Alexander Arguelles, Ph.D.
I earned my B.A. from Columbia University in Comparative French & German Literature, my M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in the Comparative History of Religions, analyzing mythical and religious symbolism in Old Norse, Latin, Middle High German, and other medieval literatures, and then did post-doctoral research in Germanic philology at the Freie-Universität Berlin and Humboldt-Universität Berlin.
I have over 25 years of international educational experience, mostly as a college professor teaching at universities in Korea, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates as well as the United States. I have also been a Language Specialist (trainer of teacher-trainers) at the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization’s Regional Language Center in Singapore, and, most recently, director of intensive immersion programs for German, French, Italian, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Finnish at Concordia Language Villages (Concordia College) in Minnesota.
As not only professor but director of foreign language education at various institutions, I have designed, developed, and delivered the curricula for Spanish, French, and German languages and literatures as well as for core curricula Great Books reading and discussion seminars in English.
In addition to college level teaching, I have extensive experience in homeschooling youth through high school, and, most recently and pertinently, in designing, developing, and delivering Zoom classes for independent continuing adult learners.
I opted for an international career for the sake of continuing to learn foreign languages while immersed in them, and have developed high level abilities in multiple languages, including some difficult and exotic ones such as Arabic and Korean, about which I have published multiple reference works.
Over the course of my career, I have come to be an ever-greater advocate of autodidactic language learning, and, having gathered much experience in self-teaching methods and techniques, I seek to share that knowledge with all whom it may interest.
Table of Contents
I am providing this more detailed biography because many people have asked for it and have told me that they find it inspirational. I would like to encourage and counsel those who wish to tread the path of the polyglot that if you can conceive of learning a large number of languages or language families as a lifetime’s intellectual engagement and you are willing to work long, hard, and intelligently enough at doing so, you can succeed. Drive, discipline, countless hours of systematic hard work, sustained interest and motivation, access to good materials and intelligent methods and procedures for using them–if you have all these, there is no reason why you cannot achieve what I have achieved or even more.
My father’s father’s father left Spain for Mexico, and my father’s mother’s parents left Germany for the United States, so my father grew up in a multilingual environment, but my maternal ancestors all left the British Isles for America by the early 18th century so my mother grew up in a monolingual household and consequently so did I. However, although English was the only language used for communication in my family, it was not the only language I heard in my home, for my father is a scholar and a polyglot who teaches himself languages by reading grammars and texts aloud, so I grew up overhearing him do this. When I was very young we lived in Italy, and throughout my childhood we traveled and stayed abroad in various parts of Europe, North Africa, and India. Our home was in a neighborhood in New York City where I overheard great deals of Spanish. Thus, although I spoke only English as a child, I grew up knowing, naturally and instinctively, that the world was full of different languages and that it was possible to know numbers of them because you could teach them to yourself.
I began studying French when I was 11 years old because it was on the curriculum when I entered the 6th grade at that age. I do not really recall any details of the experience, but I must have learned something because I do remember being able to use the language to successfully leave England on my own and navigate my way across the channel and onto a train to meet my parents in Paris when I was 13. However, I cannot have learned as much as I should have because when I was 14 I moved to Berkeley, California, where the school administrators, seeing that I had had and done well in three years of French, placed me in a fourth year class. As it turned out, the students in that district had learned far more than I had, so I was way over my head and did quite poorly at first. I wanted to drop it altogether, but my father refused to let me do so. I really struggled for a while, and although I eventually caught up, French was my weakest subject throughout high-school and when I got to college, after seven years of instruction in the language, I was only able to place into the second year sequence of a seriously structured course of study.
I have been a Teutophile for as long as I can remember, and during my adolescence Hermann Broch, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Robert Musil were among my favorite authors while Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer were my favorite philosophers, so at about the age of 15 I conceived a burning desire to learn German. However, it was not offered at my school, and I do not know if it was simply because I had yet to develop the discipline or because at that stage my father’s example was still more intimidating than inspiring, but it simply did not occur to me to try to teach it to myself.
In my final year of high-school I placed into a program whereby I took classes at the University of California, Berkeley instead of at Berkeley High, with the understanding that these credits would count as my freshman year of college if I stayed on at Berkeley, whereas they would transfer as senior year of high-school credits if I matriculated elsewhere. Among the first classes I took was a quarter of Latin, but it was taught by an overtaxed graduate student to a huge group of undergraduates who met only twice a week, and I learned nothing of lasting value.
Columbia University, 1982-1986
I chose to attend Columbia University because I was attracted to its Great Books core curriculum and because I wished to return to New York City, so I received my undergraduate formation there from 1982-1986. At the beginning of my first semester I was pleased to discover that languages were taught particularly well and seriously there: classes met every single day, the number of students was small, and the teachers were enthusiastic. Under those circumstances, my French at long last really took root and everything that had been nebulous and opaque for years suddenly gelled and became coherent and clear. I was also simultaneously able to satisfy my longstanding desire to begin the study of German, in which I soon began to flourish.
