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Advice for Older Polyglot Aspirants

Dear Professor Arguelles,

I have a specific set of questions regarding the pragmatic motive for learning certain languages.

I am an American businessman living in Europe; Germany currently, and my business takes me all over the continent. My language learning motives are not scholarly; they are entirely pragmatic, that is, to be able to converse with my colleagues in their language rather than having to fall back into the traditional English default as lingua franca, and to read newspapers and popular fiction in my target languages.

My current language skills would be rated using your scale as:

(R = Reading, C = Conversation)

  • German: R/2; C/1
  • Spanish: R/2; C/1
  • Japanese: R/0; C/1

My goal is to have the following ratings within a reasonable amount of time:

  • German: R/3; C/3
  • French: R/2; C/2
  • Italian: R/2; C/2
  • Spanish: R/3; C/3
  • Portuguese: R/2; C/3
  • Japanese: R/1; C/2

I am now 48 yrs old, and I realize this is not the best time to start diving into a campaign of hardcore learning, but some facts just can’t be changed no matter how hard I try.

Considering the above goals and my age, would you still recommend the Assimil system for each of my target languages? I can commit to about 1,5-2,0 hours per day of study, do you recommend parallel study of more than one language at a time? Are my goals realistic? Do you have any other guidance you could give me?

As a side note, I am interested in your language learning academy idea. From a business perspective (I’m a businessman after all and not a scholar), have you done any feasibility studies of such a venture? What location would be best – US or Europe? There is a convent in Belgium that has a rather famous intensive language learning school that many executive levels attend for 1-2 weeks at a time (the name of the place escapes me right now). Is this the kind of platform you envisage? I would like to hear more of your concept.

Thank you so much for all you have written here and your great videos posted on YouTube, and thank you in advance for any help you can give me.

Best regards,

Michael Sloan

24 November 2008

My reply:

Dear Mr Sloan,

First of all, please always keep in mind that age in itself does not affect your ability to effectively learn foreign languages. If it is indeed generally harder for older students to make progress, it is not because they are older per se, but rather because they have been out of “learning mode,” as it were, for many, perhaps very many, years. It is my observation that most people only ever learning anything while they are in school, so they acquire academic-type knowledge during the first quarter of their life and then generally spend the rest of their existence forgetting what they have learned rather than adding any new book knowledge. If you try to learn a language after having not learned anything for decades, then of course this will add to the inherent difficulty of the task. If, however, you do continue adding new knowledge throughout your life, then you actually become more and more skilled with age. My father, at 69, is at this very moment happily and without strain acquiring both Tamil and Sinhalese in a comparative context simply as a natural matter of course so as to round out the love of his retirement, Indic literature, building on what he has already established in Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi, Nepali, and Bengali.

The “Assimil system” is perfectly suited as a springboard not only to your age, but also to your practical rather than scholarly goals, particularly given your ideal situation of being able to travel widely and thus get active exposure to your languages.

As for attaining your goals, without knowing what you mean by “within a reasonable amount of time,” it is rather difficult for me to say. As you may already know, it is indeed possibly to make slow but steady progress over a period of many years if you regularly and systematically give even just 15 minutes a day to your study of a given language. Thus, with 1.5 – 2 hours a day, you could conceivably achieve your goals in the six languages you outline above, particularly if your study/reading time is supplemented by the practical conversations afforded by your travels and business, but still, in all honesty, achieving what you propose at this temporal rate of investment appears to me to be a question of decades.

Please remember here that it is always takes almost geometrically more time to go from each relative level to the next. Thus to go from 0 to 1 is only a question of application, but to go from 2 to 3 is inevitably a question of years of exposure and endeavor.

Thus, I do think it would be more realistic to somehow find a way to invest more time to your language studies if you truly wish to attain these goals.

