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Mystery of acquiring another language

The Financial Times              October 17, 2013

Neurology helps to learn a language, but hard work is what matters

In 1987 I interviewed Robert Maxwell, the publishing and printing magnate, at his London headquarters in Holborn Circus.

His death and disgrace were some years away. As well as the Mirror newspaper group, Maxwell headed the biggest printing company in Europe and one of the largest in the US. But I was relieved, as he ordered senior managers around for my benefit, that I was observing rather than working for him - and what struck me, apart from the bullying, was his extraordinary English.

Born in 1923 in a village on the Czech-Romanian border, Maxwell arrived in Liverpool in 1940 and joined the British army. Although he only started to learn the language at 17 years old, his English was fault-free and spoken with a booming upper-class accent.

Perhaps you had to have grown up listening to his generation of central and eastern European refugees to know how unusual this was. Most achieved a certain quirky proficiency, but retained their foreign accents all their lives. (Charlotte Mendelson has great fun with the speech of Hungarian grandmothers and aunts in her delicious new novel Almost English.)

If you move in Financial Times-reading circles, it is easy to imagine that just about everyone has managed to acquire competent English, even if English speakers have seldom managed to learn anyone else's language.

But the most recent European Union study found that just over half of Europeans could hold a conversation in another language.

While the UK and Ireland had a high proportion of monoglots (61 and 60 per cent respectively), Portugal fared just as badly and Hungary and Italy even worse.

The UK government this month began a consultation into how to monitor the language skills of EU doctors working in Britain after 10 "fitness to practise" cases last year involving medics' poor English.

Why do some adults find it so much harder than others to learn a language? A fascinating recent book, Mezzofanti's Gift (Babel No More in the US) by Michael Erard, examines the characteristics of prodigious multilinguals in an attempt to discover how the rest of us could learn just one language.

The book begins with the story of Giuseppe Mezzofanti, an early 19th century priest and professor at the University of Bologna, who could speak, it was said, 72 languages.

While no one makes such claims today, there are people who say they can speak a dozen or more. Can they? In his book, Mr Erard quotes Carol Myers-Scotton, an expert on bilingualism, who says: "When you meet people who tell you they speak four or five languages, give them a smile to show you're impressed, but don't take this claim very seriously."

It depends what we mean by "speak a language". If holding an everyday conversation qualifies, then many people - Belgians, Lebanese, black South Africans - speak several languages.

Others have more exacting criteria. Andrew Cohen, an applied linguist at the University of Minnesota, says speaking a language means you can lecture in it. A US intelligence officer told Mr Erard it meant being able to interpret a conversation on a crackling mobile phone line.

These are high standards. Most of us would probably accept that someone spoke a foreign language if they could take part in a meeting and negotiate a business deal.

What does it take to reach that level? One school, Mr Erard says, argues that learning languages is simply hard work. Another says it is neurological: exceptional language learners are wired differently.

Certainly, some have greater talent than others. Adults who acquire native speaker-like pronunciation, like Maxwell, are truly exceptional.

There has been a lot of research on the brain function of those who acquire high, accented proficiency, but, in Mr Erard's telling, it is inconclusive. No one really understands how language learning works. One view is that extroverts are better learners, but Mr Erard meets extreme introverts with impressive foreign language skills.

Coming from a multilingual environment helps, as does living in a small country that has to do business with outsiders. Belgians' linguistic facility is not "something they magically imbibe in the ... tap water", Mr Erard writes.

When he examined Mezzofanti's archive, he found it full of small papers of copied out words, what we would call "flash cards". Whatever your neurological advantages, language learners cannot escape the hard work.

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