Is a polyglot’s brain different?

15 min readAug 21, 2020


Susanna Zaraysky holds a print out of her brain scan (Photo: Patrick Cox)

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Patrick Cox: Hi, Patrick here. And before we start, I just want to say thanks for listening — and if you have a moment, please rate and review us at Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.

And if you found us via The World in Words, hope you like the new pod! On with the show.

Sound of lab machines and chat.

Patrick Cox: This is a lab at MIT. Lab manager Hope Kean is overseeing the de-magnetization of a woman who’s about to slide into an fMRI machine and submit to a series of tests.

Hope Kean: We know which parts of your brain are doing work during these different tests that we’re going to give you. And today we’re doing language tests since you’re a polyglot and know so many languages. We are really interested in how your brain activity differs from someone else’s brain activity.

Patrick Cox: As far the researchers are aware, this is the very first modern-day study of the polyglot brain.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle, stories about languages and the people who speak them.

I struggle with language-learning.

You struggle with language-learning.

We all struggle with language-learning.

Well nearly all of us do.

In today’s episode, polyglots. What, if anything, sets them apart?

Patrick Cox: Kavi, your parents are from southern India, right? How many languages do they speak?

Kavita Pillay: Well, my mom speaks two languages, English and Malayalam, and plus a bit of Tamil. My dad grew up in Singapore, so he speaks kind of three and a half-ish? English, Malayalam, Tamil, and enough Malay at least to order Malay food at like a hawker stall and chat with the person behind the counter.

Patrick Cox: Wow, three and a half languages! Just as easy as breathing, right?

Kavita Pillay: Right, it’s just all around them, like air.

Patrick Cox: It’s like that in a lot of multilingual parts of the world. Not here, though, not in the English-speaking world. I guess that’s why our news coverage of polyglots is…a bit freak-show-ish.

TV news clip 1: “Imagine being able to master huge numbers of language with ease.”

TV news clip 2: “Here on Breakfast TV, we are speaking foreign languages with a man who is fluent in 11 of them.”

TV news clip 3: “Now you’re called a polyglot because of so many languages. Do you just have a brain for it?”

TV news clip 4: “Are these super linguists a product of hours of study, or could it be they are engineered differently in the brain.”

Michael Erard: I went to look at the brain of Emil Krebs who is a German diplomat who died in 1930.

Patrick Cox: This is Michael Erard, a language writer.

Michael Erard: And his brain — after he died — became part of an expert genius brain collection in Dusseldorf.

Patrick Cox: Sounds ominous eh? 1930s Germany. Expert genius brain collection?

Kavita Pillay: Yeah, it definitely sounds like a gruesome Nazi experiment.

Patrick Cox: And to pile on with the gruesome, this dead diplomat’s brain, it was sliced into pieces. But Emil Krebs himself, I hasten to add, he had nothing to do with Nazis. He pre-dated them, even if his brain was on show for them.

Kavita Pillay: So why was he considered a genius?

Patrick Cox: Because over the course of his life he acquired proficiency in…

Michael Erard: Sixty-eight different languages.

Kavita Pillay: I did not even know that was possible! Sixty-eight! No wonder they wanted to study his brain. Did they figure anything out?

Patrick Cox: Well, no they didn’t. Not back in the 30s. But Krebs’ brain was preserved, and that was how Michael Erard got to see it. And he says more recently, German neuroscientists took another look at that brain, using, of course, much more precise instrumentation. And what they found was…

Michael Erard: The structure of cortical cells in certain areas of his brain were extremely unusual. And not only were these structures denser and different, they were denser and different in unexpected parts of the brain.

Kavita Pillay: So, what does that mean? Was this guy born with an exceptional brain?

Patrick Cox: Ha! That’s is the key question when it comes to the study of polyglots — or for that matter hyperpolyglots like Emil Krebs. Was his brain always like that? Or did it become that way over time?

Michael Erard: You know, all of our brains change through experiences that we have, through things that we learn, things that we remember. If we have disease, if we experience some trauma, our brain will work to rewire itself. So the fact that Krebs had portions of his brain that look different is not necessarily a surprise given that he was so involved with languages. To that degree the brain is like a muscle, it reflects the things that people use it for.

Patrick Cox: And that makes it much more difficult to establish a timeline.

Michael Erard: Now, the question is, was there something about Krebs’ brain that preceded his exposure to any of those languages that would have allowed him to build those structures faster — more durably — and to make them more efficient than other people’s brains would have been?

