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.
Filed under: Polyglots