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Developing Polyliteracy as an Academic Discipline

Dear Professor Arguelles,

I have three questions about developing Polyliteracy as an academic discipline:

Question 1: Academic endeavors career

What advice would you give to a polyglot scholar or prospective graduate student who wanted to dedicate their academic energy to seriously and systematically studying many languages? I am thinking of someone who aspires to study language and cultures for themselves and cares little than for the “theoretical” content that is given priority in higher education today.

I attended graduate school because I wanted to learn more about world cultures, and I wanted to attain fluency in several languages. I was able to attain an intermediate level in three languages (mostly through autodidactic study and auditing classes) and fluency in my main research language. However, this was never satisfying, and I was never able to integrate the study of these languages into my research and professional endeavors the extent that I had hoped. It seems there are few places for polyglots to pursue their passions in academia. As someone with an academic background, who also laments the fact that a discipline like Polyliteracy does not formally exist, what should someone like me do with their academic capacities and energies? Likewise, what would you tell the aspiring polyglot graduate student who wanted to pursue language study as a polyglot would (or perhaps what would you tell a younger version of you or me when we were entering our Masters programs)?

Question 2: Polyliteracy as a serious academic endeavor

Where do you see Polyglottery/Polyliteracy fitting into contemporary educational paradigms (or do you), and how can polyglots work towards establishing Polyglottery/Polyliteracy as a proper educational endeavor more formally?

As a scholar who shares many of your frustrations with the state of education and the role of language education there within, I often contemplate how scholars who share our affinity for Polyglottery/Polyliteracy can carve out a place for ourselves within educational and academic paradigms more seriously. Personally, I believe Polyglottery/Polyliteracy is of direct relevance to several existing academic fields, but it could also try to set a new paradigm outside of existing institutions and models.

Academically, I think language pedagogy and applied linguistics would be the most pertinent fields for Polyliteracy/Polyglottery to engage with. As you have noted in videos and elsewhere, polyglots’ study habits, methods, and approaches can be very helpful to the average language learner. And polyglots (i.e. people who learn many languages successfully) provide a very different perspective than those who only know theories of learning and language pedagogy (i.e. theory-savvy people who lack such practical experience). Communicating our practical knowledge and learning techniques would allow us to start conversations with applied linguists and language educators (if they were willing to listen).

I also think Polyglottery/Polyliteracy can start conversations with fields such as comparative literature and area studies (Asian Studies, South Asian Studies, Nordic Studies, etc.). We share much of the same content interests as these scholars, so topically there is certainly considerable overlap.

Outside of traditional institutions, the educational approach you have proposed—a multilingual, comparative, ethnological, Great Books-style approach—also strives to cultivate good study habits in students and develop students’ intellectual skills holistically. Pedagogy today has largely deviated from the serious and truly comparative approach you have espoused. Perhaps Polyglottery/Polyliteracy can offer an alternative approach to education more generally.

In short, where do you see Polyglottery/Polyliteracy fitting into contemporary academic and educational paradigms? And how can polyglots themselves support the development of Polyglottery/Polyliteracy as a serious and perhaps more formal educational endeavor?

Question 3: Polyglottery vs. Polyliteracy

From your videos, it seems you favor Polyliteracy somewhat over Polyglottery. There is certainly much to be gained intellectually from being able to access great pieces of literature in their original language and to explore them comparatively with other works in other languages. However, I wanted to ask about the role of Polyglottery specifically in furthering the educational endeavor that you have proposed. As a trained anthropologist, I was always drawn to languages because they open doors to understanding contemporary culture in ways that I feel “theory” cannot. In my view, you don’t study social or economic theory if you want to understand what is going on in some geographical or cultural region, you study foremost the language and you listen to the people.

Thus, what do you think the role of Polyglottery should be in the overall educational and linguistic approach that you have proposed?

With best regards,

Paul Capobianco, Ph.D.

My reply:

Dear Dr. Capobianco,

Thank you for your three excellent questions. I will give them preliminary answers here and now, but also look forward to your further questions upon reading my responses, and so to developing this topic, which is of such great importance to me, in correspondence with you.

