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Alexander Arguelles

 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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Senior Member
Joined 7099 days ago

102 posts - 105 votes 
Speaks: English*
Studies: Spanish, French

 Message 1 of 71
27 March 2005 at 1:39am | IP Logged 
Prof. Alexander Arguelles (aka Alexander Argiielles) born 30 April 1964. Nationality unknown (American with French or French Canadian roots possibly?).

Dr Arguelles obtained his B.A. from Columbia University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He was a post-doctoral research fellow at the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Scholarship. (source:

A Professor of Linguistics(?) currently resides in Lebanon and teaches Linguistics at an undisclosed University there, while in his spare time he moderates a language forum on the internet and his other interests are comparative cultural studies.

Dr. Arguelles has co-written and published an interesting looking book on the Korean language with Jong-Rok Kim which is available by itself (ISBN: 1565911512) or with cassettes (ISBN: 1565911806).

Dr Arguelles (we assume) is fluent in the following languages:

French, English (old and middle fluent also?), Spanish, Italian, German, Farsi, & Korean.

Edited by Eric on 29 March 2005 at 5:26am

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 Message 2 of 71
27 March 2005 at 4:46am | IP Logged 
I would love to hear about Prof. Arguelles (=Ardaschir) mother tongue, his first interest in languages, his breakthroughs, what languages he speaks well, etc...

This is quite a personal request we are making our of Prof. Arguelles and I think we must encourage him to share his experiences by showing respect for whatever he decides to share with us.

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United States
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 Message 3 of 71
31 March 2005 at 7:24am | IP Logged 
With much trepidation, I hereby offer my linguistic biography at the specific request of several forum members. I hesitated to do so because when I have written anything of this ilk in the past, I have been accused of bragging and intimidation. My intention, both in moderating on the forum and in writing this specific piece, is the exact opposite. I very much want to encourage and counsel anyone who would like to tread the path of the polyglot. Here in my professional life, all I generally get to do is help people get a foothold in one language, and I feel that my real calling is to advise people who can conceive of learning ten or more. I honestly believe that anyone who is willing to work hard enough and intelligently enough at doing so can succeed. I know that I had some favorable factors to begin with and that I have indeed achieved a lot, but I got a very late start, and I wasted a great deal of time heading down blind paths. If I had had a support system like this board when I was in my early-twenties, I do not doubt that I could have achieved far more than I have achieved, far sooner. Drive, discipline, lots and lots and lots of systematic hard work, good materials, and an intelligent method—if you have all these, there is no reason why you cannot do what I have done, or even more.

I was born into an exclusively English-speaking American household. However, I lived in various parts of Europe during my earliest years, and throughout my childhood, I was privileged enough to travel abroad every summer. Furthermore, my father is a scholarly polyglot whose shelves are filled with books in many different tongues. Thus, I always knew both that the world was full of wonderful languages and that it was possible and pleasurable to know a good many of them.

The first foreign language I began studying was French, at the age of 10 or 11, not because I personally wanted to but simply because “they” began teaching it to me in school. Three years later I moved to another school, and when the administrators saw that I had had three years of French, they put me in the fourth year. Unfortunately, the other students had all actually been taught a great deal more than I had, and I was way over my head and did quite poorly at first. I wanted to drop it altogether, but my father (who curiously enough never pushed me or even encouraged me to emulate him) thankfully refused to let me do so. I really struggled for a while, and though I eventually caught up, I was a paradigmatic straight-A student and French is the only course that I sometimes got B’s in during high school.

I went to college at Columbia University in New York City from 1982-1986. Languages are taught well and seriously there, and so my French finally really took root and I immediately also began the study of German. Reflecting on how learning this intelligently from the outset was so much more effective than all my years of wasted high school French, and reflecting also on how my father had taught himself so many languages, I undertook to teach myself Spanish to see if I could not do better learning on my own. I soon became convinced that I could, and so I resolved to study modern living languages on my own from then on, though I would still take older, more difficult ones as courses.

