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5-Year Polyglot Plan for Balance and Maintenance

Dear Professor Arguelles,

I have been following your work for years now; it has always been of great inspiration. I am truly excited to see that you are beginning a space for polyglots to come together, even though it is online. I hope your model can serve as an educational model in the coming years more and more.

Anyways, a little bit about myself… I have been highly dedicated to the study of languages and literature for roughly the last 8 years. Like yourself, my intention as a polyglot is mainly to access great works of literature and great cultural artifacts. Also like yourself, I aim at very high (literature level) reading fluency. This would be somewhere in the 99% and above comprehension percentile.

Over the years, I have studied (my native language is English) Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Modern Greek, Chinese (Mandarin and Classical), Kyrgyz, Uighur and some Kazakh. The languages which have stuck and I continue to read almost daily are Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Greek. I aim for very high fluency in all of these and the Turkic languages I merely enjoy as individual linguistic endeavors. As such, I am satisfied with an A2 level or so for those.

I have always found it extremely difficult to find good consultation for people treading this highly literary path. For general speaking skills, it is a lot easier. Going forward in the future, my plans are the following:

Short term [next 6 months]: take my Russian reading comprehension from struggling to read literature to reading it more or less fluidly.
Mid term [next 1-2 years]: after Russian is more established, start deep diving in Classical Chinese poetry
Long term: I would love to dive into the Persian world, re-visit the Central-Asian Turkic languages as well as dabble in some Mongolian.

I no longer have any issues with the actual language acquisition process. The difficulty now comes with balancing and progressing with all my tongues. I am looking for a routine that I can count on to work that I can simply repeat throughout the years. I liken it to weight lifting (another hobby of mine). Right now, I have a routine that has been tested to work if I just keep on running it indefinitely. This brings me great feelings of comfort in knowing I am doing the right thing. I am looking for a similar routine for a budding polyglot scholar.

I am less concerned with speaking and more just want reading habits. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to leave the USA to travel and do deep immersion. Also, my opportunities to speak my languages in-person are diminishing greatly, very sad. However, my love of literature burns bright as ever and it brings me great comfort knowing books will always be in reach.

Let me know if there would be a way we could set up an individual consultation to discuss in more detail some of these issues and, perhaps, map out a 5 year plan.

Thanks for your time and consideration. I hope you have a wonderful day.

Alexi Caracotsios

My reply:

Dear Mr. Caracotsios,

Thank you very much for your highly interesting letter. The subject of balanced maintenance routines is one that deserves much attention. I know that in the past I have addressed my own efforts – struggles, really – to develop and sustain these, but I honestly do not recall when and where that was, and at any rate, I have not done so recently, so I am very happy to begin with you – not just because you happened to pen the first request for this, but because your primary goal of reading fluency so closely matches my own.

I appreciate your analogy of the kind of routine that you can make automatic for something like weight-lifting, and we can indeed devise something of that sort for you. Let’s begin by looking at the number of slots you need – Spanish, Greek, Russian, and Chinese to develop to high levels makes 4, and then a slot for various Turkic languages to be simply maintained at a high-beginner level, that makes 5. You mention delving into the Persian world in the future – does that mean adding Persian itself (a 6th slot) or by Persian world do you mean the whole sphere of influence upon the Turkic languages you already have in your 5th slot? That is one thing that is unclear to me. Another that would have been helpful to know is your current estimated level in those four main languages. And a third critical factor to know is how many hours a day you can allocate to all of your languages.

I cannot devise a true schedule for your without knowing those details, but perhaps we can cover that in the consultation you request, and for now as a generalization describe it like this.

I am going to assume that you have several hours a day to do this, just as serious weight-lifters also spend several hours at the gym when they go there, whether it is an arm day, a leg day, or what not. I am going to assume this because you clearly know that you have, in Russian, a very demanding task, and, in Chinese, an extremely demanding one. In fact, unless your Russian is already at a high level and you are prepared to devote multiple hours to it each day, your goal of going from struggling to read literature to doing so with ease within 6-months is rather optimistic, as is the goal of getting it truly developed enough to move on to Chinese within the next year. Not only these two languages, but Greek, and even Spanish, need regular substantial exertion to get them to true reading fluency.

