Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Interview: Polyglot and self-educator Alexander Arguelles, Ph.D. (Part 1 of 2)


Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator: Alexander Arguelles, Ph.D.

Self-educator’s position: Language Specialist, Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization

Date: 21 December 2010

A "polyglot" is a person who knows many languages, and Alexander Arguelles is one of the foremost self-taught language learners in the world. In many ways, Alexander embodies the ideals of self-education and liberal education that are promoted on Wide Awake Minds. He has spent countless hours over the years on self-directed education with the aim of developing an "encylopedic mind," and he sees the learning of languages as his "passport" on a lifelong educational journey.

Alexander grew up hearing his father, another self-taught polyglot, teach himself languages by reading aloud from foreign language texts. By the time he was completed his undergraduate degree at Columbia University, Alexander had been exposed to the "Great Books" method of liberal education and had "obtained a solid foundation in six languages: French, German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit."

After graduating from Columbia, Alexander pursued a Ph.D. in History of Religions at the University of Chicago, where he wrote a dissertation on Old Norse and developed his abilities in a number of other ancient and modern languages while making the decision to work systematically at becoming a polyglot later in life. After graduate school, Alexander gravitated away from traditional academic research and toward a career of language learning and teaching. During one five-year period, Alexander devoted himself nearly full-time to the study of languages.

Alexander's website reports that he has achieved his goal of being able to comfortably read classic books in their original languages with little or no use of a dictionary in over 30 languages, but he has a considerable knowledge of many others as well. He has managed to build a personal library of language learning resources for over 150 languages, and he has reviewed different language learning materials in a series of YouTube videos. His published books include a multilingual dictionary as well as reference materials on Korean, German, and French. His website, www.foreignlanguageexpertise.com, is a treasury of resources on language learning, great books, and liberal education, and self-education.

Here is a video of Alexander demonstrating some of his language learning routines to Michael Erard, a writer who profiles polyglots (among many other fascinating projects); my interview with Alexander begins below the video:



(This is part one of my two-part interview with Alexander. The second portion of the interview will be posted in the next few days. Thank you, as always, for reading.)


Wide Awake Minds (WAM): When did you first take an interest in learning? Why did you decide to make it your goal to "develop an encyclopedic mind," as you put it - and what do you mean by that term?

Alexander Arguelles (AA): I have always loved learning. I have been an inveterate reader from my earliest years, and from boyhood onwards I have always carried several books around with me wherever I go, together with a notebook for writing down quotes as well as my own observations and reflections. By early adolescence, I had developed a taste for both serious literature and for histories of all sorts: chronicle-type (important names, dates, battles, events, dynasties, etc.), historiography, the history of ideas, histories of philosophy, histories of literature, other cultural histories, etc.

I don’t remember just when I first consciously articulated the desire to develop an encyclopedic mind in those precise terms, but it was certainly a long time ago, and even before that I was working in the same direction.

What do I mean by the term? There are three main components: first and foremost, I want to have a wide ranging and well organized knowledge of facts; second, I want to have a deep understanding of both the true connections between those facts that are actually related and also of the patterns that are represented by those that are merely parallel phenomena; third, I want to digest all of this, to have it available for immediate access right inside my head.

Why? Well, I suppose I am simply enamored of the idea of making my brain a repository of knowledge, a primary reference source that goes with me wherever I go and in which I have facts ready at hand without needing to look them up in external sources. What do you do with all the footnotes at the bottom of the pages of an annotated scholarly work? I suspect most people tend to skip them altogether, but if you do read them the first time you read the work, and you then read it again, it is simply a much richer and more meaningful experience upon that second reading because you already know the content of the explanatory footnotes. Going through life with an encyclopedic mind is rather like that, that is, a more satisfying experience when you know most of the context that you otherwise have to get by reading footnotes if you even bother to look at all. Conducting yourself in the conscious light of what others have done and thought is more fulfilling than living without that awareness.

There is so much to know that there is always something new to learn, and while it is always wonderful to do so, still it is somewhat mortifying to first realize that you are completely ignorant of something. I mean, when I first learn the name of an important historical personage or of an ancient civilization, I am excited to add that information to my encyclopedia, but I also feel a twinge of shame that I knew nothing about it before.

In reality, whenever I move around the world I ship a large physical library around with me, but I really like the idea of having no possessions, and I think it would be nice to have nothing physical, but to still have a full rich world of knowledge inside my mind. I haven’t written it yet and maybe I never will, but I have a fleshed-out dystopian novel in my head in which exactly that is all that is left – what is inside our heads. I fear that for most people that would leave them with very little indeed, but I think it would be magnificent to be able to sit down and write out an encyclopedic work such as Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum Maius.



WAM: How can mastering languages - as opposed to another field of study - help one develop an encyclopedic mind? Does the study of languages have any unique educational benefit?

AA: First of all, I am not nearly as universal in my encyclopedia building as I would ideally like to be: I would love to be more catholic, but I am very much top heavy in the humanities and weak in the sciences. I find mathematics and most everything from astronomy though zoology inherently interesting in principle, but I am for some reason simply so constituted as to be much more captivated by languages, literature, history, and the like, and as I’ve always had the opportunity to study these latter, my investigations of the former have never gotten beyond the most rudimentary levels.