If there was any problem with the language program as I experienced it that first year, then it was with the language laboratory. There was one, a standard such installation with individual listening booths that provide only a modicum of sound proofing but a great deal of visual isolation. The recorded materials from both textbooks were available for listening there, but although I was told about this option, I was not given any indication about how to listen or what I was to do while there. Although I felt a natural inclination to imitate aloud what I was listening to, and although the presence of microphones and recording capacity clearly indicated that this was the design and purpose of the place, hardly any other students did so, and those who did were often so loud as to be intrusive; consequently, as I am by nature self-conscious about disturbing others, by going there to listen, I was actively inhibited from speaking. I know for a fact that few of my classmates ever went there because one day I noticed an announcement in the office for an opening for a student lab attendant and, having obtained the position, I ended up spending several hours a day there and so observed that it was a generally unpopular, sparsely attended facility. Indeed, one of my duties was to wake other students and gently remind them of the no-sleeping policy. Still, I enjoyed working there more than I did patronizing the place because, alone in the office, I was free to listen to the recordings of all the different languages that were offered, which I enjoyed doing just to hear their rhythms. Reflecting upon this, I suppose the genesis of my shadowing technique was a reaction against the stifling nature of the laboratory manifested in a desire to make listening and imitating more dynamic and to bring languages alive by taking the learning process outside.
Columbia’s core curriculum is purposely designed to fill the first two years of study, and although four semesters of one foreign language are an integral part of the program, as I was taking two languages, I already had an usually heavy course load. Thus, I was not allowed to register for a third language at the beginning of my sophomore year. This fact pushed me to do something that I had already been contemplating, namely to finally emulate what I had so often seen my father do and to teach myself a language. While I was reveling in my studies of German, and while I had noticed that one year of focused and intelligent study could bring as much progress as seven years of diffuse instruction, I nonetheless felt that the pace of progress was all too slow. Thus, I undertook to teach myself Spanish to see if I could not do better learning on my own. I resolved to rise before dawn every morning and to spend the first hour of the day systematically working through N. Scarlyn Wilson’s Spanish, a World War II vintage course in the older Teach Yourself Series, which I recall most fondly as being a meticulously thorough and straightforward grammar translation method. I worked through the book from start to finish within a few months, at which point I felt my Spanish to be pretty much on par with my German. I had settled on Spanish because one can hear and see it everywhere in New York City, and during those few months of exposure to crystal clear grammatical explanations and exercises, it was as if wax was melting out of my ears, and every single day, as I walked around, I understood more and more of what I overheard around me.
This experience with Spanish convinced me that I could learn modern living languages more efficiently by studying on my own than by taking classes in them. However, my brief encounter with Latin at Berkeley had left me with the impression that older languages were more complex, and hence more interesting, and thus I felt an active desire to study them formally. Indeed, as my junior year approached, so did the need to declare a major. I had long since decided that I wanted to become a comparative historical philologist, though sadly that discipline no longer exists independently but has been subsumed into linguistics, which is a very far cry from it. Linguistics has next to nothing to do with foreign languages, whereas, examining an old program of study for a major in philology from decades past, I saw that it consisted mainly of the rationally sequential study of a good number of ancient languages. Since I could not officially major in philology, I resolved to learn the material anyway while majoring in a related area that would allow me to study the greatest possible number of languages. Thus, I declared a double major in French and German and spent most of the next two years reading literature in those two languages, while I used my elective credits to study Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. I studied each of these languages in the same fashion: one semester of intensive grammatical study using, respectively, Wheelock’s Latin, Hansen and Quinn’s Greek, and Coulson’s Sanskrit, followed by subsequent semesters plunged directly into unexpurgated if highly annotated editions of Cicero’s orations, Plato’s dialogues, and Lanman’s Sanskrit Reader. Apart from this, I honed my Spanish slowly by constant listening and occasional conversation, and at the beginning of every semester, as I shopped around for classes, although I knew I would not be able to continue with them just then, I could not resist sitting in on the likes of Chinese, Russian, and Hindi for a few days, just to see what they might be like.
Thus, by the time I graduated at age 22, I had obtained a solid foundation in six languages: French, German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. My French and my German were probably at about the same level, while my Spanish would have been a notch below them for lack of the amount of reading practice offered by my major. As for Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, I had not learned to read them in the same fashion as modern languages, for rather than consuming chapters at a time for appreciation of the argument and understanding of the unfolding story line, I had been trained to spend hours on a single paragraph, looking up every word in a glossary and checking every construction in an exhaustive reference grammar, parsing almost for the sake of parsing. I have subsequently found more efficacious ways of getting at these tongues, but at the time I knew no better, and I not only got a firm foundation in them by doing this, but I enjoyed the process enormously, particularly as I naturally improved with practice and was soon reading longer and longer passages with greater and greater ease.
Indeed, I evaluate my entire language learning experience at Columbia as thoroughly positive. It is often claimed that you cannot learn a language by studying the grammar, and sometimes the very notion of teaching languages in school is attacked, and I can offer my high school and UC Berkeley learning experiences in support of these charges. However, I can also offer my Columbia experience as a vindication of time-tested traditional grammar-based language teaching integrated into a formal educational process. The difference between my secondary and collegiate experience lies not so much in the method, but in the application: in the former case, classes were large and met infrequently, while in the latter, they were small and met every day. Thus, under the right circumstances, and for a properly trained mind, this approach to language learning can work very well indeed, and it is wrong to dismiss it out of hand as is so commonly done.