Patrick Cox: Michael Erard really hones in on this set of characteristics that he believes the hyperpolyglot brain may possess. Like he says: speed, durability, efficiency. I mean, put those skills together, and they’re often called plasticity — which just may predispose people to these amazing linguistic feats.

But there’s a problem.

Michael Erard: And that’s a kind of plasticity factor that you need to measure with a living brain.

Patrick Cox: Yup, Emil Krebs may have been a multi-tongued genius. But he’s a dead genius.

Michael Erard: You can’t surmise that from the slices of brain that I was looking at.

Kavita Pillay: Ah, so we need a living brain.

Patrick Cox: Yes. Which is where Susanna Zaraysky comes in.

Susanna Zaraysky: I speak Russian, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Bosnian, Serbo-Croatian and also Ladino, which is the Spanish spoken by the Jews who were expelled from Spain in the 15th century.

Kavita Pillay: Okay so, so… nine languages? Come on, step it up Susanna!

Patrick Cox: Plus a bit of Arabic, she told me. Hebrew, Hungarian and Greek as well. And she doesn’t study these languages in much of a formal way, like in a classroom: repeating words, doing homework, that kind of thing, which sets her apart from many others in the polyglot community.

Susanna Zaraysky: You give them a grammar book and they just absorb it.

Patrick Cox: Dudes? More men?

Susanna Zaraysky: Yes, more men. That really like the grammar books. I would be bored out of my mind if I had something like that.

Patrick Cox: How Susanna learned so many languages. And what happens when she gets her brain scanned as part of MIT’s Polyglot study. That’s after the break.

Kavita Pillay: OK, so you said before the break that Susanna Zaraysky who’s participating in this study of polyglots — she doesn’t pick up languages in a formal way. So how does she learn?

Patrick Cox: Well, I think in her case, it comes down to her life story. Susanna was born in St Petersburg in Russia. Though back then, St Petersburg was called Leningrad and Russia was a part of the Soviet Union. The family was Russian-speaking and like a lot of Jewish people living behind the Iron Curtain, they were the targets of anti-semitism — and they were looking to get out. They only had one shot at being able to do that.

Susanna Zaraysky: My mother had an uncle. She knew that his family had settled in St Louis, Missouri.

Patrick Cox: That was a start, but Susanna’s mom had no idea how to get in touch with this uncle. This was the height of the cold war, the 1970s. And Soviet citizens — they just weren’t permitted to stay in touch with family members abroad. So Susannah’s mom had to try to surreptitiously track this uncle down.

Susanna Zaraysky: And so she went to a library in Leningrad. And found the address of the city hall in St Louis. And wrote a letter in English — they got someone to help them write a letter in English saying, “We are the relatives of such-and-such a person. He came at this time, we know that he worked as a pharmacist and we’d like to get in touch with him.”

Patrick Cox: So, they had a letter all set to go. But there was another problem.

Kavita Pillay: Which was?

Patrick Cox: Well, in order to receive a reply, they needed to include their own address in Leningrad in the letter. But they couldn’t because if the letter was opened by Soviet authorities, they’d get into trouble. So they just sat on it. They did nothing — until the following summer when they were on vacation in another part of the Soviet Union, Lithuania.

Susanna Zaraysky: And there was a barber there who was Jewish. And he had a brother in Israel, and he corresponded with this brother. What he did is he helped other Soviet Jewish families that had gone to summer in Lithuania to correspond with their family members in other countries so that they could leave the Soviet Union.

Kavita Pillay: I can’t help but be amazed by how brave this Jewish barber was to help people escape the Soviet Union, but he and his brother in Israel — what sort of kind of help could they provide?

Patrick Cox: Well, a generation or two before in this part of Europe, before World War Two and the Holocaust, Lithuania was home to many Jews, and most of them spoke Yiddish as their mother tongue. So, what these two brothers did all these years later was write these letters to each other in Yiddish, conveying and forwarding all these messages between Jewish families scattered all over the world. And that way they’d get the messages past the Soviet censors.

Susanna Zaraysky: Because the censors couldn’t read Yiddish. So, they had no idea what he was writing to his family. And because he was corresponding so much with this with this brother of his. He didn’t think that he was going to get caught by the censors. And apparently the censors in Lithuania were more lenient than the ones in Russia. So, he agreed to send this letter for my mother.

Kavita Pillay: Wow, so this letter eventually arrives via Lithuania and Israel in St Louis?

Patrick Cox: Yeah, but remember, it just goes to St Louis City Hall. The information that Susannah’s mother has about her uncle was incredibly sketchy. But at City Hall, things just seemed to click into place.

