Dear Professor Arguelles,
It is with deep sense of gratitude that I write to you after initially being inspired to the path of the polyglot more than ten years ago by your YouTube channel. I am a lifelong and avid, if somewhat unfocused, language learner cultivating a love of Great Books (especially Ancient Greek and Russian) and Eastern Christian Theology. I am writing with a newfound urge to solidify my language competencies and pursue long-lasting interests while unsure of how to tend long-neglected gardens.
As for my background, I come from a Frisian immigrant family in the United States where neither Dutch nor Frisian was passed on to my generation or my father’s. Instead, I pursued languages on my own, beginning with French, Dutch, and German in my high school years, and later pursuing everything from Italian to Serbo-Croatian to Arabic during my undergraduate degree in Linguistics and French, with a specialty in Romance Historical Linguistics. After teaching English in Italy and China, I am pursuing a career in International Development which has so far focused on Francophone and Anglophone Africa and the Middle East. I’m recently married, and my wife has a similar family history with Italian in her case. She is beginning to study the language with my help.
We might call my affliction chronic polyitis. That is, I have taken intensive forays into language study, most successfully when I studied languages in university (French and Italian to an Advanced Level, German to Intermediate, Arabic to High Beginner). But outside of that formal study, I’ve worked with Assimil and other methods to bring my Spanish up to Intermediate, learn the basics of Latin and Ancient Greek, and explore further languages I’ve either used for travel, work, or personal curiosity (namely Serbo-Croatian, Mandarin, Hebrew, Turkish, and Hindi). However, either my interest or my motivation has time and again faded just as quickly as the learning bug hit me. I am left with many half-finished Spanish manuals, and some languages (especially German, Dutch, and Serbo-Croatian) where the gains of my study have faded over five or more years of disuse.
Now I have a newfound focus on consolidating my abilities, as well as a dilemma. Having reviewed as much as I can of your content, I’ve set some manageable routines for my priority languages. For French, most useful for work, I am resolidifying my grasp of grammar and vocabulary through daily study of Assimil Using French and Business French while incorporating podcasts and reading classics. For Arabic (also useful for work), I’m working through the basic Assimil manual and after that will work through some basic readers. I have two languages I’ve fallen in love with—Greek (Modern, Ancient, and Byzantine) and Russian, for which I’m a few weeks into Assimil manuals and can practice each Sunday at my church. I devote 30 minutes to an hour to French each day and 15 minutes each to Arabic, Greek, and Russian. Conceivably, I could devote two hours to language study and keep that daily routine. I’m thinking that remaining 15 minutes could be devoted to resolidifying Italian, still of great importance to me personally. I find that a supplement to active study is listening to podcasts, as I take my dog for 30-minute walks twice daily. While I have several languages deteriorating in my memory that I would be remiss to lose, I want to avoid being stretched thin over too many priorities. On the one hand, my line of work puts a premium on a good command of languages like Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, and even Serbo-Croatian over languages like Greek. Meanwhile, I’m afraid my personal level of interest hasn’t yet met up to concerted study in Dutch or Frisian that would honor my roots and extended family, as much as I would love to be able to speak with them in their native languages. Other languages of interest like Latin and perhaps some other languages important to Eastern Christianity (Old Church Slavonic and Romanian for instance) are somewhere behind in the queue.
From what you see in a situation like mine, what might a long-term timeline and daily routine look like that balances professional and personal language priorities of maintenance, recovery, and new interests? What is even practicable with a mere two hours of daily study? On a broader note, what do we owe to the languages we’ve let rust over the years? I look forward to your gracious advice and prescription for this case of chronic polyitis.
Nigel van der Woude
Dear Nigel van der Woude,
Thank you for writing and presenting a most interesting case. I appreciate the details about your background as that really provides me with the context that I need to give you good advice.
With only 120 minutes for language study each day, and with the goal of taking some to a very high level, I would not go beyond the five basic languages you list (French, Arabic, Russian, Greek, and Italian). The proposal you make to use one main language (French first of all) for 30 – 60 minutes a day and to devote 15 minutes a day each to the others will work to bring palpable results, but it will be a slow process of years in some cases to notice this. Slow and steady really does win the race, and if you do put in that minimum of time each day consistently and systematically, you will, with enough time, attain important milestones. I imagine that French could at times cede its place to one of the others so that you could develop her more thoroughly while keeping the other four in tune.
I would recommend reading and/or shadowing audiobooks of new and fresh material for the main language (French for now), and developing epicycles of increasingly variety of didactic materials for continuous review for the four being revived / maintained.
As the years go by, you may have, or be able to make, more time for languages, and at that point we could talk about adding more, but you are near a limit of what is reasonable to hope for with 120 minutes a day. I think that when you will have made more progress in these five and are truly advanced in each, this will naturally happen.
You do not owe anything to the ones you have let rust, though I understand the poignant feeling. Again, when and if you have more time in the future, you may pick these up again and find to your happy surprise that you still retain more than you imagined.
Yours with best wishes for successful studies,