Thursday, January 6, 2011

Learn a Few Languages or Learn Many Languages. You Decide.

The majority of language learners are concerned with learning only one language. For them, learning one foreign language is laborious enough. What would you say if I told you that I personally know people who study five or more languages every single day? Try wrapping your mind around that for a second or two.

The first time I met one of these characters I was still at George Mason University in Fairfax Virginia. Whilst taking a history class called Japan at War I met a young man who was also taking beginning French. He was a freshman. We started talking because I knew his French professor. I asked what other classes he was taking. The answer surprised me. ¨I am taking this history class. I am taking French, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic too

I was blown away. I asked him why he was studying all these languages. He told me that he wanted to go into law enforcement and work for the FBI.

Years later, I have come to know many other YouTube Polyglots who actively learn many other languages. I first discovered this group of people when I watched a video by Professor Alexander Arguelles. The video was called, ´A polyglots daily linguistic workout.´ The video was posted July 10th 2009 and has already received nearly seventy thousand views. While being interviewed by Michael Erand, a journalist researching for his new book about polyglots and the upper limits of language learning, Professor Arguelles explained what he did every day to learn and maintain languages.

In the video, Professor Arguelles explained that every morning he writes a few pages of Arabic, Persian, Hindi, and Russian. Then he goes on to do exercises in Urdu, Greek, Vietnamese and Indonesian. The professor showed us Greek children books he read everyday from exercises in obscure African dialects. The video gives an idea about how laborious being a polyglot truly is. Professor Arguelles employs a vigorous systematic effort every day into learning new languages and maintaining the languages he already has. By the end of the video, I found myself ready to take a big long nap. Just looking at his writing exhausted me. How on earth can a person do this every day!!!

Here is a break down of Professor Arguelles daily linguistic workout:

  • ·         He starts off writing two pages of Arabic
  • ·         He stays with Arabic about 1 hour to 1 hour and fifteen minutes doing activities, writing Arabic, listening to a reading along to Sinbad the Sailor story books in Arabic.
  • ·         Then he will read some bilingual text of Arabic.
  • ·         Then he will read some classic text of Arabic.
  • ·         Then he starts his daily writing regimen which means he must write in a notebook, one page of the following languages: Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Latin. Ideally, he will right at least six pages.
  • ·         Then, he starts to read Persian.
  • ·         After reading Persian, he will write a few pages of Russian grammatical exercises.
  • ·         Then he will compose and translate Persian into Latin.
  • ·         After finishing the translations, he will moves on to Turkish grammar and exercises.
  • ·         After he finishes the Turkish exercise, he writes another two pages of Arabic.
  • ·         Then he will work on pattern drills and sentence practice in Swahili.
  • ·         After the Swahili he will write another two pages of Russian.
  • ·         After the Russian composition is complete, he moves onto some Irish conversational dialogs.
  • ·         Then he will write another two pages of Latin.
  • ·         Then he starts to read some enlarged Greek children´s stories.
  • ·         Then he will work on Hindu Grammar and Readers, and Urdu Grammar and Readers. He will do exercises in both languages, comparing them.
  • ·         Then he will write another two pages.
  • ·         He goes running, and while running he listens to audio books in foreign languages.
  • ·         When he comes home from running, he continues writing.
  • ·         When he goes driving, he might read a little bit of a Dutch novel. Sometimes, he will copy pages of the Dutch novel and carry the pages with him so he does not have to bring that big heavy book with him everywhere.
  • ·         Ideally, he will do this all day. He can do this for 12 to 16 hours a day, but only his family life prevents him from doing so.
In the video he said that when he goes for a drive with his wife and family, He said that might bring a Dutch book in the car to read. It is very natural for people to stop and think... ¨Is this healthy? ¨ ¨Is this obsession?¨ Keep in mind, I do not judge the Professor or how he chooses to live his life. These are just some random thoughts and questions.

