Interview with Dr. Alexander Arguelles

Before I called Dr. Arguelles on the telephone we exchanged a few emails. Making sure that I knew how to pronounce his last name correctly was one of my chief priorities. In one of the emails I mentioned that I had a background in Latin languages and gave him a link to this website. That must have made him a bit curious because after we exchanged the usual greetings on the telephone he immediately switched into Spanish. I was a bit taken aback but spoke Spanish back to him. After a few moments he switched to Portuguese and I followed his lead. The next language was French, which I am not the best at but I accepted his challenge and did the best I could. After a couple of minutes he asked about my Italian, in Italian. That’s another language I haven’t done much with but, nonetheless, I decided to step up to the plate and do my best. When he started speaking in Latin I had to admit that I had reached the end of my line.

Originally I was only going to interview Dr. Arguelles as research for one article but as the interview progressed I felt that it would be beneficial to read Dr. Arguelles’ ideas in his own words. It’s was a short interview but definitely worth doing. I am grateful for his time and for his willingness to share his ideas with all of us.

The Linguist Blogger: You were brought up in a traditionally monolingual American household but you started studying French at age ten?

Dr. Arguelles: That’s right.

LB: What was language learning like in your elementary/high school experience?

Dr. Arguelles: That’s actually rather interesting in that it was not all that good. I was always a very good student at everything. I took three years of it. They just said, “You’re going to start taking French.” So I did it and I got good grades in it. Then I moved to a different school district and it turned out that they had actually been learning. It looks like the teacher in the place where I had been wasn’t really teaching anything. They looked at my three years of good grades in French and put me in the equivalent of fourth year French. I was really behind and actually struggling for a while. I did rather poorly in fact; I really had to struggle to catch up. I wanted to drop it but my father wouldn’t let me. That’s the only real help that he gave me and I’m glad that he did it. I kept it up through high school. It was kind of slow at first – especially after I realized how much more effective it is to teach yourself a language than to be taught it in a class and could look at it from that perspective – but it finally did take root and deep root. French is so much a part of me that, although I wouldn’t call it my favorite language anymore, I would say that it’s one of my most natural languages. It came up somehow the other day when I was talking to somebody and I tried to imagine not knowing French and it really was impossible. Not knowing French would be like being blind or being deaf, it just took root that way.

LB: Interesting. Even so, it didn’t seem like it was the most pleasant experience in the world. What made you want to experiment with languages in college?

Dr. A: Hmm…I guess it was that, even though I grew up in a monolingual household, my father is a polyglot so I always knew that it was possible to learn lots of languages. I had shelves full of books from tons of languages. We’d been around the world; we’d travelled a lot and I had always wanted to know Latin and German in particular and other languages as well. At that point I finally had the opportunity to start taking them, and I did. It went so much better and so much faster than my French learning went that that was an exciting rush! And, again, an interest in philosophy and an interest in literature propelled me to study these languages. Realizing how much more quickly I was learning and that there were other ways of doing it, I decided as an experiment to teach myself Spanish at the same time, to sort of compare my rate of doing that with being taught. I grew up in New York City where I had Spanish around me all the time and I would say that I developed almost a passive knowledge of it just by going into the store and hearing people buy stuff. You know, ask for a bottle of milk and you get a bottle of milk. Riding the subways or busses and looking at bilingual ads and comparing them and figuring things out. That was sort of an easy one for me. But the act of studying and realizing how much faster I could teach myself a language than I could be taught it, that just sort of set the whole thing spiraling.

LB: What was your experience like working with a professional phonetician to really get your German down?

Dr. A: She was great, Dr. Dorothea Brucks. She was one of the few individuals who I could say really helped me in any kind of specific way. I was introduced to her by a Polish woman who had lived in Germany for a while and was absolutely obsessed with passing for a German. She had everything down perfectly except this one little twitch of an r. She’d catch herself doing that sometimes and would get so depressed. She had done a lot of work with this woman and introduced me to her. And, I don’t know, she sensed my unusual desire to learn the language really well so what I would do is go to her office on a weekly basis, twice a week for a while. We would talk about languages, language learning and linguistics. Whenever I would say something with an incorrect intonation or pronunciation – not a singular occurrence but reoccurring patterns – she would point it out to me and would explain how to say it better. She would give me specific exercises, things to think about for next time. By the time I got to her I was really quite advanced already so we would just focus on one specific sound at a time. We would just talk about languages and language learning and she would say, for example, “Your /i/ is a bit too broad. It’s not geben but gieben. Exaggerate it a little bit when you practice so that when you are speaking it will come out more naturally.” So I would think about that during the course of the week and the next week I would move on to other things. After a while – I don’t think that I ever got absolutely perfect – she said to me, “There’s really nothing more that I can do for you but I’d like you to keep coming.” So we would do spot-checking with individual things.