Susanna Zaraysky: The mail room clerk was really fascinated by foreign stamps, and in the late 1970s it was very rare to get a letter with foreign Soviet stamps in in the Midwest.

Patrick Cox: So instead of casting this letter aside, the clerk took it to the mayor’s office — and got a member of staff there excited about it.

Susanna Zaraysky: And that person looked in the phone book, and just looked up the surname of my mother’s relative, Zuckerman, and called various Zuckermans until she found the widow of my mother’s uncle.

Patrick Cox: And so the connection was made. Not long after that, Susanna, aged 3, along with her family, emigrated to the US. To St Louis.

Kavita Pillay: It sounds like they overcame a lot of roadblocks because they had some good luck, but mostly because of people translating stuff.

Patrick Cox: Yeah you can imagine the effect on Susanna when she was told all of this later in life. I mean, knowledge of languages, and knowing more than other people: it meant freedom.

Patrick Cox: So in the US, the family settled down, moved from Missouri to California. Susanna spoke Russian at home, and English at school and at 15 she went to France on a foreign exchange program.

Susanna Zaraysky: And I came back after two months in France and I spoke fluent French with no American accent.

Patrick Cox: In high school she took another language.

Susanna Zaraysky: And I took an intensive year in Spanish and I was fluent.

Patrick Cox: Next came Italian.

Susanna Zaraysky speaking Italian

Patrick Cox: Then Portuguese.

Susanna Zaraysky: Sometimes in the car I would listen to Portuguese immigrant radio.

Sound of radio show in Portuguese

Susanna Zaraysky: Where I live in California, there is a large population of people from the Portuguese people from the Azores islands.

Patrick Cox: She’d sing along with the songs and try to imitate the accents in the ads in between.

Susanna Zaraysky: I don’t know why but there are a lot of funerary services owned by Portuguese, so I’d hear their advertisements for funeral homes in Portuguese. I heard announcements for Portuguese fish, bacalhau, and whatever discounts they were having on alcohol at the different Portuguese stores. So, I heard all this in Portuguese.

Patrick Cox: Sometimes a car radio is all you need to immerse yourself in a language, if you have the skills. That and the desire to sing. Susanna was locked into her own method by now, it worked for her. But she couldn’t figure out why it came so easily — and why it didn’t for others. That’s why when she heard that there was a polyglot study underway at MIT, she knew she had to be a part of it.

Kavita Pillay: So Susanna became a participant in the study?

Patrick Cox: Yeah, I think she was the 23rd polyglot to be tested.

Hope Kean: So if you can press that button right there. Awesome, and then turn in a circle.

Patrick Cox: I go along for Susanna’s session. She’s a bit nervous ahead of time, understandably. I mean, she’s about to spend two hours in a dark, noisy tube. Lab manager Hope Kean explains to Susanna how the fMRI works — how it measures blood flow in the brain. The researchers can see in pretty much real time the destination of the blood flow — which region of the brain needs blood because it is exerting extra energy. Which leads Susanna to wonder…

Susanna Zaraysky: So, it’s possible that like in Spanish one part of my brain is active and needs oxygen, or needs blood, and in French it’s another part of the brain?

Hope Kean: So that’s one hypothesis. There’s a lot of different theories basically, of how the brain reorganizes due to language

Kavita Pillay: It sounds like that’s not the working hypothesis among the researchers?

Patrick Cox: Yeah, they don’t think that specific languages are divided into regions of the brain. But in the tests that they give Susanna while she’s inside the machine — she has earbuds on — and they bombard her with just this cacophony of voices and languages and what sounds like gibberish.

Sound of lab test: gibberish

Kavita Pillay: Even for a polyglot, that must be pretty dizzy.

Sound of lab test: English

Kavita Pillay: That’s Biblical verse isn’t it?

Patrick Cox: Yeah, its kind of stopped me short too. It’s because the Bible is the world’s most translated text, so you can draw on the same words and phrases in more languages than in any other piece of writing, so it’s incredibly useful in tests. But yeah, it is weird to hear as part of a scientific study.

Sound of lab test in various languages

Kavita Pillay: So, what languages are we hearing?

Patrick Cox: I asked the lab’s director Ev Fedorenko that. She told me the languages are tailored to each participant.

Ev Fedorenko: We always include a native language, a couple of languages of high proficiency, a language of lower proficiency — and then two languages that are not familiar but related to some languages that are familiar. And two languages that are totally unfamiliar. Which for most of our participants have been Basque, which is an isolate language spoken in southern Europe, and Georgian, which is also apparently not a common language that most polyglots learn.