From reading the works of the seminal figures in 19th century comparative philology, I knew that many of them had also simultaneously been founding fathers of comparative mythology, for in their day knowledge was less fragmented into disparate disciplines. I also knew that their linguistic breadth has supposedly lingered longer in the academic field of the comparative history of religions, as comparative mythology is now known, than it has in linguistics proper or even in comparative literature. Thus, when the time came to move on to graduate school, I elected to earn my doctorate in the comparative history of religions from the University of Chicago, and so I studied there from 1986-1994.
University of Chicago, 1986-1994
During my eight years there I was indeed able to expand my linguistic repertoire more widely than I believe I would have been able to do in just about any other program in any other institution, but I was not able to do so nearly as much as I hoped, expected, and desired. While at Columbia, the only obstacle I ever met to officially expanding my circle of languages had been the finite number of credit hours remaining to me after fulfilling my major requirements. I obviously had to run my choice of courses by my advisors each semester, and I simply cannot remember any of them ever saying anything about the number of different languages I was studying. At Chicago, however, I almost immediately ran into a critical attitude that, while rarely overtly articulated, was certainly firmly entrenched and manifested itself in many ways. According to this attitude, it is simply not possible to learn many different languages, and it is wrong to even try because you should be focused upon developing a specialist’s expertise in one and only one area, and furthermore there is no real point in trying because languages are ultimately not very important – they are just tools for getting at material, and what really matters is the justification for the methodological theory with which you analyze that material and the originality of the hermeneutic argument that you build upon that theory.
The first or master’s degree year of the program that I was in was structured around courses that prepared you to pass certifying exams to continue on for the doctorate. As I was able to test out of most of these requirements upon entrance, I believed I would be free to study whatever I pleased with the credit hours I had liberated. Thus, my first quarter there, I sat in on various language classes and, captivated by both Persian and Old French, I registered for these and spent several weeks enraptured in their study before I was summoned to my advisor’s office. He asked me why I was taking Persian. My failure to give an acceptable answer is one of the great “what if” moments of my life. If I had answered in the jargon that I was soon to learn that I was doing so in order to form a basis for comparative studies in the development of Indo- European mythology, I would probably have been able to continue with the course. As it was, I answered that I wished to be a polyglot philologist and to learn as many languages as I could, as well as I could, and that I was enjoying Persian because it was fascinating and different. He shook his head and told me not to speak that way because, if I did, no one would ever take me seriously as a scholar. He then informed me that I was not in college anymore, but in graduate school, and that the purpose of my training was not to expand my horizons but rather to narrow them so that I could develop focused expertise in some highly defined area of specialization. With the best of intentions for my intellectual development, he continued to admonish me with the full-scale critical attitude described above.
I was still reeling when he then asked why I was taking Old French. Somehow, however, I was able to muster the presence of mind to give an acceptable answer. On my entrance essay I had written that I was interested in the conversion of pre-Christian pagan traditions to medieval Christianity, and in particular in the way that the old myths, symbols, and legends were preserved and reflected in the literature of the new culture. Thus, I said that I was studying Old French along these very lines, and added that as I already knew both the old form of the language (Latin) and the new (French), I wanted to know the middle phase as well so as to understand how the development of the language itself affected the presentation. This passed muster, although if he had asked me this question first, I would probably have answered that I had always enjoyed the Arthurian epic tradition, particularly as I had read it in modernized French, and that I now wanted to take the opportunity to learn to read it in the original, and he would probably have made me drop this as well.
The Persian teacher was a scholar whose name I would later come to recognize as being quite prominent in Iranian studies, and he was a kindly man who called me several days after I stopped attending the class to find out what was wrong. As it turns out, Persian is one of the languages that is nearest and dearest to my heart, and although I have developed a substantial ability to read it through self-study, I have never had the occasion to learn to speak it. Truly, if that conversation with my advisor had gone differently, my entire career could have taken a very different turn.
As it was, since I had gotten the message that I would be officially allowed to study medieval languages as an adjunct to my program in the history of religions, that is what I did for the next few years. Although I began with Old French, it was in the historical development of the Germanic family that I got the firmest grounding. I took a sequence of courses in the “Old” phase proper – Gothic, Old High German, and Old English. Thereafter, using the same methodology, I taught myself the “Middle” phase – Middle High German, Middle English, etc. – at first in consultation with the professor, then on my own two feet. As for Old Norse, the classical language of the North, I learned this is the idyllic circumstances of several quarters’ worth of semi-private tutorials during which one other student and I met frequently in the professor’s office. As Old Norse has the most source material, I naturally spent the most time immersed in it, ultimately developing the true reading fluency necessary to write my dissertation upon it.
