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Michael Erard has an MA in Linguistics and a PhD in English from the University of Texas, and has taught all around the world. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Science, Wired and New Scientist. He is the author of Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.

Mezzofanti's Gift

The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners

Michael Erard

Multilingualism is on the rise – in the coming decades, as many as two billion people will learn English as a second language. The next stage up from multilingualism is the domain of the ‘hyperpolyglot’ or ‘superlearner’: someone who claims to know at least six languages. But what does it mean to ‘know’ a language? Can a person claim to speak a language fluently if it isn’t their mother tongue? What role does culture play in learning languages?

In this accessible and enthralling book, Michael Erard discusses the upper limits of the brain’s capacity to learn languages and sheds light on the ‘hyperpolyglot’ phenomenon, from the Italian cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who was said to speak as many as seventy-two languages, to the ‘superlearners’ of the 21st century. Erard’s exploration spans the globe as he travels to meet these living marvels and to investigate those of antiquity, and his discoveries not only illuminate the intellectual potential within all of us, but also indicate how we might begin to unlock it.