LB: I think that you know more dead languages than most people know living languages. What do you find so attractive about them?

Dr. A: The diachronic feeling that I am transcending the place and the time where I happen to be born. It’s the same thing you get out of learning Spanish or Chinese: going to a different place. I have always been fascinated by history, the past and literature. Knowing languages enables to you access that: access to different patterns of thought. So being able to read the literature is part of it – a good part of it – but also the connectedness; the interconnectedness. The developmental history, knowing how things turn in on each other, relate to each other and fit together as part of a whole puzzle. I see it as necessary to put them together.

LB: While teaching at a university in Korea you studied dozens of languages in your spare time, sometimes as many as 30 in one day. Could you tell us what that was like? What techniques did you use and what did it allow you to learn that you couldn’t have learned in different circumstances?

Dr. A: Well, the particular circumstance was this: the university where I was at wanted to be an international and global university, so they really wanted to have foreign faculty. I don’t think that anyone would say that they treated foreign faculty badly, they just excluded us from the whole process. They had this mentality that we were just going to come for a few years anyway so being part of the decision making process was moot. They built their own sort of network as if to say, “Well, we’re choosing our faculty, our friends to really build this place.” Most of the foreign faculty that went there – even if they weren’t just planning on staying there for only a few years – got frustrated and left because they felt excluded and left out, which we were. But I just turned that on its head; I turned it to my advantage. I said, “Okay. You only want me to just teach. I don’t have to go any meetings or the like? I’m freed from all of this stuff that I would normally have to do as a professor and academic? I’ll just take this opportunity to do my own studies, to learn on my own.” I had been acquiring my research library and I said, “Let me delve into it. So I don’t forget my European languages, let me keep working with those. Let me fill in the gaps of my Germanic and Romance families. Here I am doing Korean; I need to know the Chinese characters to do that.” That got me into Japanese and Modern Chinese for a while. Then I had the idea that when I got the system down and realized that if you do a little bit every day, systematically and regularly it really does bring tremendous results over time. If you’re not frantic to learn a language for a practical reason, by a certain deadline, if you’re content to gain more understanding, insight and abilities in it over time then you can work at it that way. For a while there, I had it in my head that I would like to learn one of every kind of language there is. To know all the different kinds of languages that are out there: one Austro-Indonesian language, like that, or one language from every grammatical category, just trying to get an overview of all human languages. Then I decided after a while…even with all that time and leisure, to be able to study up to thirty languages a day – but that’s only doing around fifteen minutes each – and then realizing how much time it’s going to get you, the language learning curve is such that you can get a foot hold in it but then to really develop a knowledge is geometrically more difficult. So I said, “Let me just learn as many languages as I can, as well as I can, and let me settle in on a number of others.” So I got there in 1996 and it was really in the late 90’s that I had had access to materials for learning every kind of language that there was. I decided to explore it, and I did. It was really a wonderful period.

LB: What type of person should try to become a polyglot and why?

Dr. A: I don’t think anyone should have it forced on them in any way, shape or form. It should only be somebody who wants to, someone who’s interested in doing it. That’s part of the answer right there. I think that language and the way we use it is such an interesting thing that I would kind of hope that…I really do feel that specialization really has its place in building a NASA rocket or some scientific exploration where you really have to go into certain kinds of specific detail to master the field and to be able to do what it is that you’re going to do. I’m told that there really is no kind of “just physics,” like we had it in high school, that there are only particle physics and subatomic particle physics and there’s so much new research being done and so many new things being invented and practically implemented that you have to be highly specialized in that regard. I don’t think that that applies at all to any of the humanities, you know, literature, history and philosophy. I think that these things are inherently tied together. I think that anyone who has that kind of inclination, hopefully, if they had the option to be a polyglot…just like I did in a good Great Books type program, let me read in an interdisciplinary fashion and discuss great ideas and how they tie together and influence each other. Then again, if these things are worth reading, if they are considered well written, then aren’t they worth reading in the original tongues, the way they were originally written? So I would think that yes, somebody who is already somewhat scholarly, academically inclined in the humanities and if they had the option to learn lots of languages then I would hope that more people would be interested in that. I think it’s kind of like a sports record, as it were. There used to be a time when people thought that it was impossible to run a mile in less than four minutes. Then it was done and people have gotten it down since then. I think that if people had the idea that it’s not impossible to learn a handful of languages well, and if they had a handful of cultures or literatures that they were interested in, more people would do that.