Thus, I spent my early twenties immersed in Germanic philology, and throughout the course-taking first portion of my graduate education, most of my credit hours were in older Teutonic tongues. When I was about 25, I completed this portion of the program and entered the next phase, which was to spend several years becoming intimately familiar with the content of the books on five extensive reading lists so that I could sit for qualifying essay exams analyzing them all prior to being admitted to the dissertation stage proper. Because I had not yet developed the disciplined ability to balance a number of different long-term learning projects, I felt a need to give myself over entirely to this task, which meant that I had to leave off the substantive study of languages in order to concentrate upon reading theory. Although I stuck to my resolution, I missed studying languages terribly, and so it was at this point that I fully and consciously resolved to become a polyglot in the future. Although I had no time to use them then, I began acquiring grammars, manuals, and tapes in a systematic fashion so as to build a language learning resource center for my future studies.
Between the ages of 28 and 30 I was occupied with researching and writing my dissertation, so I still had no time to study any more new languages. However, this involved first and foremost a long and deep immersion in Old Norse with comparative excursions into many of the other Germanic dialects I had already studied. Apart from that, as I was involved in medieval history, I had ample occasion to use my Latin, and both French and German proved invaluable as general research languages, opening many doors that would otherwise have been closed to me. It was at about this stage in my life, too, that I began to listen to language tapes in various languages as I took my daily dawn runs along the shores of Lake Michigan. I had discovered that the main branch of the Chicago Public Library had a very large selection of audio materials in a very wide variety of languages, so this presented me with a wonderful opportunity to both gain an idea of what many new languages sounded like and to gain needed listening practice in French, German, and Spanish. I also discovered that other Germanic and Romance languages were more or less transparent, and I found it fascinating to try to figure out how much I could understand of them by means of repeated listening alone, and in this fashion developed a real ability to follow didactic narratives in both Italian and Dutch.
As I used neither my Greek nor my Sanskrit during my time in Chicago, my knowledge of these languages went dormant. My Spanish, however, continued to grow independently of all of the above considerations regarding the various stages of my formal program of studies. Although Chicago has its Hispanic neighborhoods, the university is not located in one, and so I no longer heard it on the streets every day. However, the graduate dormitory where I lived was a veritable international house, and there were almost always some Spanish speakers with whom I could practice. I had a longstanding circle of Chilean acquaintances, and, above all, a very good Mexican friend with whom I could converse frequently. Indeed, I spent a month one summer living with his family in Mexico City, and some years later I spent another six weeks in South America, doing home stay and intensive one-on-one tutorials in language schools in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Back in Chicago itself, I was somehow always able to continue studying Spanish, again regardless of what I was doing towards my doctorate, which gave me the first taste of the kind of balanced discipline I would need to develop in greater measure in the future. I was all too aware of my imperfections and patterns of error in my conversations with my friends despite my theoretical grasp of the grammar, and I was able to make systematic improvement in this regard by working assiduously through the Foreign Service Institute pattern drill courses over the years.
Berlin, Germany, 1994-1996
From 1994 to 1996, when I was between the ages of 30 and 32, I held a post-doctoral research fellowship at the Berlin Center for Advanced German and European Research. My research grant was to enable me to continue to investigate historical Germanic philology in-depth, though now with as much focus upon the etymological interpretations of relatively contemporary German philologists as upon the older languages proper. As assiduously as I worked upon this project, I initially spent far more energy consciously, deliberately, and systematically improving and polishing my own modern German. To this end, I consciously banished English from my brain as soon as I boarded the airplane to fly abroad and made German my mental operating system. The entire time I was there, I avoided thinking in English altogether and speaking it as much as possible, such that, even several years after I had moved on, I continued to think automatically in German. Initially, in every conversation I had, I paid close and conscious attention to how my speech differed from that of the natives. I asked my acquaintances to correct every mistake I made, and I did as much self correction as I could when talking to strangers. I carried a dictionary and a notepad with me, wrote down and looked up all new words and expressions that I encountered, and made a point of actively using them myself until they became familiar. I read voraciously, and in doing my research in restricted archives and rare book rooms of libraries, I transcribed hundreds of pages of German myself rather than making photocopies. I worked systematically through advanced books of grammatical exercises. Finally, I met with a professional phonetician on a weekly basis so as to improve my accent. Although I naturally continued to make overall progress for the entire two years, after about six months of this hard effort, I noticed that I had come to a plateau in the learning curve where conscious effort ceased to pay returns, and I began to simply live in this language while turning my learning endeavors towards other languages.
I had a very generous travel grant, and so although I was based in Germany, I was able to spend weeks at a time in many other countries as well. Thus I went all over Europe, not only doing philological research in archives, but also collecting materials for language study from bookstores and language laboratories all over the continent. As I did this, just as I had become adept at quickly learning to read yet other historical languages after I had worked hard at learning my first handful, so now I found that living speech forms generally regarded as different languages altogether seemed quite transparent to me, more like dialectical variations upon themes that I already knew rather than as distinct new entities that I would have to learn from scratch. Indeed, because of my strong philological background, I found that I had so much to transfer from the languages that I already knew well that when I was able to spend a few weeks immersed in other related languages, this was sufficient to develop a respectable degree of overall functional proficiency in them. I first made this discovery with Swedish. When I first went to Sweden, I had never studied the language in any way, shape, or form, but when I heard it spoken all around me, I understood a great deal – the more so the more attention I paid to it, as and it struck me as a recombination of elements from Old Norse, German, and English. After three weeks immersed in it, studying it consciously and actively the whole time, I was able to hold my own in a complex and meaningful conversation. Key to this was not merely studying hard but also developing a new gregarious and garrulous personality who sought out and created conversational opportunities from which my normal retiring self would have fled. With Dutch and then Italian, this took only about two weeks each, and correspondingly less conscious effort, perhaps due to my increasing experience, perhaps due also to the fact that I had already gained a certain amount of passive listening practice with them back in Chicago. While I certainly did not master any of these languages, I gained the impression that polishing them would be more a question of months than of years – that if I could stay and do for them what I had just done for German, I could rise almost effortlessly to the same level that it had taken me fourteen years to attain in German itself.
