on April 5, 2010 in Misc

Read the paragraph below and you might think I’m describing a Twilight Zone character who only exists in another dimension.

Hale spoke between 50 and 56 languages.   He learned all the European languages (Dutch gave him the most trouble – it took him a week to master), some Asian languages, and about 20 languages spoken only by remote native peoples.   One time he encountered a Pacific island native who spoke an almost impossibly obscure language.  Simply by listening to him,   Hale could understand him within fifteen minutes.   Within half an hour both men were chatting away.

Ken Hale was a real man, taught linguistics at MIT, and passed away in 2002.   And he wasn’t weird or an autistic savant.   He was a normal, nice, even modest man.


And you know perfectly well that if I so much as tried to slip a character like him into my novel The Compass Master, I’d be laughed out of the writing business.

That’s the problem with fiction, you know.    Even in thrillers with ambitious plots and action/scholar heroes like Layla Daltry, I’ve got to take reality down a few notches or no one’s gonna believe the story.    Layla speaks a few languages (Latin, ancient Greek, French, and some German and Italian), not fifty.    And I can tell you she had to work her butt off in high school and college to learn them.

Sir Richard Burton (the great Victorian explorer, not the actor) had it easier – his parents had him learning Latin at age three and Greek at four, so it appears he grew up with his brain shaped to naturally acquire new languages.    He would eventually learn around 29 languages and dialects, translate A Thousand and One Arabian Nights from Arabic, the Kama Sutra from Hindustani, write a bunch of his own books – oh, and be a soldier, secret agent, a ferocious master fencer (love that!), orientalist, ethnologist, discover the source of the Nile… and on an on.


The two biographies of Burton that I’ve read say he claimed to learn a new language as a child does:  as a work of pure memory, but combined with grammar books and vocabulary lists.    Of course when he was older he said that the best way to learn a language was in bed with a native, local woman (how very James Bond of him).   Either way, constantly hearing the language aloud was one of his most important learning devices.

By the way, Burton learned Hindustani while stationed with the army in India.   He was tested in it by Major General Vans-Kennedy, who himself knew Hindustani, Persian, Gujarti, Sanskrit, and Arabic.   No wonder the British Empire would eventually cover a quarter of the globe.    And no wonder Burton – one of the greatest real action heroes of all time – would be able to go undercover and penetrate sacred, forbidden cities like Mecca and Harar.

Fast forward to me in modern times.    I am SO not a linguistic genius.    In fact I’m a linguistic bad joke.   But I now have a few extra hours a week to study French and Arabic because, as you know,  I’m not working out for several weeks because the cartilage in my ribcage got ripped up.

One thing I’ve discovered is that it helps me to study a language in a brief lesson lasting around ten or fifteen minutes.   Then I try to repeat the same lesson two or three time a day.   This seems to set the vocabulary and sentences deeper into my memory.   As Burton himself once wrote, “I never worked for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the brain lost its freshness.”


As for repeating the lesson hours apart – I’m doing this because I came across an old article (I am a hoarder of old articles) that said the brain needs time to store new skills.  It reports that scientists found it can take five to six hours for the memory of a new skill to move from a temporary storage site in the front of the brain (the prefrontal cerebral cortex) to a permanent storage site in the back  (the posterior parietal and cerebella areas).  Repetition of that new skill during those hours can help retain it.

The point is, us non-linguistic geniuses need all the help we can get.  And for me, brief lessons hours apart, and done in a relaxed, highly focused state of mind, seem to be working.  At best I’ll only learn tourist-level Arabic and conversational French.   But hey, even this much will make me feel like I’ve   smarted up.

6 Responses to “Superlearner”

  1. Robert L. Read says:

    It is also important to note that each language is easier to acquire than the last. One writer described learning the first as “dislodging the first olive from the bottle”, meaning that they all come easier after that.

    I keep hoping for this to pay off for me. I am fluent in Esperanto, and speak some Spanish. I am currently studying Latin. I would hope the first two would let it just pop right into my mind. They haven’t. However, I have no way of judging how quickly or slowly I am learning compared to others.

  2. Helena says:

    Maybe one problem is you don’t hear a lot of Latin being spoken around you? And Latin is way tougher than Spanish. But if you’re fluent in Esperanto then I’m impressed!

  3. Ben says:

    Haha, wow, Robert, that is impressive.
    I took 2 years of spanish in high school, I took an online spanish course, and then spanish 1 in college, and I still feel lost. It’s supposedly an easy language. I think they lie about that. I am not linguistically gifted.

  4. Helena says:

    That means you probably have a gift in some other area, maybe one that’s more important to you.

  5. Ketutar says:

    I use Finnish, English and Swedish every day. I would say I’m fluent in all three, but… I still make really stupid grammar mistakes and even vocabulary mistakes in my two foreign ones :-D

    Helena, have you ever read Benny’s blog “Fluent in three months”?
    It’s really inspiring :-)
    You might be able to use all Layla’s languages in a couple of years. You can even find someone to exercise your Latin with, all Catholic priests should be able to converse in Latin ;-)

  6. Helena says:

    Ketutar – I’m so jealous of your abilities! And thanks for the tip on Benny’s blog. Since I’m part Irish I love the fact that he seems to be a crazy Irishman.

    Certainly after I’ve got The Compass Master edited, polished, in print and FINISHED I’ll have more time to tackle languages again. I’m really looking forward to that.