LB: What are you thoughts on Esperanto?

Dr. A: I don’t know. It makes me sad that you can never discuss it without it blowing up and it becoming an explosive issue. It’s one of those things that’s hard to keep civil discourse course about. I admire the fact that in an age when languages are dying out – this is something that is only one hundred years old – hundreds of thousands or millions of people who are interested in it. I think that it’s a great idea. It’s easy to learn. You can’t really argue with that. From my own personal perspective though, just because I like languages and their complexity – it’s a language that only has sixteen rules – it’s not terribly interesting. It’s almost too transparent for me. I can’t get very excited about it but I’ve studied it and I respect it. I haven’t thought it out but I guess if I had the opportunity to go to an Esperanto conference I’d stick my nose in. I’m sure that with my background I would understand what people are saying to me immediately and probably be able to start talking back. I’d be able to winging it pretty well after a day.

LB: I don’t know if you know but Senator Obama has spoken many things about how language learning in public schools should be more effective and that Americans should try to be bilingual. If Senator Obama won the election and you were hired by the Secretary of Education to write a basic foreign language curriculum for American public schools, what would be the first things that you would do?

Dr. A: Well, I think that the trickiest part of it would be…again I don’t think that language learning can be forced. I don’t think that it can be imposed upon people. I do think that it’s something that people should want to do. The trick would be getting the students to want to do it, getting them to like to do it. So, I guess I would propose and offer to teach my technique of shadowing. I would tie it to physical education. I would say, “Okay it’s good that you have to take more foreign languages but don’t be scared. You’re not going to be sitting and stifling in a class. We have things that you can listen to. You can walk around while you listen to it. You like to sing? You like to mime or parody other sounds? Well do that with this, do it with guidance and get it explained to you so that you understand deeper. Make the initial experience of learning the language more physically active, more interesting. That might work. It would require training a bunch of teachers to teach the students how to do it. I think it would require a new approach. I wonder if that will happen. It would be nice if it happened. I wonder why he doesn’t know more languages. He went to Colombia too, where I went to college, and they have a language requirement. He’s supposed to know a language but he doesn’t himself does he?

LB: He has a fairly good grasp of Indonesian. He admits that he’s not very good at it. That probably filled the requirement at the time. Less time had passed since he had lived in Indonesia and he was probably better at it back then.

LB: I know that one of your dreams is to start a language school that has polyglottery as its center. If your dream were realized tomorrow, what would this language school be like?

Dr. A: Well, as far as I know, this may be very unfair to them both, but as far as I know the two intensive language schools out there are Middlebury College in Vermont and Monterey here in California. I know that Middlebury has language studies year round. My impression of it was formed by people that I knew from the University of Chicago Graduate School. They would go there for their intensive program in the summer to play catch up work and make up for what they should have been doing all along. They went to make up for the fact that they weren’t studying regularly and making progress in the languages that they need to do their research in. It was to try to do that all in one semester. It was a sort of academic catch up program. Monterey is inherently the army. It’s a training base for government agents who don’t have any particular interest in studying their language except to do their job well, which might be enough for them. They wouldn’t be learning the language if it weren’t for that assignment. Other people can go there too. Both of these intensive programs are still focusing on the model of saying, “You’re coming here to be trained; you’re coming here to be taught a certain language.” Whereas what I would like would not be in competition with either of those, it would be an alternate. You can read on the forums and on my website that I think that it would be better to teach people to teach themselves to learn languages. I would like to have the center or focal point of the place being to get people to come and tell them, “This is a place you can come and learn a language well, you can learn a language intensively but you’re not just being taught the language. You’re given access to the research center; you’re being shown all of the types of tools and materials that you can use to learn it; you’re being shown how to take control of the process; you’re being shown how to study more effectively, how to be a better student so you can go take this skill with you to teach yourself other languages. That would be the heart beat of the place. Growing out of that, I would like to see those who initially came, or those who came and became more and more inspired by it to go off on the other tract of what I call polyglot literature, the Great Books or humanistic side of it. To realize, “This is a place where I can have access to a resource center to learn these languages, in which lots of great books have been written and lots of great and important ideas have been expressed in them so let me stay on in this program and learn and grow in that sense.” It would be an intensive language school for people coming to learn how to learn and then those who became particularly inspired could go on the academic side of the polyglottery aspect of it.