This was a wonderful and fascinating learning experience, but it was all too easy, and I began to crave a real linguistic challenge. I wanted to see if I could learn an extremely difficult language while living in a totally different culture. Thus, although I had a number of opportunities to stay on in Europe or to return to America, I decided instead to seek out the occasion to move to East Asia. I knew that East Asian languages are generally the hardest to master for Westerners, and although I intended to study both Japanese and Chinese as well in a comparative context, I wished to begin with Korean because I had read in a Foreign Service Institute report that it was the most demanding of them all.
Pohang, South Korea, 1996-2004
In order to achieve this, I applied for professorships at a number of Korean universities and so obtained a faculty position at Handong University on the eastern coast of the country. This institution had only been founded the year before, and its school of international studies, languages, and literature was seeking somebody to develop and lead a foreign language program comprising French, Spanish, and German. It sounded like a dream job, and in many ways it was. New York, Chicago, and Berlin had all been too full of distractions and other responsibilities and requirements to allow me to focus entirely upon serious language study. Handong, by contrast, was exactly what I needed for this, for the campus was on an isolated hill amidst pine and bamboo forests and rice fields with a view of the Pacific Ocean from my back porch. Furthermore, it soon became clear that, while the university was recruiting foreign faculty to give it international stature, we were viewed as outsiders and thus completely shut out of the administrative decision making process. Most other people found this intolerable and soon left, but I turned the situation on its head by reasoning that as my sole duty was to teach languages, I could devote myself entirely to their study on my own.
It was in the period 1996-2001, when I was between the ages of 32 and 37, that I finally truly achieved my dream of being able to study in a focused and protracted fashion to turn myself into a polyglot by learning as many languages as I could, as well as I could. Initially, of course, I focused on Korean and, after I got grounded, on Classical Chinese and Japanese in a comparative context. However, I also ranged very widely through the whole world of languages. I had a decent salary and no debts or real expenses, so I was able to order grammars, dictionaries, and tapes for the study of absolutely everything that I could find and thus I collected a personal language resource center that now contains materials for the study over 150 different languages. Although I could not get to all of these, when I received them I went through them with the goal of learning at least something about at least one language of each representative type or from each language family. As a product of Western civilization, I cannot help but draw a fundamental line between the way I can relate to European Indo-European languages on the one hand and all other “Exotica” on the other. In the first case, in this period I not only strove to keep up all the languages I had already studied, but I tried to get an overview of all the Germanic and Romance dialects that I had not yet examined, and I also began to explore the Celtic and Slavic families as well as Modern Greek. In the second case, I began the study of many languages in which I never got very far (Euskara, Finnish, Shona, Zulu, Ancient Egyptian, Quechua, and Malay-Indonesian spring to mind most immediately now), as well as others that I covered quite systematically before abandoning them for years (Swahili and Turkish), others that I have never abandoned even if I have not always been able to give them regular care (Hindi-Urdu), and yet others that have been my near daily companions ever since (Arabic and Persian).
In order to do this, I led a monastic existence, obsessively studying languages all day, every day. Of my 18 waking hours, I often managed to devote 16 to linguistic pursuits throughout this period. How was I able to sustain the momentum to study with such intensity? To begin with, the nature of my job greatly facilitated this degree of immersion. Teaching foreign languages, at least for the first few years, was a continuous language learning experience in itself, and the essence of my research activities also involved the in-depth study of Korean, so I could count most of my working time as study time as well. Furthermore, I was still a bachelor, living in an isolated rural environment, so I had no external demands upon my time. Because of this, I was swiftly able to discover and adhere to what I regard as my natural sleep cycle, which is to go down with the sun and wake up six hours later. The exact time varies with the seasons, but given that this is basically from 8:00 PM to 2:00 AM, this was not something I was ever able to do as a normal socially active adult. However, in my relative isolation, I found that when I kept a strictly regular schedule based around these hours, I was able to remain completely focused and alert throughout my entire waking day.