Then I started to wonder, how much of these languages can the Professor, or any person claiming to know sixteen languages really know? From what I found just from doing a google search, I am not the only person who has asked this question. When I say really know, allow me to explain what I mean. Can a person who claims to know sixteen languages, in all honesty, have a conversation with a medical doctor in Arabic, Urdu, Indonesian, Chinese, and Swedish about how to perform a heart transplant? In that conversation, can that person follow at least seventy percent of the language? Can this polyglot talk to a lawyer in Russian, Bulgarian, and Mongolian and really understand what is going on? Can this same person file a tax return in Icelandic, French, and Persian understanding all the basic terminology? To be fluent, should a person be able to jump into any of these conversations with a doctor, lawyer or accountant, and understand some basic vocabulary words used all the time in these disciplines?

I can do these things in French and English, but not Italian or Spanish. So hopefully you can understand what I am saying. No one can be perfectly fluent, that is next to impossible. But one can have a high functioning level in a language. They can go to a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist or a tax consultant, have a basic conversation using some basic terminology and manage to get by. Can Professor Arguelles really do that in all these languages? Frankly, I do not know. I do know know what his claims to fluency are. I do not know if he claims to be fluent in these all languages he studies or just has an intermediate ability in them. From what I discovered online, his German is nearly flawless. His Chinese, Arabic and Russian are fantastic.

This brings me to my next point. Is it better to be really good in four languages or just sort-of ´okay´ in fifteen languages? How in depth do you really want to get? If a person wants to learn a language, what is the point of studying it only to know just a little bit?

I suppose that there are many YouTube Polyglots out there who can answer that question for me. I know Moses McCormick is one of those people who love learning about as many different languages as he can. Moses is a very impressive linguist. I thoroughly enjoy watching his videos. Moses has studied dozens of languages and makes videos about them. No matter how remote or rare the language, he has probably already has some knowledge about it. 

If there were a few questions I would like to ask Moses, they would be as follows:

¨If you had the resources available, would you prefer to take courses in these languages rather than study them independently? Would you also take classes in the literature, history or philosophy?¨ I would also like to ask him, ¨How in depth would you like to go into a language? Then, why or why not? ¨

At George Mason University, I took many in depth French courses. I studied Medieval French literature, eighteenth century French literature and poetry all in the French language. My abilities in French became very in depth. I can talk about the France´s great philosophers, artists, writers and politicians.

I would love to be able to take similar courses in Italian, Spanish and Swedish. Unfortunately I do not have the time or money to do so right now. I certainly would not trade my family life for language learning. I do not want to do what Professor Arguelles does. I think my family would not be happy with me spending so much time studying. I think about the hours he spends in his office reading and writing. Knowing fifteen languages is good enough…why spend so much time to keep adding on to it? What about family, children, friendships, and spending time with other people? From the amount of time he claims to spend on all these languages, do the other people lose out on valuable time with someone they love? Obviously these are very personal questions, and the answers are different for each one of us. 

I know Professor Arguelles is an outlier, even among the polyglot community. Most polyglots are not like him. But I think that it should be said that people in the polyglot community are unusual people. We are not like everyone else. Many people will criticize us, judge us, and treat us like we are freaks. Many people may accuse of being like Professor Arguelles, when the reality is that many of us only study for one or two hours a day - at the most.

But the real question I would like to ask those within our community is this, ¨Would you rather be fluent in five languages or have some ability in fifteen languages? ¨ ¨What level of fluency would you like to attain in your target languages? ¨ Would you say to yourself, you know, I have been studying eight languages. Instead of spending my time picking up new languages I am going to improve the languages I already have.

This is an entirely personal decision. Speaking only for myself, if I took that attitude, I would be working on French, Italian and Spanish every day. Instead, I decided to start learning Swedish. Was that the right choice for me? I guess I am the only person who will ever know the answer to that one. I understand the desire to learn more languages. I also understand the desire to go deeper into the languages that I already have.

There are many other questions I would like to ask the YouTube Polyglots. I will save those for another day.

So...back to that question. Would you rather be fluent in five languages or just have some so-so working knowledge of fifteen languages? If you can answer that question for me on this blog as a comment, that would be great. You can also make a video on Youtube answering these questions. I will post your video in this blog along with a link to your Youtube channel. I would like to hear from as many of you as I can. 

Bon Courage!

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