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.

3 Responses

  1. The estimate of two million people is not that of those who are interested, but those who have learnt the language. I am sure there are many who know of it , but still do not realise it is now a living language.

    Just to put the record straight!

    Hope no offence is taken.

    Interestingly also nine British MP’s have nominated Esperanto for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008.

    You can see detail on http://www.lernu.net

  2. Thanks for posting this, Ryan!

  3. Jeff: My pleasure!

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