The fact that four of your six target language are closely related Romance languages could either facilitate your task or complicate it. In my own experience it should emphatically do the former, but confusing and mixing up sisters is for some reason a chronic complaint, or at least fear, among language students. The key here is somehow to get your mind to use the similarities and analogies as facilitators rather than as impediments to actual production.

As for simultaneous versus sequential study: how are you handling German, Spanish, and Japanese so far? If you are managing these in parallel, then I would recommend you continue to do so until have built your Spanish up to a higher level. You might then try adding the other three Romance tongues at once, and if confusion does result, cut back to just one. Simultaneous study will get your to your overall goals more swiftly, but because these four are so related, building them in sequence will be a progressively easier task and the result should be about the same.

Thank you also for asking about my ideas for a language academy. No, unfortunately, I have not done any practical feasibility studies of such a venture from a business perspective (I am a scholar, after all), but if you have any suggestions as to how to go about doing this, I would love to hear them. If you can remember the name of the academy in that Belgian convent, I would also love to know more about it so that I can compare it to my own vision. As for location, all sorts of factors could influence the choice, but certainly a place where there is a confluence of languages affording students the ability to easily immerse themselves in the living context would be ideal, and so Europe would probably be preferable to North America.

I hope this has answered most of your questions?

Yours with best wishes,

Alexander Arguelles

01 December 2008

Dear Professor Arguelles and Mr. Sloan,

Thank you for this discussion as I have often felt a little bit alone while reading posts from all the young students with so much ahead of them with so much dedication.

I am 47 years old and am also learning languages for pragmatic reasons although I am working on my second masters degree in a branch of education so there is also an academic purpose you might say.

I have decided to devote my full attention to French until I am satisfied I can communicate at an advanced level to teach basic French in the US school system and abroad. It is very possible I may change my mind but I am not counting on it.

If a person were to spend 4 hours a day for the next three years, is this conceivably possible? I would make use of the Internet extensively if I can invoke native French speakers’ generosity or trade for English conversation or lessons. Does this sound realistic? I have a degree in humanities with an emphasis in linguistics.

Thank you very much,

Brenda Lewis

27 December 2008

My reply:

Dear Mrs. Lewis,

What you propose is both realistic and more than conceivably possible.

For instance, mathematically, 4 hours a day every day for the next 3 years would be 1,095 days X 4 hours = 4,380 total hours. That is 500 more than the 3,870 projected hours necessary to take a native English student of a class I language like French to ILR level 3, 3+, or 4 (general professional proficiency, general professional proficiency plus, advanced professional proficiency) respectively given minimal, average, and superior aptitudes for language learning.

That said, I must stress that learning a language is NOT a mathematically quantifiable certainty. If you study and learn in an inefficient fashion, then there is no guarantee that you will get that far at all even if you put in more hours. You must also keep in mind that some foreign language learners reach a final personal plateau above which they cannot progress.

However, given that you have a humanities background with an emphasis in linguistics, I would say that your chances of attaining overall superior abilities in French with this degree of concentration are extremely high. You just need to be sure that you continue to learn in an efficient and enjoyable fashion!

I personally believe that it is possible for someone – and particularly for someone with your background – to develop overall “intermediate” or even “high intermediate” skills quite rapidly, whether by means of self-study (preferably) or drilling in an intensive language institute. After that, it is a question of reading as much good literature as you can over a number of years in order to develop a full range of vocabulary in terms of both meaning and use in sentence structure. If you are content with bookish knowledge, that may be enough for “advanced” reading knowledge. However, if you wish to develop overall advanced knowledge, I do not believe that it is possible to do that simply studying on your own by any means. That requires “activation” of the knowledge you have built up so as to bring it to life, which means, of course, some period of immersion in the living context where it is used. A couple of weeks of interaction with a knowledgeable guide will work wonders, but, if possible, a couple of months of simply living the language day in and day out will teach you many subtleties that cannot be learned otherwise, and if those couple of months can become a couple of years, then that is truly the most certain path to true mastery.

Best regards,

Alexander Arguelles

29 December 2008

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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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