Dear Professor Arguelles,
I am a 44 year old Australian currently residing in Los Angeles, California. I was a teacher of Mandarin Chinese for about 12 years, and a Chinese teacher trainer in Australia. I still do a little tutoring, but I currently find myself with the luxury of a lot of time I could devote to language learning. I understand Shanghainese (Wu family of languages) and I speak it, though I normally revert to Mandarin in longer conversations.
After moving to LA, I found many new friends that speak Russian. My wife’s business partner is raising two young children, speaking only Russian with them. A major motivation for learning Russian has been to speak to the children in the language of their home. I have been taking online classes with a teacher who teaches with Comprehensible Input, and the lessons have been very enjoyable and helpful. I have not been spending much time outside of that hour a week, but I would be willing to devote more time to it. I would like to be able to tackle Russian literature at some stage.
I took classes in Classical Chinese when I was at university, and I am enrolled in an online course now which is enjoyably challenging. I am happy just maintaining and slowly improving my classical Chinese, and I would be willing to spend relatively more time learning other languages.
In high school in Australia, I learned a little French, Latin, Italian, and then I moved school and took up German. My efforts at the time and since revealed that I enjoy learning language. I have a good ear and I can mimic the pronunciation of languages quite well.
Living in Los Angeles, the most practical language other than English is obviously Spanish. I note that in your YouTube video of Jan 16 2009, you suggest a sequence for tackling Spanish, French, Italian, and then German. I think the logic of spacing Spanish and Italian makes a lot of sense. I think what little German I have retained is probably more than the few phrases of French I can recall. I wonder if a better order for me might not be: Spanish -> German -> Italian -> French.
My dream list of languages currently looks like this:
Mandarin (fairly fluent, need to read more)
Shanghainese (good receptive ie listening ability)
Classical Chinese (making progress)
Russian (currently something like CEFR A2)
An as yet undetermined indigenous Australian language (hard to do from here, but perhaps when I return to Australia)
The above list is ordered by ability, then level of interest/urgency.
I liked your analogy of a solar system in a previous post. If I consistently have about 2-3 hours per day available, and some days more, how many languages do you think is reasonable to start with? I’d appreciate any comments or suggestions on the sequencing of my selections, and materials you might recommend. Are Linguaphone, Assimil, and Berlitz still high on your list as in previous videos?
I hope my questions are clear and that I have given you enough background to answer them.
Thank you for your efforts and I look forward to reading your response.
Dear Mr. McLeod,
What a beautiful and exemplary letter you have written! You have provided me with exactly all the information and background I need to feel really comfortable making suggestions to you. I would really encourage anyone else who wants to seek my advice to emulate your formulation. And how simply nice it is to know that there are people like you out there, so alive and curious to the wonderful world of linguistic flora and fauna. Congratulations on all that you have achieved so far in your exploration of the languages of the world, and thank you for trusting me to provide suggestions as to how you might continue to grow in polyliteracy.
As you wrote that you consistently have between 2 and 3 hours a day for language work, and some days more, I am taking the liberty of planning a program for a round 3 hours a day, figuring that the days when you have more than that will balance out the days when you have less. Let me say also that 3 hours a day is in the territory of the long-term temporal investment that is required to develop and maintain a repertoire such as the one you outline. With 2 hours a day one might devise a way of juggling four or so languages at higher levels, but the simple fact is that if you want to do more than that, you really do need to devote 3 hours or more per day, so thank you also for allowing me to highlight this aspect of your letter.
Let me begin by repeating a bit of advice that I know have given in some other recent correspondence, advice which I wish I had had years ago (thought I don’t know if I would have followed it then). My own biggest regret for the path I have followed is that, during my most intensive and productive period of studying and learning new languages, I completely neglected reading literature in languages in which I had already developed that ability. I am fortunate that I did not regress in them because of this, but one never knows how much more time one has on the planet, and it is simply a shame not to exercise abilities attained for the sake of striving after still more languages. In so doing, one gets out of balance, and then might have to end up aborting and abandoning languages, as I did, which is a sad experience – and a waste of time.
Now, combining that thought with the fact that you said you liked my analogy of a solar system, let me design some orbits and ellipses for you.
You manifestly have a Sino-Sun, which should clearly consume a fair amount of your time each day, be that reading more Mandarin (M), conversing in Wu (W), or slowly developing Classical (C). Since you have a firm foundation in all of them and they reinforce each other and you are at a stage when you can probably stay immersed in them for considerable amounts of time, rather than trying to get to all of them every day, perhaps develop a rotation schedule whereby you do Mandarin every other day with the other two circulating around it in turn, thus: M – W – M – C – M – W – M – C – M….
Given your circumstances, your foundation, and your priorities, I would suggest that the largest planet permanently orbiting your sun be Russian. As I am sure your know and can appreciate, developing the ability to read Russian literature is a serious long-term commitment that requires many years of consistent effort.
