Here’s the background of the book, Babel No More.
In 2005, I wrote an article for a pop science magazine about the science that could explain — or not — hyperpolyglots, or people who can speak six or more languages. Because no scientific research has directly dealt with the question of what the upper limits of the human ability to learn, remember, and use languages are, hyperpolyglots are a sort of natural experiment. You have to be careful in this territory, though. Mythology, anecdote, and self-aggrandizing cloud the results. And you have to clearly define what it means to speak a language, as well as what a language is. (Do dialects count? What about artificial languages?)
Convinced that a magazine article wasn’t sufficient to deal with these topics, in the spring of 2008, I sold a proposal for Babel No More. Full of literary ambitions, I went looking for living hyperpolyglots to interview. My research took me first into the library, then to Europe. In Bologna, Italy, I was the first person in decades to look at the archives of Cardinal Joseph Mezzofanti, a 19th-century linguistic wonder. On the same trip to Europe, I met Gregg Cox, an American who holds The Guinness Book of World Record’s award as the World’s Greatest Living Linguist; I also met up with a neurolinguist to check out the remains of an eminent German hyperpolyglot’s brain. This would tell us what, if anything, is remarkable about polyglot brains.
All this is in the book, and more, including many of the well-known polyglots and a few less well-known ones. A few you probably haven’t heard of. Everyone was fascinating. Interviews, historical research, a deep dive into the scientific literature, and a survey for hyperpolyglots provide most of the content. My curiosity, some skepticism, and a whole lot of wonder showed me the way through.
I was awarded a Dobie Paisano Writing Fellowship in 2008 and spent 4 months living on a secluded ranch west of Austin, Texas, where I drafted the first half of the book and did a lot of thinking about my own background as a language learner. After leaving the ranch, I went back to the field, traveling to Mexico and to southern India to meet people in multilingual communities. At that point, I had about 8 months left to turn in my first draft, which felt very short, given that I had to make sense of more neurological material and of the many revelations and puzzles of the India trip. My time left shortened even more when my wife became pregnant with our first child — who would come a month before the deadline, when I’d be making the biggest push to finish! Working hard, taking one final research trip to Belgium, and dealing with complications in the pregnancy, I was still able to put together a full draft for my editor.
A reorganization at my publisher left me with no future there. Fortunately, I was able to get a great new editor and editorial team at the Free Press and Simon & Schuster, as well as a new agent. Once the book was sold in September of 2010, I made numerous changes, virtually re-writing the book several times. It’s a fascinating topic, and I hope you enjoy reading about it.