Dr. Alexander Arguelles: A Model of Polyglottery

Some of you may recall that I’ve written briefly about Dr. Alexander Arguelles before in my post about modern polyglots and in my post about his six languages that educated people should strive to learn. If you participate in the forums at www.how-to-learn-any-language.com or if you had the chance to learn from him in Korea, Lebanon or California then you may be familiar with his work and with who this exceptional polyglot is. His study of several dozen languages has given him insights that are both encouraging and useful to aspiring language learners.

Dr. Arguelles is the son of a cataloger, university librarian and Indologist. His father’s profession took the family to live in many different places around the world. Like many expatriate families, the Arguelles’ had a monolingual household. Dr. Arguelles took French from age ten until the end of high school, which was the extent of his language learning studies until college. He admits that French was his worst subject (the only class he would get B’s in).

At Colombia University his French finally took root. He also began learning German and decided to major in German and French comparative literature. His experience with learning language at a university level was much better than any of his years of French before. In addition to his college classes he decided to see if he could teach himself languages as well or better than having them taught to him. The attempt was successful and turned into a pattern that he would follow the rest of his life.

Since linguistics has become less and less about learning languages Dr. Arguelles studied comparative religions at the University of Chicago. His studies required him to research Norse, Old English, Old German and other such languages. After completing his doctoral studies, Dr. Arguelles received a hefty grant to study at the Berlin Center for Advanced German and European Research. While in Germany he banished English from his mind and even worked with a phonetician to perfect his German.

The grant allowed him to spend weeks at a time in countries other than Germany where he was able to learn many European languages on his own. Having broken down the linguistic barriers of Europe, Dr. Arguelles looked for another linguistic challenge. He concluded that learning a Far Eastern language would be especially difficult for someone with his background and that Korean would be a bit harder than Chinese or Japanese. He therefore accepted a position teaching European languages at the Handong University.

At that time Handong University was trying to become more internationally recognized by hiring many foreign professors. While the foreign staff was well treated, it was also politely ignored. The Koreans had no intention of letting them have a say in administrative matters. Consequently, most of the foreign staff left. Dr. Arguelles, however, decided to take advantage of a university position that only required him to teach classes and go to a few meetings. Living what he calls a monastic existence, he spent the next ten years dedicating most of his free time to teaching himself languages.

These years were full of languages from every linguistic family on Earth. The vast library that he had been collecting for years, though unable to take advantage of due to his rigorous doctoral studies, became his ultimate language school. Dividing his time into segments of ten to thirty minutes, he would study as many as thirty languages in one day. He developed an effective system that taught him to read, write, understand and speak each of these languages. Dr. Arguelles is very much an advocate of shadowing as an effective tool for learning to speak a language and spent many hours himself taking in the Korean countryside and coast while walking and shadowing in Farsi, Chinese, Hindi, etc.

Eventually he got to the point where he knew that he would have to stop learning so many languages in order to achieve proficiency in any of them. This required him to stop learning languages like Egyptian and Kiswahili in spite of his interest in them. After ten years of intensely studying the world’s languages, Dr. Arguelles emerged a true hyperpolyglot. He also realized that it was time to move on in life so he got married, had two boys and published a few papers.

His language learning interests led him to accept a position as the chairperson of the department of humanities at the American University of Science and Technology in Beirut. There he designed and implemented a Great Books core curriculum for the whole institution, oversaw the instruction of all foreign languages, and was a main liaison with the independent French-language educational section of the school. His plan was to stay there for a decade, mastering Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages but the Israeli invasion of 2006 forced him and his family to flee to the USA.

Dr. Arguelles is now on sabbatical, working on writing projects and making plans to open a language school. As many of you can attest, traditional language learning methods are grossly outdated. Dr. Arguelles’ unique experiences have given him a unique perspective on language learning which he desires to pass on to others in a top notch language school.

I was fortunate enough to conduct an interview with Dr. Arguelles which, when it is transcribed, I will publish here on this blog. In the interview he gives insights about language learning, how becoming a polyglot is actually more achievable than most people think and what type of school he envisions creating.

What Makes a Language Difficult?

What is the most difficult language to learn? is probably the most common question asked by aspiring polyglots. When you ask an academic this question you are likely to be told in return: It depends on what you mean by difficult (i.e. most difficult grammar, most difficult writing system, most difficult pronunciation, etc.) or It depends on what your native language is. A nice politically correct answer you might hear is that all languages are equally difficult and equally easy to learn as a native language. Is there a single language that confuses foreigners more than all others?