Question 1 regarding academic careers and polyitis

The modern educational institution is what it is. Perhaps you have seen a video from one of the polyglot conferences (I looked for it briefly just now in vain, but I believe it was in Reykjavik) where three other university professors and I engaged in a round table discussion about what it was like to be both an academic and a polyglot, and we all essentially concurred that more than helping our careers, this was something that had the potential to hurt them, so we had to hide our polyitis to some degree. This is sad and frustrating, but recognizing this situation is probably akin to being a soldier in a war that you know your side is losing. All you can do is keep fighting. The situation and circumstances for learning languages in universities are not what they should be, not what they once were… but they are probably better than anywhere else for those of bookish and scholarly inclinations. You may have to hide what you are doing, but you can still have access to vast resources in library stacks that you won’t have elsewhere. There are plenty of more extroverted non-academic polyglots who can learn languages in other environments, but the training, discipline, and again the opportunities you can find if you are studious just cannot be matched in any other environment. When and where else other than in graduate school can you spend six or eight or ten years in largely self-directed study? Yes, you need to put most of your energy toward program targets, but there is no one really to check on you, and if you are disciplined, you can read and study many other languages as well. Moreover, I rather feel that a research doctorate in whatever field, the experience of conceptualizing a long-term project and seeing it through the dissertation stage, is inherently valuable in and of itself. In many ways, I feel that a Ph.D. in our age when people live longer and almost everyone gets a B.A. is equivalent to that first college degree a century or so ago when people lived several decades shorter on average and very few went to university. In other words, to a younger version of ourselves: expect that you may have to hide you extracurricular studies, do not expect that you will be able to find employment with or through your polylitis, and nonetheless stay the course, learn as much as you can while you have the unique opportunity to do so. As for possible academic careers where one could conceivably be an open polyglot, please see my answer to 2 below.

Question 2 about polyliteracy as a serious academic endeavor

Thank you for pointing out the many fields where there is overlap of interest and drive with the basic motivation behind polyliteracy. Rather than focusing upon one more more of these with whom to seek marriage, as it were, at some point in the future, I am more inclined to, as you put it, try to set a new paradigm outside of existing institutions and models. You see, I am truly excited about the utterly new mode of virtual delivery in the form of reading and discussion circles for adult lifelong learners that I inaugurated at Concordia and am about to use as the foundation as I launch my own academy. I believe part of the encrustation of institutionalized higher education is due to its excessive if not exclusive focus on degree programs for the very young. This is what has driven the deflation of the Ph.D. to a B.A. value within the past century (if I am right about that), and it is certainly picking up great steam in my own lifetime. It is a known fact that the cost of higher education has risen considerably more than that of other areas of life over the past few decades, and that the balance of admin to faculty is ever increasing. I don’t think this is how universities were when the first began to form in the Middle Ages. I see the discussion circle format, with its ability to draw people from around the globe, as a possible return to this earlier format.

The circles that I have conceived of to open the academy in May are all designed to be self-standing offerings for those who are interested in only one area, such as improving their reading knowledge of French, German, Spanish, or Latin literature, reading and discussing Great Books in English, or getting support for the autodidactic study of what are likely to be more exotic languages. However, it has struck me that these courses, combined, and taken in for sufficient credit hours, could easily form the respectable core of a M.A. program in polyliteracy. If anyone were to take two years of reading literature in two major languages, two years of Great Books of both the West and the East, and two years of guided self-study in something like Sanskrit, this would seem like a rigorous base for coursework. If a master’s thesis were added to the mix, then perhaps the above mentioned marriage could take place. That is, perhaps an existing institution might see fit to harbor the academy, as it were, and award these official degrees. One criterion for that would be that all those who lead circles in my academy should have earned research doctorates (hence the possible employment opportunities I mentioned at the end of point 1). Indeed, based on the numbers of applications I have received from potential participants thus far, it does appear that I may soon well need to engage others to lead circles, thus expanding not only the number of those for the offerings I have outlined already, but expanding those offerings to include literature in other high demand languages such as Russian.

Question 3 about polyglottery vs. polyliteracy

In the past, I used the term polyglottery to cover what I did. I believe I may have coined it, or at least been largely responsible for giving in currency. However, as you know, I have historically contributed to this kind of discussion in waves, and upon my return from one absence, I found that there were now a good number of polyglots providing their know-how and experience to the world, which is of course a wonderful thing, but that for most of them, it seemed to me the focus was purely upon colloquial conversational abilities in contemporary languages. So, I coined the new term polyliteracy to focus more on the diachronic and literary side of learning – and, I suppose, to set my “brand” apart from the rest as I do not believe anyone else is talking about polyliteracy very much (yet). But though this is a prettier word in itself, it does now, as you rightly point out, at least inadvertently slight the work of anthropological field linguists and others who are working to preserve the world’s languages, create language museums, and the like, all of which have always formed part of my greater vision for this new discipline, and I apologize for this. Given that the conversationalists have by now emphatically established their right to use the term polyglottery, and that polyliteracy might not cover the linguistic side of what you and others do adequately, I think the time might be right to coin yet another term for you. Do you have any suggestions?

With best regards and in the hopes of continuing this correspondence to develop these ideas,

Alexander Arguelles

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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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