Thus, in this five-year period from 1996-2001, I was able to explore scores of languages and to build a solid foundation in a fair portion of them, but thereafter I brought this period of my life to a close for several reasons. For one thing, throughout this period I had been focusing on learning new languages to the exclusion of reading books in or otherwise using and enjoying languages I had already learned well, and after a steady diet of textbooks for five years, I was hungry for literary works and philosophical treatises again. More importantly, though, I had come to realize that I was essentially “full,” or even past my holding capacity. That is, even with the most rigorously planned and systematically maintained scheduling of the shortest bursts of study times, there was simply no way I could fit any more languages into my daily regimen or even balance them by juggling alternately recurring cyclical schedules. Most importantly of all, however, I was coming to understand the nature of language learning curves better and better:
The essence of what I had been doing throughout this period was textbook study – working through multiple manuals and getting very adept at the process. However, while foreign language learning (i.e., getting a foundation in a new language) gets easier and easier with experience and skill, making progress in foreign languages still inevitably and necessarily requires greater and greater investments of time. There are, of course, no clear cut points in language knowledge, but still if it takes one unit of time to go from 0 knowledge to a certain point A, then it takes two units of time to develop from point A to point B, and four units of time to develop from point B to point C, and so on geometrically until an ultimate point Z. In other words, while getting a solid grounding in a language is relatively easy, developing more advanced knowledge quite simply takes much longer.
Now, while there is nothing unsatisfying about working through a language manual at a pace of 15 minutes a day, each and every single day, when it comes to more advanced “studying,” i.e., when you want to read, be immersed in, and follow the development of narratives or of expositions of chains of thought, it is quite unsatisfying to be limited to such short spans of time. Such activity calls for engagement on the scale of at least an hour at a stretch, and indeed, when reading an exciting and powerfully written story or an important and meaningful argument, it is painful to have to parcel one’s time at all.
I had been coming to this realization anyway, but it truly hit me in February 2001 after I returned from a month’s home-stay with a Russian family in Saint Petersburg, where I had one-on-one conversational lessons with a private tutor for six hours a day. I went there at that point because I felt that I had taught myself as much as a I could on my own and that I was ready for this intensive immersion so as to activate my knowledge of the language and bring it to life. By the end of the stay, I had attained a high level of conversational ability, both about everyday life and spanning the intellectual humanities. However, when I tried to sit down and read the works of Turgenev or Dostoyevsky that I purchased there, I found that I was still way over my head, the range of literary vocabulary being so much wider than that of spoken language.
Thus, in order to continue working towards this goal with Russian required a break with my established routine. So, too, did allowing myself to revel once again in French, German, Spanish, Latin, and Old Norse, as well as for the first time in other Romance and Teutonic tongues. In addition, my Persian, Arabic, Hindi, and Greek were all about where my Russian was before my trip, and at any rate I was well beyond any textbooks with them and into “advanced” annotated readers. How could I possibly find an hour a day for each of them and at the same time continue to parcel out 15 minute slots to Japanese, Chinese, Swahili, Turkish, Czech, Welsh, etc., as well as to continue to factor in the likes of Tamil, Tibetan, or Thai? I clearly and simply could not. So, at this point, I resolved not to add any more new languages, and indeed I also slowly began the painful process of aborting and abandoning many others. Until this point, I had been driven by curiosity to learn as much as I could about as many as I could and it seemed to me that I had never studied enough languages; after this point, I was driven to master the reading of a more manageable number, and it seemed to me that I had studied all too absurdly many.
At this same time, my life began to change in other ways when I met the woman who became my wife, and, at the end of 2002, I became a father. Whenever I had thought about leaving Korea before, it had seemed to me that, having committed myself to professionally mastering the language, I was not yet good enough to move on. Now, however, as it seemed I had married the language and would speak it every day for the rest of my life, I felt that I could safely do so.
Beirut, Lebanon, 2004-2006
Of all the languages that I had a potential to someday develop fully, Arabic clearly posed the greatest challenge, so I resolved to move from the Far to the Middle East, and, early in 2004, having obtained a professorship in Beirut, I moved there to pursue this goal. Having repeatedly read that it is best to master MSA before moving on to vernacular forms, I consciously chose to refrain from colloquial Levantine, and instead immediately found a private tutor who, as a professional broadcast journalist, could actually speak the formal standard high language. I met her twice a week, for two hours at a time, for the first part of my stay there, stopping only when my second son was born.
I planned on spending a decade there, as I had in the extreme Orient, and as I was both assiduously collecting books and actively reading through them on my own, I did not feel any particular pressure to resume my private conversational lessons right away. Alas, my time there was suddenly and brutally cut short by Israeli bombs being dropped all around our home in the summer of 2006.
San Francisco, California, 2006-2009
Finding myself forced to live as a refugee in my own land, I very much desired to return to Lebanon, but I felt it would be irresponsible to take my family back as long as the situation remained volatile. So, I resolved to watch and wait for it to settle, but it never did, and in the meantime I sought in vain for an institution that would value my language learning experience. This was naturally a very unsettling time for me personally, but I found great solace in my languages, most particularly in fully developing my Scriptorium technique across my range. I remained fast in my resolve not to begin the study of any more new languages, but I ended up resurrecting some of the aborted and the amputated. I had assumed that I had lost my laboratory collection in the Israeli invasion, but it was shipped on after me and arrived rather miraculously intact albeit in disarray. As I unpacked and reorganized my library, I could not resist sampling everything once again, just as I had done when I first acquired my specimens. When I did this, I was surprised to find that my knowledge of those languages that I had studied rather thoroughly and then abandoned some five years previously had not withered appreciably – certainly I needed to wipe off a light coat of dust, but it really seemed that I could pick up Chinese or Japanese, Turkish or Swahili, pretty much right where I had left off. It seems that what I learned during my five-year monastic stage has gone into my long term memory.
