The following article is based on a conversation I had with polyglot and scholar, Alexander Arguelles, in the fall of 2011. I am indebted to Mr. Arguelles for his willingness to share with me his personal and professional perspective on language learning. Many thanks, Alexander!
Laura Nelson: “So, Mr. Arguelles, please tell me a few things about you that I won’t be able to find doing an Internet search.”
Alexander Arguelles: [chuckles] “Well, I don’t just live and breathe languages; I have a life outside of language study.”
You may, however, doubt his claim of having a life outside of language study if you take a look at the YouTube video, “A polyglot’s daily linguistic workout,” featuring Mr. Arguelles. How could he possibly dedicate time to any other activities given the rigorous, daily – if self-imposed – requirements of the scholarly pursuit of polyglottery? Not to mention holding down a full-time job as a language specialist at SEAMEO [Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization] – a teachers’ training institute in Singapore.
But neither his sincerity nor his accomplishments can be doubted. With a B.A. from Columbia and a PhD. from the University of Chicago, Prof. Arguelles has published 9 texts on language topics ranging from Old Norse sagas to Korean Zen legends to a French/German/English dictionary. His accessibility to both students and like-minded language aficionados is downright infectious, his unconventional and innovative language-learning techniques stimulating.
AA: “I’m married and have 2 sons. I swim and/or run every day. I play the flute. And the didgeridoo.”
As our conversation was happening on Skype, Mr. Arguelles was generous enough to agree to play the didgeridoo for me. The sound quality was excellent and the music hauntingly beautiful. He adds, “And I’m a vegetarian.”
If polyglottery were a religious institution, Alexander Arguelles would surely be canonized in his own lifetime. I’m not sure if there is a saint of language study, but I am pretty sure that Hermes (the Greek god of languages) would have loved to have Arguelles as an assistant!
But what IS polyglottery anyway?
Polyglottery is considered a misspelled word by my version of Microsoft Word, but Word has “no spelling suggestions”. Yahoo’s spell checker also considers the word a misspelling, but at least offers me what it thinks are useful suggestions: polygraphs, polygamous, polygonal, polymerization, or polynucleotide, perhaps? On the iPhone, English, Italian and Spanish language spell-checkers may be at a loss (“no replacements found”), but the French version proposes two: polyglotte and polyglottes. Now we’re getting somewhere!
I asked Arguelles, the polyglot who after all coined the term, to define it in relation to three other terms: multilingualism, polyglotism and polyliteracy.
AA: “Polyglottery is the passionate study of languages, for the love of language study; polyliteracy is scholarly language knowledge one develops through conscious study, especially through reading. Multilingualism can be defined as the state of acquiring multiple languages as a natural condition, of exposure in childhood. Polyglotism would be perhaps the broadest term, and can be defined as knowing multiple languages, no matter the means by which they were acquired.”
Merriam-Webster defines polyglotism as “the use of many languages: the ability to speak many languages” and cites 1882 as the year of its first known use.
How many languages does Prof. Arguelles know? This is a question he “dreads” according to his website (2), which is dedicated to helping others in their pursuit of polyglottery. A native English speaker, he studied French, German, Latin, Greek and Sanskrit at Columbia University. At the University of Chicago, he studied Old Norse.
But a look at the list of languages Arguelles is able to read gives us a partial answer: a vast array of European languages, modern and ancient, and I’m including Esperanto and Afrikaans; Arabic; Korean; Persian; Hindi; Sanskrit.
Inspiring or depressing? I haven’t decided yet...
I asked Arguelles if he felt help from new technological resources would herald a new age of accomplished polyglots. Can internet-based language-learning programs like Livemocha.com or language apps like Lexicon improve language learning?
AA: “We’ll need to wait and see.”
I gleaned from Arguelles that the tools themselves are important, but not as important as true desire and “serious, concentrated, focused study”. And resourcefulness. When he was studying Russian in St. Petersburg in 2001, listening materials for language learners were limited, so he came up with the idea of going to the library for the blind where they had just what he needed: books on tape.
Though new technologies may not change the number of polyliterates in the world, easier access to new technology resources should – hopefully! – make it easier for a larger percentage of citizens across the globe to acquire a working knowledge of multiple languages. And having some ability to understand, converse, read and write in several languages is itself a worthy pursuit. U.S. citizens need to be particularly pro-active in the pursuit of language study; we have been the butt of a linguistic joke for decades:
Q: What’s someone who knows 3 languages called?
Q: What’s someone who knows 2 languages called?
Q: What’s someone who knows 1 language called?
This is a well-earned stereotype, I am sorry to confirm, but the combination of increasing global interdependence and decreasing U.S. world dominance may provide the impetus needed to make the above joke obsolete. Monolingual Americans will simply have to learn other languages to remain competitive.
Mr. Arguelles’ children (9 and 7) are half American, half Korean, and have obviously had early exposure to foreign languages that most Americans have not.
LN: “You are American and your wife is Korean, so I assume your children are at least bilingual. Are they learning other languages as well?”
AA: “Actually, yes, they are bilingual but not in the languages you would logically assume. I was working in Lebanon when my youngest was born and my oldest was 2, so their early schooling was in French and Arabic. I only speak French with them and their schooling here in Singapore is in English and Chinese. So, their English is slightly better than their French and they have a passive understanding of Korean as my wife mostly speaks English with them. They speak French between themselves, and have done Spanish immersion programs…”
Get all that?
LN: “And what do you and your wife speak to each other?”
AA: “Mostly English in the home these days, but still Korean when we are out alone, and we also revert to Korean when we don’t want the children to understand exactly what we’re talking about.”
Arguelles’ children may or may not follow in his footsteps and pursue polyglottery with the enthusiasm and determination of their father. Regardless, they will be well versed in multiple languages thanks to the framework he has provided, a particularly healthy position to be in early in the 21st century.
Inspiring or depressing? I’ve decided now: definitely inspiring, the way another’s passion, drive and success often are. With a little diligence, the right tools, and guidance from experts in the field like Prof. Arguelles, the rest of us aspiring polyliterates or polyglots should be able to attain our own personal linguistic goals as well – however modest these may be…
For a closer look at Alexander Arguelles’ autodidactic technics (the Shadowing Technique and the Scriptorium Technique), please see http://foreignlanguageexpertise.com/foreign_language_study.html.