Tuesday, December 28, 2010

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

(This is part two of my two-part interview with Alexander. The introduction and first part of the interview can be found here. Thank you, as always, for reading.)

Wide Awake Minds (WAM): Your educational accomplishments, style, and scholarly output seem to be quite different from those of most people in academia. For instance, it seems like you may have originally chosen your particular Ph.D. program (in History of Religions at the University of Chicago) because of what you wanted to learn and know rather than because of your desire to join that particular field as a scholar. Is that true?

Alexander Arguelles (AA): Yes, it is true that I never aspired to join the particular field of history of religions as a scholar. Right after college I did have some other reasons for ending up there, but the main one was that I believed I could do more comparative historical philological work there than I could anywhere else, and I think I was right in that. Quite frankly, I don’t see a Ph.D. as a certificate to be a specialist expert in the narrow realm where it was minted, but rather as a license to learn, and as proof that one has completed the whole formal schooling process. That’s what going there meant to me – completing the schooling process. I discovered when I was quite young that getting good grades was easy and brought many rewards (such as scholarships) in terms of both being taught some things and being given the freedom to teach oneself even more, so that is what I kept on doing as long as I could.

Unfortunately for me, my concept of what a Ph.D. represents is rather rare, and as a result my own academic career has definitely suffered. I was happy to head out into the wider world to get actual exposure to languages when I was a bit younger, but now I would be quite content to go “home” and have an office on the Quads or in Morningside Heights or any other Ivy League town. It doesn’t seem I’ll ever get one, though. I’ve applied for a fair number of professorships advertising for people with international experience and innovative approaches to foreign languages, but I’ve never been gotten any interested responses. It appears I have published in the wrong way – I’ve been told that full-length books like my multilingual dictionary and my analytical guide to Korean verbal conjugation - which I think are far more scholarly than my dissertation and which certainly took a lot more time and energy – are “just reference works” and that they “don’t count” – the only thing that counts being articles in scholarly journals.

I clearly remember my first advisor at the University of Chicago telling me to enjoy my graduate school years because, once I was a professor, I wouldn’t have nearly as much time to continue to explore and learn new things. As I’ve since had occasion to observe, he was all too often right. Many of my colleagues, instead of continuing to widen their horizons throughout their careers, only have time to delve deeper into their specific area of specialization. I think that is a shame, for I believe the primary duty of a scholar ought to be to continue to learn and study new things throughout life. Particularly in the area of foreign language learning, I think it is a travesty that linguists conduct research by theorizing and by testing on and observing others rather than by learning languages themselves so that they know first-hand what works and how that process works.

WAM: You are an advocate of reading and studying the "Great Books," and you cite a desire to read classic works in their original languages as one of the goals of your language study. First, why do you believe the "Great Books" are especially worthy of study? And why not just read these works in translation? What is gained by reading them in the original?

AA: Why are the “Great Books” especially worthy of study? They are the classics! By definition, they are the best, richest, most important texts that have been written, the ones that have proven to be valuable not only in their place and time, but for the way they address and present perennial problems related to the human condition. They are the deepest and most meaningful texts produced over the course of civilization – they are the ones that have the most to contribute to the building of encyclopedic minds.

I could go on and on, but Mortimer Adler has already said all of this better than I can. The only new perspective I can add relates to the value of reading them in the original. My principle is that if it is worth reading, then it is worth reading as it was written – most particularly for that large percentage of “Great Books” that are literary in nature and thus whose language has been carefully chosen for its sonic effect or for its ability to evoke images in the mind.

Translation is an art in itself, and there may be some translations that are better than the original, but that is certainly not the rule – the rule is that they are a reflection at an odd angle, a distorted copy. If you want to get at what was really said, you have to go back to the original – no religious person questions this in regards to his scriptures. Not only does reading in the original give you a deeper appreciation for meaning and style, but when you are truly reading (as opposed to hacking away at a text with the help of a dictionary), you should be able to think in the language as well, and thus to enter more closely into the mental world in which the “Great Book” was first created, for each language has its own mindset and distinct lens through which it sees and portrays the world. I simply can’t imagine relishing an author and not wanting to read his own words as he wrote them.

WAM: You have said that you believe that the most effective way to learn languages may be on one's own - through one's own efforts and initiative - rather than through formal coursework. Does that principle apply to other fields of study as well? What personal characteristics should a person interested in beginning a self-study program cultivate?

AA: Formal language coursework – particularly if it is well done - can give you the experience, the discipline, and the know-how you need to learn languages on your own, but once you have these things, certainly you can learn better on your own than by being taught in a group. I have by now met a good number of polyglots, and I can’t think of a single one who kept learning most of his languages by studying in a class. As with music, it is indispensable to have a private tutor give you one-on-one guidance at stages, but polyglottery is inherently an autodidactic project.

I think this principle applies to many other fields of studies as well: teachers should provide a foundation together with continued consultation and guidance as needed, but let the learner do the learning. Quite frankly and seriously, I can’t remember what exactly I ever learned from sitting in a classroom. For me the benefit of my higher education was having access to fantastic libraries with millions and millions of books freely at my disposal. From primary school through graduate school, I always spent considerably more time and energy – at least twice or thrice as much – reading books on my own than I did on my course work. I honestly think that, after a certain point at least, all I really needed was access to the library, that if I had been more free to read on my own, I would have made more progress toward developing an encyclopedic mind and become more established in my languages.