Misconceptions about Difficult Languages

Chinese and Hungarian are considered two very difficult languages. I can tell you from personal experience that Mandarin Chinese is not easy. I have not studied Hungarian but I have looked at its phonemes (sound system). There are so many different sounds that I have a hard time seeing how Hungarian could be easy for beginners. Still, just because these languages are tricky for beginners doesn’t mean that they are difficult for intermediate or advanced students.

Chinese is made up of syllabic blocks. That means that every character you see has only one syllable assigned to it. Most words only have one or two syllables. After you learn about 1,000 of Chinese’s most frequent characters you can understand a huge amount of the language because many of its words are just combinations of these 1,000 syllabic blocks. Chinese grammar is also very simple. There are no conjugations, number agreement, cases, honorifics, noun genders or declensions. Learning the five tones and the first 1,000 characters takes diligent effort, making the beginner stage very frustrating. However, if you have the stamina to get to the intermediate stage then the light at the end of the tunnel ends up being closer than you think.

I have been told by Americans who learned to speak fluent Hungarian that this language is also tough for beginners but less so for intermediate students. It may have a ton of different sounds but if you can learn them all you will find that they are exceptionally well represented by the Hungarian alphabet. Words are spelled very, very similarly to the way they are spoken, unlike English and French.

Misconceptions about Easy Languages

Italian and Bahasa Indonesian are considered fairly easy languages. Their writing systems are pretty straight forward, Italian has a lot of cognates with most European languages and Indonesian’s grammar is supposed to be fairly simple. What you might not know is that both of these languages, as foreigners learn them, were artificially created.

The goal of many language students is to learn their target language so well that they can pass for native speakers or at least so they can mask their native accent so well that the native speakers will not know where the learners are from. Native Indonesian and Italian speakers mix their own regional dialects in with the official state language and there are a lot of dialects. Unless you spend a significant amount of time in these regions it is highly unlikely that you will speak the languages in a way that sounds natural to locals. You will be understood but you won’t catch everything they say and the way you speak will make you stick out like a sore thumb. Getting to the intermediate stage is easy but getting past there will take a lot of hard work.

The Most Difficult Foreign Language

I have two disclaimers. The first is that I am not taking most of the world’s languages into account. The languages that I am not taking into account have less than one million speakers and few of us will ever attempt to learn any of them. The second is that if your native language is Amharic, Hebrew or Arabic, this does not apply to you. For the other 6.5 billion of us, Arabic appears to be the most difficult language to learn.

Arabic has an alphabet. Doesn’t that make it easier than Japanese or Chinese? Arabic’s alphabet is deceiving, making you think that if you learn it you will be able to speak the language. Almost all of its letters have three versions that look extremely different to a beginner student: initial, middle and final. Vowels are not written so if you haven’t learned the word ahead of time by listening to it your chances of understanding it, as written, are few and far in between. Imgn rdng nglsh lk ths. On top of that, written Arabic does a very poor job of reflecting the way people speak.

Arabic isn’t just one spoken language. Arabic is over two dozen spoken languages. I have been told that it varies as much as all the modern Latin languages put together. The problem is that the writing system doesn’t reflect all of these differences. It’s kind of like learning classical Latin and then going to Europe where people speak Castilian, Galician, Catalan, Portuguese, French, Romanian and Italian with different dialects within each of these languages. Even if you learn to speak the Kuwaiti dialect well you probably won’t be able to have much of a conversation with a Lebanese or Egyptian person.

Arabic has complex grammar and sound systems. The endings and the beginnings of words change depending on who is talking, who they are referring to, whether or not they are asking a question, etc. There are so many consonants that just about any learner will have to tackle at least a few sounds that either seem impossible to produce or identical to anyone but a native Arabic speaker. Due to these complexities, the lack of mutual intelligibility between regions of Arabic speakers and a beautiful alphabet that doesn’t reflect the way people speak, Arabic seems difficult at the beginner, intermediate and advanced levels for almost all non-native speakers of this language.

Similar Attitudes

The apostle Paul said that truth is established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. In this interview Stuart Jay Raj talks about how learning to speak Chinese and learning to speak Indonesian like a native are equally difficult. In this post Chinesepod’s John Pasden compares and contrasts learning Japanese and Chinese and how they are easier or harder at different levels. What do you think the world’s most difficult foreign language is and why? What do you think makes learning a language difficult or easy?