In the marrow of my bones I am a comparative historical philologist, and this is what I always wished to study. Sadly, philology as a discipline has been subsumed into linguistics, which is a very far cry from it. Since I could not officially major in philology, I found an old program of study and resolved to learn the material anyway while majoring in related areas. Thus, while at Columbia I formally and intensively studied Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit as I majored in French & German comparative literature. By the time I graduated at age 22, I had a very solid foundation in these six languages: French, German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit.

Continuing to look about for an interdisciplinary graduate program that would allow me to study as much philology as possible, I ended up in the doctoral program in history of religions at the University of Chicago, where I studied from 1986-1994. I got a very strong background in older and medieval languages during my first several years there, studying Old French and most of the historical Germanic dialects such as Old English, Middle English, Old High German, Middle High German, Gothic, and Old Norse, all of which I could read and analyze by the time I was 25. I learned these languages in the atmosphere of small tutorials, just myself and one or two other students plus the professor, which was an ideal way to study historical languages. I used all of these languages, and most especially the last, to write my doctoral dissertation: “Mythological and Religious Dream Symbolism in the Old Norse Sagas.”

Between the ages of 25 and 28 I was too busy preparing for my qualifying exams to study languages, and I missed doing so terribly. It was at this point that I consciously resolved to become a polyglot. I began acquiring books and tapes though I had no time to study them. Between the ages of 28 and 30 I was occupied with researching and writing my dissertation, so I still had no time to study languages. However, I began listening to tapes in various languages as I took my daily run along the lake side. I was not studying anything per se, just trying to get French, German, and Spanish listening practice, though I also listened to tapes for other Germanic and Romance languages to see what they sounded like and to try to figure out how much I could understand upon repeated listening.

Between the ages of 30 and 32, from 1994 to 1996, I was a post-doctoral research fellow at the Berlin Center for Advanced German and European Research. I consciously banished English from my brain as soon as I boarded the airplane. At first I worked hard and deliberately to master German, paying attention to everything I heard, writing down all new words and making a point of using them actively myself until I knew them, and engaging a professional phonetician as a private tutor for my accent. After a few months, there were not many fine points left to polish, and at that point I should have turned to my formal research project, but instead I indulged my repressed desire to learn languages. I had a very generous travel grant, and so although I was based in Germany, I was able to spend weeks at a time in many other countries as well. Thus I went all over Europe, collecting materials for study from new and used bookstores and language laboratories all over the continent. Because of my philological background, I found that I had so much to transfer that all I needed was a few weeks of immersion in languages like Dutch, Swedish, or Italian in order to get to know them well.

This was a wonderful experience, but it was all too easy, and I began to crave a real challenge. I wanted to see if I could learn an extremely difficult language while living in a totally different culture. I knew that East Asian languages were the hardest to master for someone with my background, and when I found some research suggesting that Korean was marginally more difficult than Chinese or Japanese, I settled upon it. In order to live there, I obtained a faculty position at Handong University on the eastern coast of the country. This university had only been founded the year before, and they needed somebody to develop and lead a foreign language program, so my initial duties were to teach French, Spanish, and German.

New York, Chicago, and Berlin were all too full of distractions—degree programs, bookstores, libraries, archives, museums, etc.—to allow me to ever get down to serious language study. Handong, by contrast, was exactly what I needed for this, for the campus was on an isolated hill amidst pine and bamboo forests and rice fields with a view of the Pacific Ocean from my back porch. Furthermore, it soon became clear that, while the university was recruiting foreign faculty to give it international stature, we were viewed as outsiders and thus completely shut out of the administrative decision making process. Other people found this intolerable and soon left, but I turned the situation on its head by reasoning that as my sole duty was to teach languages, I could devote myself entirely to their study on my own.

Between the ages of 32 and 36 or 37, from 1996 – 2000/2001, is when I really became a polyglot. I lead a monastic existence, obsessively studying languages all day, every day. Initially, of course, I focused on Korean and, after I got grounded, on Classical Chinese and Japanese in a comparative context. However, I also ranged very widely through the world of languages. I had a decent salary and no debts or expenses, so I ordered materials for the study of absolutely everything that I could find and thus built a personal language resource laboratory for over 120 different languages. I went through these with the goal of learning at least one language of each representative type or from each language family. During the first part of this period, when I was learning lots of new information, it was not uncommon for me to work on 30 different languages each day in 20 minute time slots.