Also given your background, priorities, and current opportunities for use in Los Angeles, Spanish should have as large an orbit as Russian, but while Russian might be a fixed planet, perhaps Spanish can be more of a comet that is currently passing through, one that will convert in turn and with time into German, French, and Italian. German might eventually spin off into its own orbit around the other three, which could do something like the Chinese family does above. I would hold off on bringing Portuguese into the fold, or Latin back in from your school days, until these three are fairly firm, for that will then be a much easier task.
Likewise, I would hold off on Polish until you are reading Russian literature. Cantonese, certainly, and even Korean and Japanese due to common etymology, might ultimately fit under your Sino umbrella.
Due to lack of other resources, your Australian aboriginal language would best be done in-country, as you already note. I am guessing from your name that your interest in Gàidhlig is a heritage one? Well, though there are resources for it, that might also be best learned in Scotland. Arabic and Sanskrit are on the fringes of your purview, but these both require so much time and effort to get anywhere with them that if you ever plan on getting very far with them, then the sooner you begin, the better. Therefore, you might want to treat these like shooting stars and on those rare days when you find that you have unexpected free time, have them come flying through in some fashion to see if the time is right for them to spark your interest now and require a restructuring of the whole program.
As for methods, I doubt you need my suggestions for the Chinese branch. For the others, yes, I still favor the Assimil, Linguaphone, and old Berlitz approach. In fact, given that you already have something of a foundation all four of the languages for which Berlitz made its Self-Teaching course back in the 1960’s, I would like to challenge you to use this. You seem familiar with my video reviews – it is the one that comes in a James Bond-style hard-sided briefcase and whose books are the size of 33 1/3 records. You will have to track these down on Ebay, but they are out there. The value of these is that all four follow the same rather interesting story narrative, tweaked in each case for cultural purposes. I’ve always thought that using these back to back and side by side to learn them all would be incredibly rewarding and amazingly productive.
With your background, you should have no difficulty concentrating on reading a Mandarin novel for 1 hour straight. If you want to read Russian novels someday, then you should also spend 1 hour there, but maybe still in 15 minute chunks if you are currently A2. Your remaining hour should go the Berlitz project, perhaps initially all to Spanish so that you can start using it while you are in Los Angeles, but then, as you become familiar with the storyline and get your spoken practice in the city, integrating in more and more of the other three European languages, also divided into small blocks of time.
I hope all of this is clear, helpful, and workable for you. Please let me know if you have any questions, and please provide a progress report every now and then.
Yours with all best wishes for productive studies and reading,
Dear Professor Arguelles,
Your response was comprehensive and clear. I thank you for taking the time
to make it so.
The process of writing and editing the initial set of questions helped me clarify my own goals, and see my current position more objectively. After submitting, and before you posted your response, I began reading and watching Russian in small increments throughout the day, every day. I have been impressed with the results. I think my teacher has noticed the acceleration.
The notion of 15 minutes (or perhaps even less when initially forming a habit) spread out over the day is much less intimidating than studying a block for an hour. I barely have that much attention in my first language. At any rate, I would like to advocate for this approach, and to thank you for suggesting it.
Until reading your response, I hadn’t really thought about actively maintaining Shanghainese (W). I found some video of Shanghainese TV on Youtube, and what a delight! You may know that most TV in China is
subtitled. I was able to see characters for words I knew how to say, but had never seen written. It was enough to convince me it deserves a place in the rotation you suggest for the Sino sun.
The logic of language sequencing made sense to me. It will serve as my guide until priorities change.
You were correct about my interest in Gàidhlig stemming from my heritage. I don’t think my wife would like to spend much time in the Outer Hebrides, so that might go on the backburner. There’s plenty to be going on with.
The current starchart has the active Sino rotation with a big Russian planet. I have ordered the briefcase Berlitz Spanish, and expect it within the week. I haven’t utilized a full 3 hours in one day, yet. But the habits are forming, and it looks achievable.
It’s early days, but I feel like your suggestions have provided more clarity. The clarity has led me to feel more determination, and a great sense of possibility.
I will let you know of other developments in due course.
Dear Mr. McLeod,
Thank you for the progress report. It is nice to receive these, to add to the correspondence, to confirm to anyone who reads this that the advice is being put to active good use.
It has been a while since I received your letter, so I imagine you must have already received the old Berlitz briefcase. If you are having difficulty listening to or digitizing the cassettes, I have already done so, and would be happy to share those mp3 files with you. Since writing to you about this, someone who is in the language-learning support group has begun to use all four of these courses to maximize the use of the storyline and I am eager to keep myself and others appraised of his progress in this.
Thank you for confirming the value of 15-minute time blocks in actual practice, spread out through the day. This also is something that I would like as many people as possible to confirm rather than just taking my word for it!
I wish you all the best in your continued studies,