At about the same time, having been asked to teach and design a “Far Eastern Consciousness” great books course at the small liberal arts college where I was teaching, I felt it incumbent upon myself to visit the East Asian art museum. There I saw a monumental stone carved with very clear Chinese characters. Now, my knowledge of that fascinating writing system does require constant practice in order to stay active, and after a lapse of five years, I was in no position to understand them. Nonetheless, I “read” the stone, character by character, no longer knowing what most of them meant, but knowing nonetheless that I used to know them. This experience plunged me suddenly back into the study and practice of writing characters, and, sometime thereafter, when I discovered that Shadowing Chinese no longer gave me a headache, into a full-scale study of the language.
Thus, in 2009, one of my main motives for taking a position as a language specialist at the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Language Center in Singapore (where I was until 2012) was the expectation that living in a Sino-speaking realm would bring the language to life. That did not work out at all the way I had imagined. It seems that Mandarin is only meaningful to me as long as it is remote and exotic. When I first arrived, hearing it spoken as an everyday vehicle around me actually made me actively not want to know it, so I dropped it immediately and altogether once again. Instead, I strove to maintain some sort of balanced development of my existing abilities in those languages in which I had resolved to read literature with pleasure and ease, albeit with a more intensive focus on one or another most of the time. I concentrated on Arabic first and foremost, but over my years there spent months at a time where my main focus was on Persian, Latin, Russian, and Sanskrit in turn. I consciously sought a balanced way to systematically develop these “exotics” in turn, and while I made progress in both them and in that quest, I still seek to perfect that cyclical approach. In addition, throughout my time in Singapore I consciously sought to read both French and German literature in a more sustained fashion than I have since I majored in them in college fully half my lifetime back, together with just as much Spanish literature. Thinking back to that magical monastic learning time in Korea, the negative side of that was my exclusive focus on new material – and on textbooks – to the exclusion of enjoying literature in the languages I had mastered, so I consciously resolved not to make that mistake again.
While stationed in Singapore, I taught cohorts of “master teachers” (teacher trainers of high-school English themselves) in the ultimate train-the-trainer program in methodology using a set curriculum from the institute. The students came from all the countries of Southeast Asia, but principally Vietnam and Thailand, as well as from Japan and China. Teaching them gave me an opportunity to learn bits of these languages, and traveling to their countries to follow-up on their training gave me more opportunities to listen to them, but I resisted any urges to dive into them out of my resolve to abstain from further acquisition so as to concentrate upon improving my main commitments. The greatest temptation came, naturally, from Mandarin, not in Singapore itself, but in Harbin in northern China. In Singapore one hears plenty of Mandarin, but one is not plunged into it – there is also English, Malay, Tamil, and other languages all around. Early in 2011, however, when I followed a cohort to Harbin, I found myself completely surrounded by it. And I found that I could understand an amazing amount, and it seemed to me that I would be able to speak it if I just applied myself a little bit… So upon return to Singapore, I did find myself actively pursuing spoken Mandarin, but after a few months of enjoying being a beginning language student once again, a voice of reason asserted itself and pulled me back from this adulterous affair to my resolve to spend my remaining years strengthening my existing languages rather than spreading myself even thinner.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2012-2018
The main language that posed a real challenge for me to master was the one that I had set out to live a few years back, but was disrupted from by war, namely Arabic. Thus, when my term in Singapore was drawing to a close, I sought a new position in a safe Arabic speaking realm, and so obtained a professorship at the American University in the Emirates in Dubai, which would be my home from 2012 to 2018. There indeed I did focus on Arabic for most of my time, and there indeed I also, at long last, did finally develop the ability to read Arabic literature, both contemporary and classical, with some degree of ease and understanding. Also, notwithstanding the fact that Modern Standard Arabic is supposedly not a spoken language, I continued to develop my ability to hold meaningful conversations in it as well, and came to appreciate the fact that the ability to read with fluidity was contingent upon the ability to really think in the language.
While I was in Dubai, I was contacted by Professor Dina Nikulicheva, Chief Researcher in Linguistics at Moscow State University, who asked me if I would mind sending her sample videos of me studying a language so she could analyze just what it is that we polyglots do differently, if indeed we do do anything other than go at it with greater passion and discipline. This was the excuse I needed to embark upon my first truly new language in about 15 years, and so I went for Hebrew, as it was not only one of the biggest gaps on my list of culturally important languages, but would also serve as an introduction to comparative Semitics, allowing me to feel the degree to which my Arabic would assist in its learning. So, for several months I relived my Korean monastic years, going through all the Assimil and Linguaphone manuals for this language in intensive pre-dawn sessions. Arabic did help, and I did make a great deal of progress in this time, but I have always felt that one needs to have a certain degree of affinity with a language, the same way one just “clicks” with certain people who are going to become friends, and the truth of the matter is that I felt nothing of the sort for Hebrew. Thus, I was overjoyed when Assimil came out with an excellent advanced Russian manual, and I asked Dr. Nikulicheva if I could do this instead. She was actually pleased with this as she now had months of documentation of me learning a new language, so watching me improve upon one I knew already would provide new levels of insight. Not to mention, of course, that it was her language so she would understand everything, whereas she understood no Hebrew. Perhaps because of this engagement with Russian, a few summers later my family and I elected to spend our vacation in Saint Petersburg, and while there I was happy to discover that I had made real strides in my ability to converse, and also to read this language with a fair degree of free fluidity.