New Olympic Theme Song

For the past six months or so I have been making a feeble attempt at learning Mandarin Chinese. As with any language learning, my studies have brought me to learn about Chinese history and culture and to interact with some wonderful Chinese people from all over the Giant of the Far East. Although my learning has been rather frustrating at times it has also been very encouraged and supported by generous, helpful and thoughtful Chinese friends.

Below is a video composed by the winner of a huge competition in China to present the world with the Beijing Olympic Games’ theme song. There were thousands of applicants. The song is not very profound nor will it start a new movement within music but it does not try to do either of these things. The song is inspirational, hopeful and makes me excited for the Olympic games to begin in China. The video features over a dozen popular Chinese singers, including the always entertaining Jackie Chan, who welcome all of us to Beijing in the spirit of competition and excellence. The first time I watched the video it was without subtitles and the only full sentence that I understood was the refrain, “Beijing welcomes you.” Thanks to Jenny Zhu from Chinesepod for bringing this video to my attention.

Videos like these make me happy to know several languages. The world is enormous and full of wondrous and beautiful variety and yet the global community is getting smaller everyday. By learning each other’s languages we bring ourselves closer, avoiding conflict and fostering understanding and mutual appreciation.

Language Incest

About this time last month I wrote a short post about Jorge Fernandez Gates, a young Peruvian who has studied or mastered eleven languages. Since then I’ve heard him criticized for something that I don’t think is entirely worthy of reproach: most of his languages are from the same language family as his own native language. His language list includes Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Portuguese, Romanian, French, Italian, German, Swedish, English, Dutch and Mandarin. The first six are Romance languages and are closely related. The next three are Germanic and not so closely related; then there’s Mandarin. This brings up some interesting questions: Is it easy or unimpressive for someone to learn several languages that are all from the same language family? Are you a true polyglot if you speak four or more languages that are all related or are you simply guilty of language incest?

Learning Related Languages

Learning Spanish and Portuguese, when neither is your native language, is a lot like learning to play the piano and the organ. Once you can play one of them well learning to play basic tunes on the other is very easy, however, learning to play both of them at an advanced level is actually more difficult than you would think. A pianist who can play Rachmaninov (very difficult piano music) usually cannot play an organ piece by Vierne (very difficult organ music) even after a month or two of study.

Learning related languages is similar. Going from Spanish’s gracias to Italian’s grazie is not too difficult but even simple phrases like Quiero comer en el auto and Voglio mangiare nella macchina (I want to eat in the car) sound and look very different. Differences like these make mastering both languages anything but easy. Interestingly enough, the more informally similar languages are expressed the more they usually diverge. An educated Spanish speaker and an educated Portuguese speaker can have a fairly good conversation if each speaks slowly and is patient with the other. It’s in those types of situations where Spanish and Portuguese seem like diverse dialects of the same language. Conversely, I think that it would be the funniest thing in the world to watch two sixteen-year-old street punks, one from Portugal and the other from Colombia, try to communicate at even a very basic level. It is in those types of situations where Spanish and Portuguese are clearly two different languages.

Language Synergy

Stuart Jay Raj moved from Australia to Thailand without learning the language beforehand. He has been there for about a decade now and knows Thai very well. When asked how long it took him to learn the language he responded that it didn’t take long at all; he taught himself to read in an afternoon. Since this doesn’t sound very plausible Stuart then proceeded to explain the similarities between Thai and other languages that he had studied like Cantonese, Mandarin, Ancient Chinese and Sanskrit. Using these similarities, he was able to learn the language quickly.

Knowing several different related languages has a synergistic effect that allows you to understand each language much better than you would have had you only learned one of them. If you learn one then learning the second is easier but learning the third becomes even easier and so on and so forth. Your linguistic confidence will almost certainly be boosted and that’s a good thing. Some people need to learn three languages that are closely related before they have the confidence necessary to master a totally different and exotic one.

Time to Diversify

It is stupid to say that learning many related languages is easy or unimpressive. However, it is undeniably true that learning three unrelated languages is harder and more impressive than learning six related ones. I don’t think it is right for us to really consider ourselves true polyglots unless we have a fairly good knowledge of a language that has very little to do with our own. The ability to function in a language that comes from a culture so radically different from one’s own cultural and linguistic background is a mind opening experience that learning Belorussian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Russian, etc. cannot offer.

