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Ivan Arguelles

 Language Learning Forum : Polyglots Post Reply
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United States
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 Message 1 of 18
01 April 2005 at 7:26am | IP Logged 
My father deserves a thread every bit as much as I do:

Ivan Arguelles was born in Rochester, Minnesota in 1939. His father was a Spanish immigrant by way of Mexico, and his mother, a professional translator and interpreter of Spanish, was the daughter of German immigrants. Rochester was then a small German town, and his grandparents played a large role in his early rearing. Thus, he grew up trilingual in English, Spanish, and German. However, while he developed positive feelings towards Spanish, he developed negative ones towards German, such as small-town narrow mindedness, pedantic and stern elderly figures with Nazi sympathies, and forced attendance at a stark Luthern church.

In his adolescence, he consciously tried to repudiate his German side while he reveled in his Latin roots. He has often told me that the most exciting thing that ever happened to him was beginning the study of Latin in the 9th grade and recognizing so many words as being the same as the ones he used at home, but with fascinating differences. He kept up the study of Latin all through high school and into college and graduate school as a classics major, adding Greek, of course, at some point along the way. I think he only ever studied ancient languages in school while he always studied modern, living ones himself. I know that he taught himself Romanian from a TYS book shortly after he began Latin. In the course of time he picked them all up, and I do mean all, down to the smallest dialects. I believe Italian was his favorite, and to master it, he went to live and study there immediately after I was born, and so that is where I spent the first few years of my life.

I do not know quite when my father began exploring languages other than Romance ones, but it was certainly early on in his life. We went abroad every summer during my childhood, and I remember him seeing and hearing him speak with natives not just in Europe, but in Morocco, Afghanistan, and India as well. Our home was always lined with bookshelves containing grammars for every type of language under the sun. I have always had the impression that he reads grammars the way other people read novels. He has always been an early riser, given to studying in the kitchen (perhaps so that his reading aloud will not disturb my mother), and my daily childhood memories of encountering him before dawn, muttering in some strange tongue while looking at some strange script, are still vivid as I write this.

In his professional life, my father was a university librarian, responsible for overseeing the acquisition and cataloging of European languages and literatures at the University of California at Berkeley, so he got to continuously use and expand his linguistic repertoire throughout his career.

My father truly knows the entire Romance language family inside and out, backwards and forwards: Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, French, Italian, Romanian, Romansh, Sardinian, etc., etc. He says that he can read anything that has ever been written in any Romance dialect just as well as he could read it in English. He not only reads but speaks them all, some, such as Spanish and Italian, quite elegantly.

Despite himself, he has never been able to quite forget his German, and he does use it as an indispensable reference language, but he does not read it for pleasure. I do not believe he ever really seriously studied any other Germanic languages, but he certainly read lots of Germanic grammars and he knows a good deal about them and can make out enough of what things are about to catalogue and classify them. When I ask him why he never bothered really learning any, he says that, apart from his unpleasant boyhood memories of German, the family simply does not have the cultural and literary antiquity of Romance, and what he loves to do is read materials back to back in Latin, medieval Romance, and modern Romance to see how things change over time.

Greek has this antiquity, obviously, and he knows it in its Homeric, Hellenic, Hellenistic, Byzantine, and Modern variants. He says that he can read Modern Greek as well as he can read any Romance text, and he does speak it, too. Persian also has this tradition, and he can read it quite competently as well.

Apart from Romance, the family that has always fascinated him most is Indic. He has been working at it all his life, but never had enough time to concentrate on it, so he took early retirement a few years ago in order to become Indologist. He knows Sanskrit, Pali, Hindi, Urdu, Nepali, Marathi, and Bengali very well now, and I believe he is working on Sinhalese and Gujarati. He is also, at age 66, currently teaching himself Tamil in order to understand the Dravidian influence on Indic, and he reports that he is making good progress. He learns these languages, more than anything, in order to read the literature that has been written in them, and I do not believe he pays much attention to their spoken forms (though as I mentioned above, he got us around when we visited India when I was a boy).

Although learning languages has always been a serious, life-long love of his, he has never given in to one-sided obsession with language learning, but rather always kept it in balanced proportion to his other activities, and he is a much published poet who spends as much time creating literature as he does reading it.
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Senior Member
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Speaks: English*
Studies: Spanish, French

 Message 2 of 18
01 April 2005 at 9:13am | IP Logged 
Ah so Arguelles is a name of Spanish origin, and not French (as I incorrectly guessed).

Nice continuation to your bio Ardaschir, call me sentimental, but have you ever thought of collaborating with your father and writing an indepth book together on a language and/or language family? (a father-son project of which I am sure you would both love doing)

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United Kingdom
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 Message 3 of 18
01 April 2005 at 5:09pm | IP Logged 
Then the original Spanish spelling of your family name must be Argüelles (ar/goo/E/yes), right?

Edited by jradetzky on 01 April 2005 at 5:10pm

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 Message 4 of 18
02 April 2005 at 1:10am | IP Logged 
That's how the name occurs on the books :)

Ardaschir, I'd love to hear whether the wife (i.e. your mother in this case) had any effect on the learning languages.
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United States
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 Message 5 of 18
03 April 2005 at 7:23am | IP Logged 
Yes, the original spelling of the family name is Argüelles, and I do tend to spell it that way on publications and official forms. However, in an English language context, it is usually far more trouble than it is worth, as I have to explain it every single time, and still it often gets transformed into Argiielles, so I tend to use a plain u.

I have written a detailed book on language learning and polyglottery and I am in the process of editing it. When I have gone through it, I will ask my father to go over it, adding as much as he pleases.

My mother has always encouraged both my father's and my own language learning and been very proud of it, but I do not believe she had any direct influence on either of us as she knows nothing but English.

I forgot to mention an interesting fact about my father that seems to argue strongly that language learning is far more effort than gift. He has an identical twin brother who is not a polyglot. I believe they were very competitive early in life and so decided to divide their fields of interest: my father took languages and literature, my uncle, music and art. My uncle has had a very interesting and creative career of his own, first as a professor of art history, then as a new age guru, but though he has travelled around the world many times, I believe he has successfully forgotten all his German, his Spanish has gotten bad, and the only other language he ever picked up along the way is French.
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 Message 6 of 18
03 April 2005 at 9:56am | IP Logged 
I'd like to thank you for this highly interesting account of a modern age polyglot and, I hope, the start of a lineage of polyglots!
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United States
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 Message 7 of 18
04 April 2005 at 8:03am | IP Logged 
Credit for starting a lineage has to go to my maternal grandmother. That I should turn out as I have is really not surprising given that this man is my father. That a trilingual child with a competitive identical twin who took the performing arts should have delved into the language arts is also not so strange. However, what could have made a Minnesota farm girl in the 1920’s decide that she wanted to devote her life to the Spanish language? That’s what started it all. And where will it end? I must confess that I do have grand plans for my sons. My first born is already equally proficient in Korean, English, and French, and he is starting to pick up some Arabic, and he is only two years and three months old.
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 Message 8 of 18
14 June 2005 at 6:33pm | IP Logged 
Near where I live in Asturias, Spain, there is a village in the county of Siero called Argüelles.This name is very common around here

Edited by Astur on 14 June 2005 at 6:34pm

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