Some people learn other languages because they have to or desire to do so, whereas for others it is a natural process as they live in a multilingual environment (De Jong, 2011). However, for some people, who are able to acquire sixteen, twenty languages, it seems not to work the same way.
Timothy Doner is an ordinary teenager with an extraordinary ability to speak in over twenty languages – including his native language English, French, Hausa, Russian, Arabic, Persian, and so on. He relates his multiple language acquisition with the love to world’s history and social politics. Timothy says that languages bring him closer to people around the globe as well as serves him to explore the world in different ways. With the help of internet blogs, youtube, textbooks, disk, etc., he is able to educate himself without external help, although for communication he creates an artificial multilingual environment through skype. In his artificial environment he can practice the oral proficiency as much as possible after getting some basic vocabulary. On the one hand, this can be explained according to De Jong, ‘he desires to learn languages’ and he has that ‘multilingual environment’ in his computer. Would it mean that anyone who desire to learn languages can succeed in as many languages as they desire to? The answer would probably be ‘NO’. It does not quiet explain Timothy’s exceptional ability to learn languages; however, his ability can be described through the term hyperpolyglot – people who ‘possess a particular neurology that’s well-suited for learning languages very quickly and being able to use them’. These quick language learners are very rare, they are more likely to be unable to drive a car, they have some problems with social interactions, they can get lost easily, etc.
How far are hyperpolyglots from polyglot savants?
In contrast, “savants” are people with serious mental, social or physical disabilities but who present extraordinary abilities in a particular area. Christopher is a polyglot savant. His diagnosis was autism; he could score very low on IQ tests and therefore he required a special care, since he was not able to take care of himself. Surprisingly, on the other hand, the research demonstrated that he was able to speak sixteen languages. Those languages mostly were learned through self-study materials, with no help at all. The researchers attempted to understand the process of language learning of the polyglot-savant. He was taught two languages, one of which was real African, and another one was artificial. Christopher could acquire African but as researchers explain, since he had autism, and he did not posses cognitive abilities, he could not acquire the artificial one, though as another research showed it was definitely possible for normal person to acquire the artificial language (Smith & Tsimpli, 1998).
If hyperpoliglots and polyglot savants have particular extraordinary ability to learn languages; can too much concentration on the languages learning bring hyperpoliglots to mental disorders and they might become polyglot savants one day? As in ‘A Beautiful Mind’ – a movie where a mathematician who was fixated on the problem solving in mathematics, developed a paranoid schizophrenia. Does this mean that excessive obsession of these people can be a reason of their developed mental disorders?
De Jong, E.J. (2011). Foundations for multilingualism in education. Philadelphia.
Smith, N., Tsimpli, I.M. (1998). Modules and quasi-modules: language and theory of mind in a polyglot savant. University of Camridge and University College London. Retrieved from: chrome-extension://oemmndcbldboiebfnladdacbdfmadadm/http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.52.940&rep=rep1&type=pdf