This period came to a close when I belatedly sat down with a calculator and did some serious time management projections. Developing structural knowledge and conversational ability in a language and refining and maintaining that ability can be achieved with just 15 or 20 minutes a day, each and every day, over a period of years. However, developing deeper knowledge and above all enjoying reading the literature of a language requires more like an hour a day, and there are all too few of these. Thus, I resolved that I had to stop learning new languages in order to focus on using and strengthening the ones I knew already. Indeed, I had to abort a great many, and in some cases this involved a very painful amputation.

Since I had begun seriously treading the path of the polyglot in 1994, and since the circumstances I had found on the Korean coast were so propitious, I resolved to stay there until 2004 so that I could see what the results would be of devoting a full decade of my life to learning as many languages as I could, as well as I could. From 2001 to 2004, I spent time focusing intently on building real knowledge and abilities in my “exotic” languages and I also finally began to allow myself to simply enjoy reading in my more familiar ones. I also began to “get a life” by getting married, siring a son, and paying more attention to my career by writing and publishing more.

When I turned 40 in 2004, I wanted a new locale to start a new stage of my life. Realizing that I would probably have to spend the next decade trying to get all the exotic languages I know up to the general level of my Western European ones, I sought a position in a land where I could rapidly improve the most interesting and important of them to me, namely Arabic. I found a position at the American University of Science & Technology in Beirut, Lebanon, where as of last semester I am associate professor and chairperson of the humanities department and where I teach both linguistics and comparative cultural studies courses. I still spend about 9 hours a day on language work, but as I am also in charge of the teaching of foreign languages at the university, I get a lot of conversational practice on the job, and the “study” that I now do in the pre-dawn and evening hours consists almost entirely of reading literature.

For me, the single most important component in knowing a language is being able to think in it. If I can do so, then the practical skills flow naturally from this. Reading is the most important practical skill to me, and my ultimate goal with all the languages I have kept is to be able to read them with the same speed and facility that I can read English. Understanding spoken language is the next most important practical skill to me, for I know from much experience that if I can understand a form of speech, then when and if I can immerse myself in it for a brief period of time, I will also be able to use it actively. I like to sound as refined and elegant as I can in anything that I do actively speak, but I actually prefer to keep a mild and pleasant foreign accent than to try to pass as a native. Writing foreign languages is generally the least important skill for me, though when I am immersed in a tongue, I do everything in it, including this, and I think that, with a little effort, one should be able to write passably anything that one can read well.

When I say that I know a language, I mean more than that I have the above five skills down so that I can use it as a communicative tool. For me, knowing a language inherently involves knowing its history—where it came from, how it got to be what it is, and how it is related to other languages both genetically and culturally. For me, knowing a language also means not only that I can read it but that I actually do read it, and I do not feel I can say that I know a language unless I am at least aware of the literary tradition for which it has served as a vehicle. Finally, when I say I know a language, I consider time as a factor in three different ways—1) when I do use it, I should be able to do so without fatigue, 2) when I do not use it for some time, it should not rust away, and 3) the longer I know it, the better I know it.

It is impossible to give a simple list of what languages I know. Depending on how they are categorized, the number can range from a dozen to close to fifty. I feel much more comfortable with the lower number, but to get it, I have to regard language families as individual languages, which I honestly feel to be the case.

Let me begin naming by listing those languages that I once studied seriously enough to retain a structural overview of them, but which I consciously aborted when I realized that I was terribly overextended: Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Zulu, Shona, Finnish, Indonesian, Malay, and Euskara (Basque).

Giving up the preceding languages was not painful, but amputating Japanese and Chinese was terrible because I had put thousands of hours into them, and telling myself that I would not go back to them meant that it had all been for naught. I was getting decently proficient overall in Japanese and I had memorized thousands of Chinese characters before I realized that to really master these would require so much more time in the Far East that I would have to in effect become a Sinologist, something I had no desire to do, and so that it was better to take a loss on my investment than to keep pouring money into a lost cause.