Kavita Pillay: And how did Susanna do?

Patrick Cox: Well for ethical reasons Ev Fedorenko can’t tell me about any individual participant. But Susanna did pass on a little of what she was told, and it seems to match up with the results from most of the other participants. It’s a little counter-intuitive: for monolinguals, who are kind of the control group here, the regions of the brain that are associated with language appear quite large on activation maps…

Ev Fedorenko: …but for the polyglot, it looked like it was way on the end of a continuum where these regions were small.

Kavita Pillay: So, for polyglots, there was less blood flowing to the language regions?

Patrick Cox: Right, they were less engaged in those moments. So, for example, Susanna’s brain showed her language regions least engaged when she heard English, which is effectively if not technically her mother tongue. For Russian and Italian, which they also played her — both of which she speaks well but with less ease than English — there was more brain activity. And that was similar with the study’s other participants.

Ev Fedorenko: That seemed to be a real finding which then we started interpreting because it seemed like a real thing. And the most kind of obvious, plausible interpretation is in terms of efficiency.

Kavita Pillay: Efficiency. Hmm, that word again.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, part of the skillset that may make up the plasticity of the polyglot brain.

Kavita Pillay: OK, that sounds like these MIT researchers have advanced their understanding? So, what do we know about polyglots that we didn’t know before?

Patrick Cox: Well, first off, we can dispel some myths. A lot of people, including some polyglots, believe that men were more likely to speak a ton of languages than women. This study finds absolutely no evidence of that. Maybe that belief was out there it’s because men like to hog the limelight, wouldn’t you know? So, it seemed like there were more of them who were polyglots, but it isn’t not a male thing. Next myth: it’s a gay thing — some people thought that. Or even a left-handed thing. In both cases, no. There’s also the theory that language and music are similar, and so they activate the same regions of the brain. Ev Fedorenko says, again, no, they don’t. We react to music, we process it, in totally different ways to how we process language. That’s not to say we can’t use music to teach ourselves new languages, like Susanna does. But the whole language/music analogy is something that drives brain scientists a little nuts.

Kavita Pillay: Ok, so what about this question then that came up with Emil Krebs’ brain: was he born with a different brain? Or did it develop as he used it to learn all those languages?

Patrick Cox: So this MIT study certainly helps us think more about that question. But it’s not a longitudinal study, it’s not looking at Susanna’s brain over time from birth till now. It can’t get into questions of nature vs nurture, or for that matter, anything to do with genetics. I asked Ev about this — the brain at birth, genetics — all of that, and well, you’ll hear what she has to say. For me, it was the most revealing part of my conversation with her. And it started when I asked her if she agreed that language-learning remains a mystery to her.

Ev Fedorenko: It’s definitely a mystery. And one thing that I would also guess is that I don’t think there’s going to be one way in which your brain is good for learning languages. I suspect there’s going to be many strategies and some strategies will work for some people and other strategies will work for other people. And figuring out which way is the way for you is — you just kind of have to figure it out. There is a big industry in trying to test kids early on and figure out if they have a talent for a particular thing. And right now, people are trying to do it with genetics, and it’s just absurd. Honestly, that’s not based on good science. And I think the best you could — like, for example, if you’re a parent and you’re trying to figure out like, does my kid have a talent for X or Y? Well, why not expose them to a whole bunch of things and see which things they seem to enjoy doing? Explore, right? Be a scientist, try different things and see what works for you. All brains are different. But most brains can find ways to get good at things that hard work will often get you a long way. I think brilliance is often overrated.

Patrick Cox: So, there it is, Kavi. At the end of this investigation of linguistic brilliance, the brain scientist tells us brilliance is overrated. I feel strangely relieved.

Kavita Pillay: Yeah, if you’re trying to learn another language or if you’re a parent trying to raise multilingual kids, it feels like a great reminder that there’s no one way to do things that are very difficult.

Patrick Cox: That’s it for today. If you want to read more about polyglots and hyperpolyglots, I highly recommend Michael Erard’s book, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. Also, Susanna Zaraysky has written a book full of helpful tips about language-learning. It’s called Language is Music.

This episode of Subtitle was reported by Patrick Cox. The podcast version of the story is available here and on Apple podcasts.

Subtitle’s sound designer is Tina Tobey. Thanks to our partners at the Linguistic Society of America and the Hub & Spoke audio collective.

Subtitle is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.




A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod