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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.

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.

Comments

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  1. "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

    1. That insight was made with more than 17 learners, Judith. Please re-read my book. Or read it, if you haven't already, where you will also note Loraine Obler's observation that these are familial dispositions, not individual ones.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. I'm sure there are more like you, Luba. These 'Check out the amazing weirdo' programmes love cliches and pigeon holes. I'm sure many men who spend endless hours studying also have considerate women, mothers, wives, taking care of them, which may account for some of the numbers!

  4. 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.

  5. I haven't seen the 16×9 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.

  6. No, 16×9 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:

    ————————
    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?).
    ————————

    1. I feel I have to reply to this last borderline condescending post.

      I'm Alexandre Coutu, the guy sitting in the middle in the picture introducing the post.

      Out of the 5 participants in the discussion, I'm the only one who's a frequent user of HTLAL — Steve only rarely posts there, and Keith, James and Axel are not even members as far as I know. Richard occasionally posts, as did Tim for a little while, but we all know that's not where they found both these guys.

      Still, that's all irrelevant because they DIDN'T find me through HTLAL. My friend Judith (who posted above) gave my name after Richard had given hers. I had a discussion with the host of the show over the phone and they decided to invite me.

      I, of course, know of Prof. Arguelles, but no more than anyone else who has seen his videos, and my learning style couldn't be further from his. I don't know where you got the impression that I was an "Arguelles follower".

      And by the way — I'm not autistic.

  7. 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

  8. 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?

    1. Michael: " 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."

      One of the few things I said that remained in the show — and man does it stick out! — is that (hyper)polyglots are talented. I said it because at that particular moment, it felt as though everyone was tiptoeing around trying to say that they weren't talented — and yes, I too felt it was partly because they had something to promote, and partly because they were being too modest.

    2. (continued)

      Now people will often acknowledge that pronunciation is an area where there may be talent, and since I always felt I had that talent, I never distinguished my ability with languages from my ability for pronunciation. So if there is no such thing as talent for languages, then perhaps this is skewing my vision of the whole thing.

      After the show, some participants have continued to claim that they aren't talented (and I don't doubt that they are being genuine), but some actually used the word gift. Others have said it was because they had experience and were much smarter than average. I suppose these are things people don’t want to brag about, but to me, people have talents in different fields and I don't see a problem with saying "my talent is languages". It's not sports, it's not fashion, it's not woodworking: it's languages. —-

    3. (continued)

      When I study languages, I do it effortlessly and I get better results than others around me. Now I can be a bit lazy, I don't have that much free time and I don't study that much, so I can really admire the other polyglots in the show who have worked so hard to achieve what they have achieved – and they deserve the admiration. But I still think some kind of talent, gift or predisposition is at play. This wouldn’t prevent people from learning several languages if it was their goal, but it will be harder and it will take them more time.

    4. "Others have said it was because they had experience and were much smarter than average."

      I kind of winced at the thought of someone actually saying "I'm smarter than average" when I read this.

      I'm firmly in the school of thought that the more you do something, the better you become at it. Over the years, I've learned what works best for me to learn a language, and learned to discard what doesn't. That may make me smarter than average when it comes to language learning, but I don't believe it was or is a gift. It's something I learned over time. And I continue to learn and streamline to make the process easier, more enjoyable.

      Like you, I don't spend a whole lot of time learning languages (as you mention in your continuation). But again, it's something I've learned over time, not something that's just happened. I'd call that experience, more than anything.

    5. "I kind of winced at the thought of someone actually saying "I'm smarter than average" when I read this."

      Why? Are you saying everyone is equally smart? If not, are you saying it's inappropriate for a person to conclude that they are smarter than average? Or are you just implying it's something that should never be said?

    6. "Are you saying everyone is equally smart?"

      Not at all. I read your original statement as a belief (though perhaps not said by you) that it takes above-average intelligence to learn another language, which is definitely not the case.

    7. Anyone can learn another language. I've even met a few people who were mentally challenged and could speak a second language.

      But we are talking about hyperpolyglots here.

    8. I appreciate your willingness to claim that about yourself.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

    1. I'm interested in the question, all other things being equal — time on task, motivation, etc. — what determines exceptional outcomes? Or, if you have two learners with equal amounts of passion, time, deliberate practice, etc., why does one person have more successful learning outcomes than another person? (And define "successful" however you would like.) All these right-handed people are taking the question on from the wrong direction, and in the process, not really arguing anything at all. Judith, Mae, all the rest: given two individuals with equal amounts of time on task, motivation, etc., what explains differences in outcomes? How do you answer that question?

    2. All things are rarely equal. The hyperpolyglots you found are spending an extraordinary amount of time on language study, for example Tim's >6 hours every day and Alexander Arguelles >9 hours every day. Personally I'm not quite there, I only spent 712 hours on language learning last year (yes I'm keeping spreadsheets), and that is certainly the most important reason that I'm not at 20+ spoken languages yet. But I challenge you to find a hyperpolyglot who does not spend an extraordinary amount of time on language study, or a non-hyperpolyglot who does.

      In my view, the most important factors determining outcome of language learning are:
      1. time invested
      2. method (or: skill of the teacher, if taught)
      3. speed of learning, i. e. intelligence

      Outside forced learning situations, motivation / passion are big factors but indirect ones: they help people spend more time on the language.

  11. 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 😀 I tend to think of maths and music as languages, so I wouldn't be surprised if there's a relation.

  12. 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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