Michael Erard Interview

Michael Erard has graduate degrees in linguistics and rhetoric from the University of Texas at Austin. He’s written about language, linguists, and linguistics for Wired, The Atlantic,The New York Times, and many other publications and is a contributing writer for The Texas Observer and Design Observer. He is the author of Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.

In Babel No More, Michael Erard, “a monolingual with benefits,” sets out on a quest to meet language superlearners and make sense of their mental powers. On the way he uncovers the secrets of historical figures like the nineteenth-century Italian cardinal Joseph Mezzofanti, who was said to speak seventy-two languages, as well as those of living language-superlearners such as Alexander Arguelles, a modern-day polyglot who knows dozens of languages and shows Erard the tricks of the trade to give him a dark glimpse into the life of obsessive language acquisition.

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Mezzofanti’s Gift, 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?

Addendum 

Michael is no longer a contributing writer at Design Observer or Texas Observer; now only The Morning News.  He also founded and edit Schwa Fire (www.schwa-fire.com), a digital publication for long-form journalism about language and life.
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