I recently watched a short documentary which attempted to “uncover the mysteries of the polyglot brain”. You can find it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bppUq5IKZrM.
Needless to say, I’m not particularly impressed with the idea that polyglot brains are somehow wired differently. Bi-, tri-, and multi-linguals, perhaps, because they have multiple native tongues, but polyglots? No way.
That said, one part of the documentary seemed to suggest that most, if not all, polyglots have Asperger’s Syndrome. About seven minutes in, it lists a whole lot of traits which, they claim, go hand-in-hand with polyglottery: left-handedness, musical ability, mathematical ability, and auto-immune disorders… and, funnily enough, being male. Other sources will also site social awkwardness. Now, I don’t know about you, but (with the exception of left-handedness), that sounds very much like an Asperger’s individual to me! People with Asperger’s are known for being good mathematicians, a lot of the best musicians seem to have Asperger’s (Beethoven, anyone?), people with Asperger’s often have pathetic immune systems, and… 80% of individuals with an ASD are male! What a coincidence.
If you ask any polyglot, they will tell you that it’s not about having a different brain, it’s about being focussed and determined to learn the language. Now, what are Asperger’s individuals known for, if not obsessive focus on a certain subject or study?
Personally, I think it’s a little offensive to suggest that a polyglot’s brain is wired differently. I know I’m not alone in this: there are countless other polyglots out there who will say the same. Have a look at this blog: http://thepolyglut.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/the-pernicious-perception-of-polyglots-and-other-such-alliterative-complaints/. Saying that polyglots are “born”, or that their brains are engineered differently, just goes to pretend that all the hard work someone puts into learning a language doesn’t matter.
That said, I think it’s quite possible that a polyglot’s brain might be a little different, but it certainly didn’t start out that way. It comes from working hard and training oneself to remember things, to “organise” one’s brain more efficiently; to file things away rather then leave them lying around your brain all higgledy-piggledy.
Anyone who’s learnt more than one language will tell you that the first language is the hardest to learn. I don’t mean the native language, I mean the first second language. Neuroscientists agree that native languages and foreign languages are stored in different parts of the brain – so the first foreign language you learn will be a struggle with your brain to use parts of it that haven’t been doing anything before. After the first foreign language, the second one is a little easier; in no small part because you know what to expect. With your native language, you’ve never given a thought to how it’s put together or why you say things the way you do; you just do. With your first foreign language, you learn a lot about language, grammar, and communication. Most of that can be applied to the next language you learn, particularly if it’s a similar or closely-related language. By the third foreign language, you have a pretty good idea of which methods of learning work for you, and your brain has also gotten a lot more efficient at sorting out languages and filing them away. By the fourth and fifth and tenth languages, a person has worked out how to learn languages efficiently. At that point, it may seem as though a person has a natural, innate talent for learning languages, but it’s just all the hard work they’ve already put in paying off as they put still more work in to learn another language.
If there is something different about the brains of polyglots, it’s that they’re wired to want to learn more languages.