Second Half of the Jornaleco Interview with Dr. Freire

Dr. Carlos do Amaral Freire is a truly amazing individual. He has conducted research, taught and studied languages at home in his native Brazil, the USSR, China, the USA, Bolivia and many other countries. He has surpassed the legendary Cardinal Mezzofanti by studying more than 115 languages. This is a continuation of my translation of an interview that he did in 2003.

Janer – How many languages have you currently mastered and what are your criteria for having mastered a language?
Carlos – Mastering a language, even one’s own native language, is an extremely difficult endeavor. For me, however, mastering a language is having a theoretic and practical knowledge that allows me to communicate in it and, even with some difficulty, translate literary text. Based on these criteria – which are a little personal – I say that I have mastered about thirty languages. I can translate a few others but I have very little practical knowledge of them. When they ask me how many languages I speak (or that I have mastered) I prefer to answer that I know, or that I have studied, with philological and linguistic criteria, more than one hundred languages during a period of fifty consecutive years. Since graduating in Neo-Latin and Anglo-Germanic Languages [PUC, 1958] I’ve kept up a tradition of systematically studying at least one new foreign language at the beginning of each year. I already chose the next one: Wolof, which I started studying on January 1st of 2003.

Janer – Translating is impossible but necessary. What is a translation from Chinese to Portuguese like?
Carlos I don’t think that translating is impossible. The proof of that is that there are truly significant translations that are excellent, especially when the source language and the target language belong to the same linguistic group and the cultures that they are connected to are close. In the introduction to my poetry anthology, Babel de Poemas, I try to show how classical Chinese poetry is almost untranslatable. You can translate part of it but not all. Why? It is because Chinese poetry is written with ideograms, a truly visual art. It is a tonal language and therefore musical. It’s lyricism, literature because of its poetic content. A Chinese poem is a combination of these three arts: painting, music and literature.

Chinese calligraphy is an art that consists not just of characters and words for transmitting a message but also of comprehending a visual element that expresses a meaning through its form. Therefore, ideograms have a high symbolic value that is untranslatable into other languages. The discovery of ideograms’ great esthetic value by Western poets, mainly Ezra Pound, and then by our own avant-garde Concretistas was a fruitful source of inspiration.

In short, we could say that the untranslatable part of Chinese poetry is not written but painted with a brush. It’s visual art. It is heard when read aloud as a combination of tones, music. What’s left to translate is somewhat abstract and generic. It’s like taking something consubstantial out of the body of poetry. It is precisely this intrinsic harmony that exists between content, form and an extremely concise style that makes classical Chinese poetry almost untranslatable.

Janer – According to the French linguist Claude Hagège, a language disappears every fifteen days. In other words, twenty five languages die every year. More than half of the Indonesian languages would be considered on their way out. The rhythm of language extinction, which was accelerated in the last century, should become much faster in this one. Does this deprive humanity or does it facilitate our communication?
Carlos – The Malaysian/Polynesian situation is very illuminating. These languages are spoken from Madagascar to Polynesia. More than 200 different languages are spoken in the Republic of Indonesia alone. Seeing as all of these languages belong to the same language family it was relatively easy to make Indonesian the country’s official language. It’s a lingua franca, the result of simplifying and assimilating many other local languages. Only the old Indonesian languages that have literary and historical importance, like Javanese (sixty million speakers), Sudanese, Toba Batak, Madurese, Balinese and a few others will be able to survive for very long. The rhythm of language extinction must continue as long as concerned countries do not have defined language policies, the necessary economic conditions and, above all, the support of competent linguists who can study and classify minority languages that are on the path to extinction. In order for them not disappear completely, it is absolutely fundamental for them not continue unwritten and for there to be schools that teach them. Theoretically, it obviously would be easier for mankind to communicate if there were only a few languages. However, it is equally certain that this would result in a great spiritual loss. Languages are fundamental, unique and unrepeatable aspects of the human experience. Moreover, they are the greatest characteristic of our species. Every language that disappears – especially without leaving a trace or having been studied and documented – means a species becomes extinct.

Janer – There was an alarming study conducted by UNESCO stating that no less than 5,500 of the world’s 6,000 languages will disappear within a century. Do you believe that this is possible?
Carlos – If the previously mentioned measures are not taken hundreds of languages will be inescapably lost in a short amount of time.

Janer – Could the expansion of the Anglo-American language and other big languages be the reason for this language massacre?
Carlos – The expansion of the Anglo-American language, as well as all other big international languages, is the logical consequence of military and economic conquests, as much today as it was in the past. The conqueror’s language generally prevails.