Likewise, I value music and art very much, but though I’ve played the flute in a relatively sustained amateur fashion all my life, and though I’ve had a few intensive bouts or periods of creative drawing, still I’ve never given these realms anything like the attention I’ve always given to the language arts. So, there are most certainly many other valid and valuable fields of study besides languages, and I cannot think of a single reason why someone with a passion for the arts or for the sciences should study languages instead. A truly balanced project of learning, of encyclopedia building, would find a better equilibrium between these fields than I have ever been able to sustain, so ideally someone committed to the sciences or the arts should find some time for languages as well, the time I regret I never found for those realms.

That said, I do think the study of languages does bring some unique educational benefits. Most obviously, languages open more gateways than do other fields of study. This is not true on the philological or linguistic level of studying languages as such in order to see how they work, but rather on the practical level of mastering them as cultural vehicles. When you learn to read really well in a foreign language, you gain access to everything that has been written in it, and not just to a particular field of academic knowledge. Thus, I believe that the cultural mastery of a language manifested in the ability to read it well broadens your horizons and perspectives more than anything else.

Moreover, when you get to that level, when you can spend hours on end immersed in reading and not only understanding but relishing what you read, you should also, perhaps with a bit of conscious effort if it does not come automatically, be able to develop the ability to think directly in it. Now, given that we think automatically in our native languages, on whose wavelengths or channels we have essentially been programmed to function, I find it inherently liberating to think in a foreign language of my own choice, knowing that I am able to do so because I elected to build up that capacity and worked hard at it rather than just because I happened to acquire it. Being able to do this with living languages means likewise that you can choose what cultural traditions you participate in rather than just being born into one, and being able to do this with dead languages further enables you to enter a realm of diachronic continuity.

In any case, the fact is that we – or I at least – think in and by means of words. While it is possible to develop new vocabulary to describe new concepts, it is also true to a large extent that words are what give us our concepts. If we have the vocabulary for describing a phenomenon, we are more likely to perceive it than if we do not. Now, different languages have different categories of concepts, and so I think it is obvious that learning foreign languages, particularly those that are exotic for us, will necessarily expand our conceptualization.

WAM: What changes would you make to the way languages are taught at the K-12 level and during college? Would you require language study for every student?

AA: For the childhood years, when languages are acquired rather than learned, I think that today’s world should offer more opportunities for immersion and use. The necessary exposure has to be regular and relatively protracted, however, more so than most programs are willing to provide. For the older years of high-school and college, when learning proper can take place, I can offer first a status quo and then a radical answer to this question.

The status quo answer is simply to teach them well. There are no special secrets here. The teacher should be good, as should the textbook. The class size should be as small as possible, never more than 20 students, and ideally they should all be there because they want to be there – or at very least, they should understand why they have to be there. Classes should meet five days a week, Monday through Friday, at the same time each day. For homework, students should do both written exercises and work with audio materials every single day. The program should offer the possibility of continuity, that is, the ability to continue studying over several years to an advanced level. Under such circumstances, languages can be quite successfully taught. Classroom language learning all too often has a bad reputation because few if any of the above conditions are met.

As for requiring language study for every student, that is a thorny issue. Ideally, yes, of course, in a seriously good school where instruction is as I just described. In practice, though, under most existing normal circumstances, the large number of unmotivated students is one of the main factors contributing to the overall unsatisfactory experience. So for psychological motivation, perhaps it would be good to change tactics, make studying a language an expectation, or better yet, a privilege, rather than a requirement. One thing is sure, I would certainly do away with the new wave of “language/culture studies” majors such as, e.g., “Italian Studies” in which everything is in English translation – that is simply ridiculous - of course anyone majoring in a culture should have to learn the language!

My more radical answer as to how I would change teaching would indeed entail a paradigm shift, and it would only work for serious, disciplined, and motivated students. My proposal would involve consciously and deliberately teaching them foreign language learning skills so that they could take charge of teaching themselves languages rather than needing a teacher to teach them. In place of the model of a class, that is, of a group being led by a leader, I would want to work towards a model of an extensive resource center containing a variety of self-study materials. Not that all learning would necessarily take place there – much of it could be done outdoors while simultaneously engaged in physical exercise. In this model, instead of being taught a given foreign language itself, students should be taught how to best select and use language study materials on their own. This is what they will ultimately have to do to continue to learn by themselves after they have finished their coursework, so making this a course in itself will enable them to do it better and sooner.

This is a model that could be implemented in good colleges. I also have an even more radical proposal for a different type of college altogether, one focused very much around language-based education, one from which students would emerge with a solid foundation in half a dozen languages. If I ever get to found and direct such an institute, I would hope that some of the students would be interested in language careers as scholars of polyliteracy, but I envision that most of them would be better prepared as scholars in any field or, quite simply, as better international citizens in a global age.

(This is part one of a two-part interview. The second portion of the interview can be found here. Thank you, as always, for reading.)

2 comments:

  1. Ryan, just saw that Tyler Cowen linked to your blog on Marginal Revolution. Congrats!

    Additionally, a new book came out called "Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners," wherein the author interview Arguelles at length. You might like it. It does restrict the conversation to language, however.

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