Can you picture a diagram of the solar system, with cycles, ellipses, and epicycles? Let’s envision a maintenance routine of 2.5 hours per day like that for you. Russian is your main interest at the moment, so it should be at the center of your system, with the largest block, lets say 60 minutes per day. Chinese is not only your next target, but also the most difficult requiring daily input for life, so lets envision it as half that size (30 minutes per day) that circles around the center with perfect regularity. Then let’s picture Spanish and Greek as being on opposite ends of an axis that rotates around the center in a larger circle, such that only one of them is visible at a time. Thus, one day you will do 45 minutes of Spanish, the next day 45 minutes of Greek, and so on in perpetual motion. Finally, let’s imagine an even larger axis with several smaller epicycles on it, each containing a Turkic language (and perhaps eventually Persian?). This large axis goes around slowly, such that each epicycle hovers about for a while. Thus, you will do 15 minutes a day for one of these languages for a week at a time (or several weeks, or a month, as you see fit).

Hoping this was along the lines of what you desired and that this is helpful to you, wishing your all the best in your studies, and hoping to continue this conversation and consultation with you, I send you my

Best regards,

Alexander Arguelles

Dear Professor Arguelles,

Thank you for the response. I appreciate it. Anyways, I am still hoping to be able to do a 1-1 consult. Now that your web page is up, I thought I would reach out again.

In your response to my question, you asked the following:

1. You mention delving into the Persian world in the future – does that mean adding Persian itself (a 6th slot) or by Persian world do you mean the whole sphere of influence upon the Turkic languages you already have in your 5th slot? That is one thing that is unclear to me.
2. Another that would have been helpful to know is your current estimated level in those four main languages.
3. And a third critical factor to know is how many hours a day you can allocate to all of your languages.

I will answer all three of those for you before we schedule a time to meet.

1. I would like to imagine myself studying Persian at some point. However, what this means to me would most likely be diving into Chagatai. I do not see myself starting a whole new language from scratch at this point in my life. Maybe later but definitely not in the next 5 years. So, only 5 slots.

2. Estimate language level in following languages:

Spanish – I have studied Spanish for the last 12 years. I wrote and researched my undergraduate thesis (~100 pages) entirely in Spanish. I can read Spanish with complete fluency. I only stumble occasionally on words when reading literature or highly technical vocab. I used to be able to speak/write Spanish at a similar level too when I was really into it. I also have much lived experience in the language; I studied abroad in Guatemala and Argentina and my last year of uni I lived with Spanish-speaking roommates.

Greek – I have studied Greek for ~6 years. My father spoke Greek growing up, but I did not start studying until later. At my peak, I spoke with very high fluency [upper B2]. I read literature frequently and am at the point where, despite missing lots of literary or technical vocab, I can read novels at a reasonable pace without getting “foreign language headache.” I have spent one summer in Greece (3 months) in which I only spoke Greek. I have read and enjoyed several Kazantzakis novels in the original as well as a good amount of contemporary literature. Now, I mainly speak Greeklish with my friends who are immigrants.

Chinese – I have studied Chinese for 8 years now. I started at uni and then studied abroad for a semester in Fuzhou. I have not read as much literature in Chinese but I have read an absurd amount of articles. I have studied ~1 year worth of classical Chinese on my own as well. My reading fluency is definitely not as high as Spanish but that mostly comes down to each word-unit required multiple points of memorization (tone, character, meaning, pronunciation). I usually remember 2 or 3 of those 4 for high level words but often forget the last due to infrequency of seeing them. However, I can read literature and news without a headache. I speak 2-3 hours of Chinese every week with one of my best friends on the phone and rarely have a problem expressing myself on non-specialized topics.