Janer – Your current project is to study Wolof. It is believed that this language is as dangerous to the minority languages of Senegal as English and French since it isn’t considered a foreign language and posses the prestige of the great African languages. Do you have any thoughts about this controversy?
Carlos – In Senegal there are ten native languages, six of which are promoted as national languages. Wolof is understood by 80% of the population. The six national languages – Pulaar, Serer, Jola, Mandinka and Soninke, in addition to Wolof – are taught in elementary school and transmitted by radio and television. Senegal has, therefore, a defined language policy and I do not believe that the other languages run the risk of disappearing, like in other countries. Senegal will probably continue with French being its official language and Wolof being its different ethnicities’ most important lingua franca.

Janer – There are linguists everywhere trying hard to save languages spoken by communities of fifty to one hundred people. Are these efforts worthwhile?
Carlos – It was precisely his knowledge of one of the most ancient pre-Colombian languages, Aymara, spoken by around two million people in Bolivia and Peru, that led Guzman de Rojas to prove that this native language has a third inclusion logic embedded in its syntax. It has a trivalent logic and not a dichotomist (x is true and y is false) Aristotelian logic which all Indo-European languages and all Western cultures have. The Aymara speakers have reasoned according to that principle for centuries which, today, is recognized and defended by a large number of scientists and philosophers: Lobachewsky, Vasilev and J. Lukasiewicz in mathematics. Planck in physics, J. Lacan in psychoanalysis and many more. This is just one persuasive example that proves how much linguistics, applied to studying two minority and exotic languages, can contribute to science and to the knowledge of mankind.

I am completely convinced that more profound studies of languages that communicate for non-Aristotelian cultures can make even more contributions to this field of research which studies the third inclusion. I think that Weltanschauung research about indigenous language speakers, as well as Chinese, Japanese and Korean speakers – in addition to other languages that do not contribute to the principle of contradiction and classical logic – will be able to confirm, definitively, the third inclusion hypothesis in the near future. It’s worth remembering that even Einstein admitted that the third exclusion principle, in classical science, is only a metaphysical postulate.

There is no doubt! It is worth the effort. It is linguistics’ absolutely highest priority.

Janer – Schools in the Basque Country and in Catalonia are giving more emphasis to the Basque and Catalan languages than to Spanish. In Spain there are parents who can no longer communicate with their children. In your opinion, is it at all profitable to give up a language spoken by hundreds of millions of people and to lock one’s self in a minority language spoken by only a few hundred thousand?
Carlos – Basque (Euskera) and Catalan are in two different situations. Basque is still a linguistic enigma. It has no proven scientific relationship with any other linguistic group. It is a unique language that is loved, studied and spread by its speakers. Unlike hundreds of African, Asian and Amerindian languages, Basque is far away from extinction. Quite the opposite in fact; interest in this language has grown enormously and it is being taught and spread by the media at every level.

Catalan is a language with an extremely rich history and a magnificent literature. It is certain to have a steady growth. If the language policy of the Spanish government continues to be as democratic as it is now, recognizing the autonomous provinces and different cultures, its fate will be secured. Only if there is a split in the state and those provinces become independent will their speakers prefer their native language and abandon Spanish.

Janer – There is a new language being proposed in Europe: Europanto. To speakare europanto, tu basta mixare alles wat tu know in extranges linguas. It would be the only language in the world that could be learned almost without any study. It’s 42% English, 38% French, 15% a mixture of other European languages and 5% fantasy. No est englado, non est espano, no est franzo, no est keine known lingua aber du understande. Wat tu know nicht, keine worry, tu invente. Does it have a future?
Carlos – I don’t think that Europanto has a future. Moreover, the issue of an artificial international language being accepted is more political than linguistic. From a purely linguistic standpoint Esperanto is a masterpiece, nevertheless, it has yet to be implemented it as it should be.

Janer – How many languages have you forgotten?

Carlos – That’s a good question…I’ve forgotten many, or rather, many of the languages that I have studied are quite deactivated. However, with a little effort they can be activated again. Translating, for example, is one of the best ways to not forget them. On the other hand, old age – I am 70 now – is an inevitable negative factor.

This concludes my translation of this fascinating interview with one of history’s greatest linguists. You can read the first half of the interview here in English. You can read the whole interview in Portuguese here. Portuguese speakers can also watch a clip of Dr. Freire being interviewed on Brazilian T.V. which has been posted on youtube.