At the same time I acquired Assimil’s marvelous advanced Russian and Arabic courses, I also acquired their magical Sanskrit course, and so while in Dubai had a renaissance of this language, which is another one that I have started and then alas stopped over and over again for the past 40 years now. As my father only converted himself into an Indologist in his 60’s, perhaps I will have to wait until I am that age to finally focus on this tongue as it deserves. In the meantime, while in Dubai, I also delved into another – for me – exotic language, namely… English! As my native tongue is the world’s international language, I have of course never been able to avoid it speaking it, teaching in it, etc. (save for the period in Germany when I banished it from my head); however, I have not allowed myself to enjoy it, to read literature in it, since my adolescence. Nonetheless, I have long aspired to write literature in it myself, which is obviously a contradiction. Beginning in November of 2013, I have participated in NaNoWriMo every year. For the past eight years now, I have produced a manuscript that far exceeds the 50,000 words required to “win” the contest, but I have yet, alas, to complete a story. One thing that I realized after that first November was the need to read good style in English, and so having looked about, have developed a real love for Indian derived English stylists such as Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh.
A final linguistic development in my years in Dubai came from sharing languages on a different level and in a new way. While there, we decided to homeschool our two sons, and though they used a self-teaching curriculum for most of their other courses, I became their language teacher. I have always spoken French with them, and now I was able to share my love of German and Latin, first and foremost, but also Spanish, Russian, and Korean with my own offspring. Seeing how their young minds absorbed these tongues gave me important new insights into how languages can best be learned. They have now both also matriculated at Columbia, and while Ardaschir has continued in this vein in Greek and Latin with his Classics major, Avaldamar is branching off into astrophysics instead.
Bemidji, Minnesota, 2018-Present
At the end of 2018, I decided that I needed to return to the United States for family reasons, so I obtained the position I held as director of intensive immersion programs at Concordia Language Villages from February 2019 through September 2021. While there, I was not only able to speak many languages on a daily basis, but also to learn something of a new one in a totally new way and for totally new and different reasons from any language learning that I had ever done before. As I was new to the organization and its methodology, and as Finnish was the only language under me that I had never studied before in any way, shape, or form, I was able to spend two weeks immersed in Salolampi, the Finnish language village, masquerading as a villager. Whereas I have studied all the other languages I have ever studied out of personal interest in them and out of a desire to explore them, understand them as phenomena, and read literature in them, and not out of any practical need to do so, or out of a desire to converse in them, now the complete reverse was true. I was seeking to speak it because managing its operations was my responsibility. In other words, I was, for the first time, trying to learn a language for rather normal reasons! The circumstances were ideal – an entire village of trained teachers at my disposal, and an entire reference library of materials – and so I was able to learn a great deal in that short amount of time. I have not kept this up and so it seems to have gone as swiftly as it came, and yet – I did take extensive notes in a journal at the time, and when I look at that to write these lines, much does seem to come back…
Apart from this induced new foray into a language, since returning to my homeland I have kept true to my now standing resolve not to learn new languages but to continue developing the more important ones I have stuck with to higher and higher levels. As far as techniques are concerned, I have continued to develop Scriptorium in various artistic ways, and while I shadow as much as ever I did, I now do so exclusively with audiobooks rather than didactic materials. I am very pleased to be able to do this Arabic now as well as with German, French, Spanish, etc., although of course I do not understand to the same degree, but nonetheless, when listening to and shadowing utterly new narratives, I am consistently happily surprised by just how much I do understand. In terms of linguistic projects, I continue to strive to find the best cycle of polyglot cycles, i.e., ways and means of concentrating and focusing on one language at a time, be it Persian or Russian or Sanskrit, without neglecting the others, and upon polyliterate circles, that is, continuously reading literature in French, German, Spanish, and Latin myself, and guiding others into these literatures as well. The last mentioned, while the oldest, is the newest “project” for whose ways and means I hope to soon share with others: while I have long since been able to read medieval and neo-Latin texts with some ease, I have also long aspired to actually speak this tongue, and to write it, and not just read it. However, like most people, I was only trained to do the last. Well, I have now trained myself to do the other two for this “dead” language, which involved exploring and experimenting with entirely different learning processes and techniques from anything I have used before.
I have taken the comparative and interdisciplinary nature of my own formation very much to heart and I truly believe that the Humanities can only be approached in a holistic fashion. I have never wanted to be anything but a scholar, and by that I do not mean merely an expert in some sub-field of fragmented knowledge, but rather someone who studies all the time so as to build an encyclopedic mind. I am engaged upon a life-long quest for learning in the sense of continuously challenging myself to expand my horizons and the study of languages is my passport.