WAM: If you could master one language or reach an intermediate level in two languages, which would you prefer or recommend? Do you derive more pleasure and educational value from becoming acquainted with an entirely new language or from doing advanced work in one of your best languages?

AA: At this stage in my life, I myself would prefer to master one language than to reach an intermediate level in two, but I don’t know that I would necessarily recommend this. There are plenty of people for whom “basic fluency” is a perfectly adequate level of accomplishment, a veritable passport to travel and experience life in other cultures, and there is no need for them to thoroughly master a language in order to benefit from studying and knowing it.

There was a period when I was focused entirely upon getting a foundation in as many languages as I could, and when I did indeed thrive upon learning about entirely new and different linguistic structures to the extent that I willingly sacrificed reading in or otherwise using my already more advanced languages. However, that time is long since past, and now the reverse is true. I am not currently learning any new languages, and while I do spend some time each day doing grammatical and other exercises to practice and solidify some of my weaker languages, I spend most of my time reading in my better languages, or working at developing those advanced reading skills in a few others for which I am “almost there.”

WAM: What goals did you have in mind when you began your intensive language study? Were there any unexpected pleasures or benefits as a result? Any regrets, from an educational perspective, about the way you allocated your study time over the years? Anything you would have done differently?

AA: I assume you are referring to the period of about four or five years when I found myself in a privileged position of having assembled an extensive language learning laboratory and being able to spend essentially every waking hour engaged in language studies of various kinds. My initial goal was simply to explore the widest range of different kinds of languages just to see what was out there. I then refined that to the target of developing a solid foundation in at least one language of every representative type. Later still, I scaled down and began to aim for a solid reading knowledge of at least one language from each major civilization. The pleasure and the benefit was that I learned a great deal, but that was what I was after so I don’t think I would call it unexpected.

Regrets about the way I have allocated my study time over the years and things I would have done different? Oh yes, with hindsight of course there are a great many things I would do very differently. The message I was given in the course of my own schooling was that it is not possible to learn more than a few foreign languages; I knew this to be simply untrue because during the course of that same schooling, I had actually managed to learn quite a few. By experimenting with different study methods, I got better and better at the process of learning languages, so I thought that perhaps I could learn a great many. And I did, or at least, I gave myself a foundation in a great many, so many that I would now characterize it as “too many” - I would prefer to know fewer languages well than more not so well.

Going from zero knowledge to the substantial point A of this solid foundation is actually relatively easy when you know what you are doing. However, going from point A to point B takes twice as long, and then from point B to point C twice as long as that again, and so on and so forth until the point Z of true mastery. At that stage, I did not understand this nature of the learning curve. Rather, I thought that getting a foothold was the essential key, and that from there everything would just grow of its own accord given a reasonable amount of periodic maintenance and care. However, there is simply not enough time, either in a given day or spread out over a lifetime, to develop one's ability in great numbers of languages to high degrees.

So, I have had to consciously abort my studies of lots of languages to which I have given hundreds or even thousands of hours, and there are many others that I rarely get to, so rarely that my knowledge of them is not growing, and when I do give them time, it feels like I am stealing it from others that deserve it more. I have retained the philological overview and knowledge of linguistic structure that I gained from all this, but it still feels like a waste of time and energy, and if I could do it all over again, I would embark upon far, far fewer languages than I did.

Over the course of my life I have probably studied, in one way or another, about 60 languages, which is an absurdly inordinate number. With what I now know, I think it may be feasible, with a lifetime of scholarly application, to develop and sustain real reading knowledge in something like 20. So, if I could somehow take all the time and energy I have given to those other 40 and redistribute it among the remaining 20 so that I could by now have read more in them, I would - but of course I can’t. As it is, at times I feel like a juggler trying desperately to balance this score, and if I could sacrifice even more so as to have time to write a novel or two, I would – but I can’t there either because I have cut out so much already that what remains has become a veritable part of me.

WAM: There is a wider range of language-learning materials available to self-educators than ever before. What makes one learning tool better than another and which tools do you prefer?

AA: Unfortunately, the standard of quality is going down at the same rate with which the range expands. So, the short answer to your question (because I’ve given such long ones to your others) is that I prefer older tools. Why? Because it is almost certain that they will be more substantive. Thankfully there are happy exceptions here and there, but most contemporary language-learning materials are palpably dumbed down compared to methods and manuals from earlier generations. Substantive content is what makes one learning tool better than another, and the ones I always preferred to use for getting a foundation in a language were those that have about 2000-3000 carefully selected vocabulary items worked into texts and dialogues that are presented in bilingual format together with intelligent explanatory notes, and which are recorded in their entirety by trained narrators in clear didactic style giving way to normal rhythm, providing about 2-3 hours of solid audio (i.e., without pauses) in the target language only. Digesting and internalizing such courses is the best way I found for getting established in any language.

WAM: Thank you, Professor Arguelles, for your time and for the good work you do.

Please take a moment to visit and explore Professor Arguelles' fantastic website. If you enjoyed this interview, consider posting it to your Facebook wall, mentioning it on Twitter, or emailing it to a friend. Thanks, as always, for reading.