Russian – I have studied Russian for 4 years now. It definitely is my weakest of the above four. I have read a good amount of literature (I am reading Master and Margarita now). However, I still get headaches from reading and need to really go slow. Based off my previous endeavors, I reckon I need to still read another 5-10 books of literature before it gets easier for me. I speak fairly well however I still have issues using the correct cases while speaking and accessing my passive vocabulary. I have a friend I can speak Russian with every day if I wanted to. So, I can develop that on my own. I spent a semester in Bishkek as well where I was immersed in Russian and Kyrgyz.

Turkic languages: I studied these as well as Russian all in preparation for an immersion trip to Central Asia. I originally wanted to deep dive into Uighur as an extension of my Chinese studies. But, due to the political situation, I pivoted to Kyrgyzstan and learned Russian as well.

Uighur – Before travelling to Kyrgyzstan, I worked through 3 years of university level Uighur. I could speak nothing but I had pretty good reading knowledge.
Kazakh – 2 months before entering Kyrgyzstan I worked through a year long Kazakh course. Because I could not find any Kyrgyz materials, I figured Kazakh would be a good transition.
Kyrgyz – I took 6 months of intensive Kyrgyz courses in Bishkek with a 1-1 tutor. I was very proud of my spoken Kyrgyz upon leaving. I would gauge it was similar to someone who had taken 3-4 years of uni courses. However, I used a lot of Russian as well with my Kyrgyz. Learning to speak Kyrgyz like this, however, was one of my proudest language learning moments because I really felt like I learned the Bishkek dialect. Many Kyrgyz people said I sounded very Kyrgyz when I spoke due to this. My grammar was OK but I never learned the really advanced constructions. I have forgotten most now but the base is there to be re-activated.

3. I would say I want to/plan on spending 1.5-2 hours a day at this point reading in foreign languages. I usually spend at least another 30 minutes listening to podcasts. I speak regularly enough to the point of not worrying about it for my languages but also I do not like scheduling it because it usually revolves around friends’ availability.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read through all of this. I appreciate it greatly and I look forward to joining one of your courses in late summer/early fall [I am travelling all of May].

Alexi Caracotsios

My reply:

Dear Mr. Caracotsios,

Thank you for the further details about your language levels and the amount of time that you can spend reading them each day.

As Persian – or rather, Chagatai – will be part of block 5 rather than forming a separate 6th category, I think the basic model I provided last time might still work. However, given that you have less time to read (1.5 to 2 hours versus the 2.5 I estimated), and given that you are not striving for literacy in the Turkic languages but rather to maintain oral proficiency, and further given that you are open to practicing also by listening to podcasts and spontaneous conversations, let us take them out of the equation or out of the solar-system-like model I proposed before.

Your main goal at this point is to develop Russian, so that should stay at 60 minutes; your second goal to continue to develop Chinese, so that should stay at 30 minutes, and you should be sure to get to these each and every single day. Then, on days when you have that other 30 minutes, alternate between Greek and Spanish. That might be frustrating if you get caught up in a narrative and want to see what happens in a story, but hopefully this will enable you to find more time to dedicate towards your pursuit of polyliteracy. The fact that you have attained reading fluency in these two already means, on the one hand, that they do not require daily care, but, on the other hand, means that it is a shame not to get to them more often.

One of my own “regrets” is that I spent too much time learning new languages and not enough time relishing reading in those in which I had already attained this goal. However, with your firm 5-year plan to develop Russian and Chinese to be near where Spanish and Greek are, hopefully by 2027 and going forward you will be able to have full balance between them. It certainly helps that you have reasonable goals!

I do hope to see you in circle or seminar in June or thereafter, and I am working on getting a mechanism for 1-1 consultations set up and on the website in the very near future.

Yours with all best wishes for successful strides towards polyliteracy,

Alexander Arguelles

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Would you like my advice for developing a systematic, long-term plan for learning languages and accessing literatures? This website provides a place where you can describe your background, current activities, and goals in sufficient detail for me to provide you with meaningful advice, and where our exchange can remain as a lasting resource for others with similar scholarly aspirations.

My name is Alexander Arguelles. I have pursued foreign languages and literatures with a passion all my life. My goal is to share the knowledge and experience I have gained with others who would like to do the same. Find out more →

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