Giving up Turkish, Kiswahili, and the Brythonic Celts (Welsh and Breton) was even more agonizing. Turkish is an essential link language in understanding the relationships of Arabic, Persian, and the Indic languages; Kiswahili is to my ears the most beautiful sounding of all languages; and not having the Brythonic Celts is the sole blank spot on the map of my linguistic and cultural conquest of Western Europe. I had built very solid foundations in all of these by the time I realized that I was spread too thin and that something had to go, and these were the sacrificial victims. I sometimes fantasize about reviving them, but I have no active plans to do so.

Next are languages that I have not consciously abandoned, but which I do not currently work at systematically or directly, but rather only indirectly by subsuming them under other languages, which I place in brackets here: Gothic (Old High German and Old English), Romansch (Italian), Old Church Slavonic (Russian and Bulgarian), Ancient Greek (Modern Greek), Scots Gaelic (Irish Gaelic), Old Irish (Irish Gaelic), Sanskrit (Hindi-Urdu), and Classical Chinese (Korean). These are mainly older historical versions or dialectical variations of the larger or modern languages in brackets. In my historical-philological way, I do keep these languages in mind as I work the bracketed ones, and I do have every intention of working them directly at some point in the future. Gothic and Old Church Slavonic are of purely philological or etymological interest, and neither Romansch nor Scots Gaelic have any real literary traditions, so I keep these languages just to round out larger pictures.

Ancient Greek, Old Irish, and Sanskrit, however, all have copious quantities of great literature that I aspire to read in the original, and I can do so already, but only in the slow and old fashioned way of hacking through a text with a dictionary and deliberately paying active attention to grammatical constructions. I aspire to read them in a freer and more natural way, and I have come to believe that the best way to approach this is to really master their modern descendents before going back to them. As for Classical Chinese, I merely keep my passive recognition of characters alive by reading Korean.

I turn now to the list of languages that I know well and consciously and consistently work at knowing better. Most of the languages that I know and use actively are in the Germanic and Romance families, and since I do know most of the languages in both families, I tend to regard them as a single unit. The same is true, though to a lesser degree, of the Slavic languages. So, I will list these European languages by families, in groups of descending order of how well I know them as compared to each other:

Germanic (living): German / Dutch / Swedish / Danish, Norwegian / Afrikaans / Icelandic / Frisian
Germanic (historical): Old Norse / Middle English, Middle High German / Old English, Old High German

Romance (living): French, Spanish / Italian, Portuguese / Catalan / Occitan, Romanian
Romance (historic): Latin, Old French

Slavic: Russian / Polish / Serbocroatian, Czech, Bulgarian


I have had the most years of practice with those at the top of each list and can speak them with the most elegance and read them at speeds comparable to English, say 60 pages per hour. I have had less exposure to those in the middle, but can still think in them and read them only marginally slower, say 50 pages per hour. Those at the bottom of these lists I can read at perhaps 40 pages per hour, and it is not that I have a weaker command of them, but simply that I have never yet had active exposure to them, though my experience has proven to me that I would be able to converse well in them in a matter of days or weeks if I could be immersed in them. I hope that I do some day have these opportunities, but once I can bring the Slavs up to the level of the others, I will be pretty much content with the level of my attainments in these.

Beyond these three European families of languages, I know two other European languages, Greek and Irish, as well as three exotic languages from other cultures, namely Arabic, Persian, and Hindi-Urdu. Until six months ago, I would have ranked my command of these, from strong to weak, as: Persian, Greek, Irish, Arabic, Hindi-Urdu. I had not had any active exposure to them, though I had shadowed tapes for scores of hours, possessed a professional philological understanding of their structures, and had developed the ability to read real literature in them, in Persian and Greek rather swiftly, in Hindi-Urdu still at a snail’s pace. However, I have now lived in Lebanon for six months and can definitely put Arabic first, thus: Arabic, Persian, Greek, Irish, Hindi-Urdu.

