But, from a small sample of prodigies who have been tested by neurolinguists, responded to online surveys, or shared their experience in forums, a partial profile has emerged. An extreme language learner has a more-than-random chance of being a gay, left-handed male on the autism spectrum, with an autoimmune disorder, such as asthma or allergies.
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Endocrine research, still inconclusive, has investigated the hypothesis that these traits may be linked to a spike in testosterone during gestation. It was a subject we explored at the conference last year. Simcott himself is an ambidextrous, heterosexual, and notably outgoing forty-one-year-old. He lives in Macedonia with his wife and daughter, a budding polyglot of eleven, who was, he told me, trilingual at sixteen months.
His flawless German, acquired post-college, as an au pair, made Dutch a cinch. He also found a sense of identity that had eluded him. There was, in particular, a mysterious polyglot who haunted the same rooms. He founded the conference partly to pay that debt forward, by creating a clubhouse for the kind of geeky kid he had been, to whom no tongue was foreign but no place was home. A number of hyperpolyglots are reclusive savants who bank their languages rather than using them to communicate.
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The more extroverted may work as translators or interpreters. Simcott joined the British Foreign Service. On tours of duty in Yemen, Bosnia, and Moldova, he picked up some of the lingo. Every summer, he set himself the challenge of learning a new tongue more purposefully, either by taking a university course—as he did in Mandarin, Japanese, Czech, Arabic, Finnish, and Georgian—or with a grammar book and a tutor.
It is also political. Standard accents and grammar are usually those of a ruling class.
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It was his online survey, conducted in , that generated the first systematic overview of linguistic virtuosity. Some four hundred respondents provided information about their gender and their orientation, among other personal details, including their I. Nearly half spoke at least seven languages, and seventeen qualified as hyperpolyglots. The awe that tribe members command has always attracted opportunists. Erard pursued another much hyped character, Ziad Fazah, a Guinness-record holder until , who claimed to speak fifty-eight languages fluently.
Fazah flamed out spectacularly on a Chilean television show, failing to answer even simple questions posed to him by native speakers. When I asked Simcott if he had any secrets, he paused to think about it. A neurolinguist at the City University of New York, Loraine Obler, ran some tests on me, and I performed highly on recalling lists of nonsense words. Each one bangs more storage hooks into the wall.
Back at home, he turned to drills in grammar and phonetics, logging the time he had devoted to each language on an Excel spreadsheet. Erard is a pensive man of fifty, still boyish-looking, with a gift for listening that he prizes in others. We met in Nijmegen, at the Max Planck Institute, where he was finishing a yearlong stint as the writer-in-residence, and looking forward to moving back to Maine with his family. We had been walking through the woods that surround the institute, listening to the vibrant May birdsong, a Babel of voices.
His subjects, he reflected, had been cut from the herd of average mortals by their wiring or by their obsession. They had embraced their otherness, and they had cultivated it. Yet, if speech defines us as human, a related faculty had eluded them: the ability to connect.
Each new language was a potential conduit—an escape route from solitude. Rojas-Berscia and I took a budget flight from Brussels to Malta, arriving at midnight. The air smelled like summer. Our taxi-driver presumed we were mother and son. By the time we had reached the hotel, he knew the whole Maltese family. Two local newlyweds, still in their wedding clothes, were just checking in.
The answer was nifrah. We were both starving, so we dropped our bags and went to a local bar. It was Saturday night, and the narrow streets of the quarter were packed with revellers grooving to deafening music. I had pictured something a bit different—a quaint inn on a quiet square, perhaps, where a bronze Knight of Malta tilted at the bougainvillea.
But Rojas-Berscia is not easily distracted.
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He took out his notebook and jotted down the kinship terms he had just learned. Then he checked his phone. A gym is a good place to get the prepositions for direction. He was overdressed, with a lacquered mullet, and there was something shifty about him.
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Indeed, Rojas-Berscia prepaid him for the session, but he never turned up the next day. He had, it transpired, a subsidiary line of work. If we took a taxi to some church or ruin, he would ride shotgun and ask the driver to teach him a few common Maltese phrases, or to tell him a joke. But I was seeing plasticity of a different sort, which I myself had once possessed.
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With age, I had lost my gift for abandon. That had been my problem with Vietnamese. You have to inhabit a language, not only speak it, and fluency requires some dramatic flair. Their own history suggests an answer. Malta, an archipelago, is an almost literal stepping stone from Africa to Europe. While we were there, the government turned away a boatload of asylum seekers. Its earliest known inhabitants were Neolithic farmers, who were succeeded by the builders of a temple complex on Gozo. Biography and autobiography are the aggregate of what, in the former, the author happens to learn, and, in the latter, he chooses to tell.
Tell us what you think. Please upgrade your browser. See next articles. By Janet Malcolm. Yale University Press. News World U. Where can you see them? The answers are all in this book. The Northern Lights is a book-banded reading book for developing readers, carefully levelled at Purple Book Band for guided reading. Illustrated throughout with beautiful photographs, this word non-fiction book is suitable for ages 7 - 8. The Northern Lights features a more demanding text with an extended vocabulary.
With a wider vocabulary, the characters are more three dimensional, and illustrations are less important.
It encourages more independent reading. The Northern Lights is part of Ransom Reading Stars, a structured programme for children learning to read. The series has fifteen levels: four phonics levels and eleven book band levels Pink through to Lime. What makes our night and day? How do we get light from the Sun? Which animals hunt at night?
Night and Day is a book-banded reading book for developing readers, carefully levelled at Turquoise Book Band for guided reading. Illustrated throughout with beautiful photographs, this word non-fiction book is suitable for ages 6 - 7. Night and Day features a longer, more demanding text with an extended vocabulary.
It uses punctuation and layout to encourage reading with expression.