Polyglots – Ken Hale

Polyglots are very interesting people. A polyglot is one who can speak more than 10 languages well. A great list of polyglots is here. The ability to be a polyglot seems to have a lot to do with genetics. Some people simply have an ear for languages. On dissection of the brains of some polyglots after death, it was found that their language centers were unusually developed.
Many polyglots are also good at music. This is because a language is basically musical in a lot of ways. Rhythm and cadence have a lot more to do with language than we realize.
Famous polyglots often go to a new country and pick up the language in a few weeks.
This series will look at some polyglots.
The first in the series will profile Ken Hale, a famous linguist who died in 2001.
One famous polyglot was Ken Hale, a linguist. He spoke more than 50 languages, including very strange ones like Warlpiri, Nggoth, Aranda, Kaitish, Warramunga, Loritja and Lardil, Aborigine languages, Tohono O’odham, Hopi, Jemez, Wampanoag, Navajo, Miskitu and Winnebago, American Indian languages, and Dagur, a Mongolian language. He also spoke English, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Turkish, Basque, Mandarin, Irish, Dutch, Norwegian, Igbo, French, Hebrew and Polish, and at least 19 more.
He could pick up languages very quickly. A speaker of an American Indian language sat down in Ken’s room and started explaining his language to Hale. Within two hours, Hale was conversing in full sentences with the man.
Once Hale went to teach a course in Amsterdam. He got a book on Dutch and studied it on the plane trip over. When he landed, he met his Dutch guests and pointed out the errors in the book. He had already figured out enough Dutch to figure out how the book was wrong. Within a week, a Dutch professor at the university walked by a room to hear a professor teaching a course about American Indian languages in fluent Dutch. Wondering who he was, the professor looked in. It was Hale. His Dutch, said the professor, was flawless.
Hale’s Mandarin was also said to be immaculate, as was his Navajo and his Papago. He spoke Warlpiri so well that in Aboriginal villages where people spoke Warlpiri, Hale would walk up to Aboriginal women and start speaking to them in Warlpiri. It was so weird to hear a White man speaking Warlpiri perfectly that they dropped all of the stuff they had just bought at the store and took off running away, as if they had seen a ghost.
Hale landed on a plane in Norway once, and got off speaking flent Norwegian. His Norwegian hosts asked him how he spoke it so well, and he said he had spent some time in Denmark a while back. Incredibly, Hale was even able to master Basque. The Basque language is so hard that the joke goes that the Devil was given 7 years to learn Basque and at the end of the 7 years, he only knew how to say Yes, No, Hello and Goodbye.

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12 thoughts on “Polyglots – Ken Hale”

  1. Yeah my Aunt was sort of a mini-polyglot. I think she could speak 5-6 different languages.
    We always wondered why she only worked at the DMV, but when she died we learned she sadly had been a closet alcoholic all her life and she died from cirrhosis of the liver at only like 55.

  2. I’m skeptical of a lot of these anecdotes. How much Warlpiri would you really need to know to impress native speakers, who probably only rarely encounter a white person who speaks any of their language? Some basic grammar and everyday vocabulary would probably suffice. I doubt the guy was “fluent”.

    1. If you Google Ken Hale and Warlpiri, you will find that he spoke that language one of the best of all. He even brought his two sons up speaking Warlpiri in Waltham, Massachusetts in the 1980’s and they both became fluent speakers. He taught courses on how to speak Warlpiri in Australia. It’s widely acknowledged that he spoke this language very well.

    2. You overestimate the complexity of some native languages. Unlike English, which is a globalised and *very* evolved language, a lot of indigenous languages have a vocabulary that doesn’t go much deeper than what you’d call ‘everyday vocabulary’. Plus, the grammatical strictures aren’t that rigid either, as long as you could get your message across (which is why indigenous people educated in English have a tendency to overlook grammatical accuracy).

      1. Atheist Indian, don’t be too sure about the simplicity of some native languages. Admitedly English is a wonderful language (my third) and I consider myself lucky to have learned it (as a teenager) with minimal ‘grammatical inaccuracy’. Warlpiri on the other hand I have not been able to master after four decades living here as an adult. I can hold a conversation and tell or laugh at a joke. I can do Warlpiri metaphors but am nowhere near being able to discuss abstract ideas and I have a tendency to overlook grammatical accuracy!
        A linguist friend passed on some lecture notes by Ken Hale from when he was lecturing at the University of Tilburg (Southern Netherlands). The lecture notes were written in Dutch and used Warlpiri examples to illustrate or explain grammatical concepts.

      2. AI, I spent some time looking over a language called Yokuts. The language that I looked at was called Chukchansi Yokuts, but I have also looked at others. I have read grammars of these languages, and I have also read a grammar of Hupa and Southern Sierra Miwok. Rest assured my friend that these polysynthetic languages are so infernally complex that I do not have the slightest idea what they are talking about most of the time and I don’t know to say the simplest things. The vocubulary is one thing, but the vocabulary bases change in all sorts of infernally complex ways as you add stems and cases and tenses to the verbs. Looking at how the bases change, it is not even completely obvious what is going on or how to generalize this with similar bases. Sure word order can be a bit free but so what! Each and every word form constructed from a base has a single and only a single proper way to say itself. Frankly, none of it seems to make any sense at all! Sort of like Finnish or Polish on steroids!
        There is a Caucasian language in Russia called Tsez in which there are about 1 million possible forms for each verb stem. Try learning that one in your spare time!
        There is a language called Piraha in the Amazon that has recently been learned by a linguist. It is infernally complex, so complex that various scholars over the years who tried to learn it all gave up in frustration. It took Everett 20 years to learn it. To write a proper grammar of a primitive language, ideally, one should spend 20 years of your life learning the language!

  3. So three years later I chance on this site. I had the great priviledge of meeting Ken Hale several times here in Yuendumu. He is the only kardiya (non-Aboriginal) person I’ve ever met who could speak Warlpiri so well that unless they saw him speaking, Warlpiri people would not realize they were being spoken to by a non-Warlpiri person.
    Having had the great fortune to learn three languages as a child I can testify that Ken Hale spoke Dutch, Spanish and English like a native speaker. Ken loved ‘code-switching’ and I recall some very pleasant gatherings at which Ken would seamlessly switch from one language to another in whatever languages people present were proficient in. He loved all languages, but Warlpiri had a special place in his estimation.

    1. PS- I should have said “the only kardiya I have ever met that had learned Warlpiri as an adult…”. I overlooked several white children that mastered Warlpiri like native speakers, albeit child’s Warlpiri. Interestingly only some kardiya children would embrace and become proficient in Warlpiri. To what extent they were “immersed” has something to do with this, and I think non-ethnocentric attitudes and encouragement from their parents played a major role. Then there is also: “The ability to be a polyglot seems to have a lot to do with genetics. Some people simply have an ear for languages.” quoted from the above article.
      There are some Warlpiri kids that become very proficient in English despite assimilationist Education policies, sadly many don’t.

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