The progress that I have made in Arabic in the past half year is indicative to me of how well I know the others as well, for it was definitely one of the weakest, and yet I still had a very solid foundation upon arrival. These days, I often spend two or three hours at a time conversing with my private tutor, articulating my thoughts and emotions on the widest range of topics. I do not grasp every single thing she says, but I am never lost for the gist of it, and while I may have to rephrase myself from time to time or ask for a word here and there in French, I am never unable to express what I mean. I also currently spend several hours each day reading, without a dictionary, literature intended for native adolescents, and I can feel my vocabulary snowballing day by day as I understand more and more words from context. I predict that I will attain my goal of being able to read real Arabic literature with pleasure and understanding, at a decent clip, within another six months to a year. Since I was stronger in most of these other “exotic” languages to begin with, and because they are subjectively easier for me, it should take me even less time to develop greater mastery in them.

Finally, in a class all by itself, there is Korean. I lived in its land for nine years, and when I left I took it with me personified in my wife. I have published numerous reference works about it and produced scholarly translations of it, and I have proven time and again that I can handle any situation life throws at me in it, and yet… there is still so much I do not know.

I would like to regard the language learning stage of my life as over and done with. My curiosity is satisfied. There are many things I regret not having gotten to (a Dravidian language such as Tamil, or Tibetan, or…). Here in Lebanon there are lots of Armenians, and on two or three occasions now I have had to fight back the temptation to delve into their tongue. As I wrote above, I lament the loss of the Brythonic tribe, Turkish, and above all the beautiful Kiswahili, but life is too short to bring them back. If I ever do learn anything more, I imagine that it will be the entire Indic branch, in my old age, long after I have brought everything here mentioned up to the level of Germanic and Romance and then had a few decades to simply enjoy the fruits of my labors by reading the world’s classics in the original.
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Senior Member
Joined 7099 days ago

102 posts - 105 votes 
Speaks: English*
Studies: Spanish, French

 Message 4 of 71
31 March 2005 at 9:23am | IP Logged 
Wow, many thanks Ardaschir.

I really enjoyed your story, you've had a great life and shown great dedication to the learning of languages.
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Senior Member
Joined 7062 days ago

275 posts - 300 votes 
Speaks: English*, Spanish, French
Studies: Russian

 Message 5 of 71
31 March 2005 at 1:06pm | IP Logged 
Thanks for the story Ardaschir. It was very interesting and inspiring. I can't decide which is more impressive, your obvious skill with languages or your incredible work-ethic in studying languages.

The only thing I wonder is about your decision to abandon Kiswahili. It seems that there should be room in your repertoire for one language that you obviously love, even if you have decided it would be frivolous to spend your efforts there.
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United States
Joined 7189 days ago

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Speaks: Cantonese*, English, FrenchC1, Mandarin
Studies: Spanish
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 Message 6 of 71
31 March 2005 at 6:14pm | IP Logged 
Aradschir, this is such an inspiring story. It shows that everyone, including Americans, are capable of learning languages on their own.

I admire your high standards for language proficiency. You do not wish to stop until you feel that you have dwelvled into the core of the language, understanding it many levels better than the average native speaker.

Most of the languages came from hard work. I would say that most of the languages you know now are learned between the ages of 20 to 40. And here you have learned groups and groups of languages.

And you are still in middle age! You still have so much time to put in effort into other languages (if you choose to). This is something that still surprises me - you have learned so much in such a short period of time.

I thank you for sharing this story with us and it will be an inspiration to us all.
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Joined 7247 days ago

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Speaks: French*, EnglishC2, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian
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 Message 7 of 71
01 April 2005 at 2:25am | IP Logged 
This is an amazing account!

Thanks a lot for sharing this with us, I am convinced this will be a great source of emulation for many young aspring polyglots.

If you had to list the languages in which you can read a regular newspaper and follow a TV broadcast with 99% comprehension, which would they be? Are you able to speak these (modern) languages or do you mostly read them?

Thanks again!
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 Message 8 of 71
01 April 2005 at 4:02am | IP Logged 

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