Judith

Judith

Indeed, anyone can learn another language or two, but being intelligent helps. What is intelligence if not the ability to quickly understand something new and learn it, whether that be languages or another subject.

Mae

Mae

Wow, what a discussion!
First of all, I am female + right-handed, with no autoimmune disorders but with some musical ability. I am a polyglot speaking 6 languages at a very high level, having basic to advanced conversational abilities in 3 other languages, and learning 1 more language right now, as time permits. I am a member of HTLAL, but no "Arguelles follower" (???).
Congrats to Alex & Co., you guys cut quite a figure in that show. Unfortunately the authors of the show didn't focus on what mattered: Time put in, hard work and motivation.
I don't think you need to have another type of brain to be successful in what you're passionate about!

Renatie Smartie

Renatie Smartie

I'm not a polyglot, but I have often been told I have a talent for picking up languages. I do think there are people with a predisposition for learning languages, but that certainly doesn't account for a polyglot's achievements.
I'm left-handed and musically inclined. One of my family members is very mathematically inclined and although I myself liked maths fleetingly I didn't develop a real interest in it. I also have family members with auto-immune disorders. I would hope that the 'Geschwind-Galaburda Hypothesis is correct... - Alas, I'm female, so I don't :D I tend to think of maths and music as languages, so I wouldn't be surprised if there's a relation.

hawaiigavin

hawaiigavin

Interesting post and discussion. There is a literature on exceptional language learners, Julie for example and it seems that it is a coalescence of factors: willingness to communicate, time devoted to study, usually mentioning another hot topic: age. Age, or rather age of onset of language learning, is an interesting one, as it separate the fields of first and second language acquisition. This also makes it interesting to think about the Geschwind–Galaburda hypothesis and if there are differences in brain development, it might help us understand a lot about language and the brain. While the brain most definitely has a division of labor for various cognitive tasks when it comes to language, it is ultimately the product of a whole brain, not just a part of it. As long as computational notions persist in understanding symbolic communication as a peculiarly human capacity, I think we'll come up short of a full understanding of the relationship between two things that are still quite mysterious: the brain and language.

As for polyglots, I think, as many people mentioned already, it's about time devoted to study, and most likely a range of other factors that are and aren't so obviously related to language learning that allows these guys to speak so many languages. Of course, the actual fluency of their languages is up for debate, but they definitely seem to be able to get by in conversation. Learning many languages is an amazing skill that some seem to have or don't to various degrees, but I think we forget sometimes that we're all human beings, and as human beings it's just what we do, in fact most people in the world are competent in several "languages" (dialects, registers, etc..). And it's likely that the monolingual bias in American academia, where much of the research comes out of, doesn't help much either.

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- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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