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Five-Year Study Plan

Dear Professor Arguelles,

I am writing this letter to you in the hope of gaining some advice for a language-related situation I have coming up in the not-too-distant future. Since I have sought your advice in the past and follow this forum regularly, I have decided to introduce myself here fully. I will first try to provide a brief background on the languages I currently know before coming to my main purpose for writing this letter.

My name is Christopher Button, I am currently 20 years of age and live in Auckland, New Zealand. I am a student working towards a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and German. My interest in languages begins with German. It is the language I know best, having studied it thoroughly since my early years of highschool and although I have not yet had the chance to visit Germany, I hope to in the next year or so, with help from a scholarship. Unlike what is often the experience of school students, my highschool language-learning years were immensely enjoyable and productive, thanks in part to a fantastic teacher (with whom I still maintain contact) and an interest in the language sparked initially by the discovery of much great music from Germany. French comes next as my first self-taught language. Although not yet at the level of my German, I have been going at it solidly for a good year and a half, and can read and follow conversations with reasonable ease. I am now trying to refine it and start speaking.

The reason I am writing to you is that I have the goal of travelling over Europe with some friends for six months after I graduate and save enough, which ideally would be within approximately five years from now. I have thus decided to use this time to learn as many of the languages of the countries I will visit as possible. I believe that setting myself a timeframe of five years should be enough time to get a solid grounding in at least the major Germanic and Romance languages.

I have called this thread a “five-year study plan”, but this in no way means I will stop studying after this time is up. This is something I intend to make a life-long endeavour; the five years is merely to gain a grounding in a number of languages I will have the opportunity to use when I travel overseas.

Those languages which I currently want to learn are as follows (the bolded languages indicate those I already know and the italicised ones indicate languages I am not definitely intending to learn, but would like to make an attempt at if I still have enough time):


German -> Swedish -> Dutch -> Danish & Norwegian

French -> Spanish -> Italian -> Portuguese -> Romanian -> Catalan


Russian -> ?

Hungarian, Welsh

There are, in effect, two overall parallel tracks running here: one European-based and the other Mandarin. The European track is itself comprised of several parallel tracks, namely Germanic and Romance and I am quite confident in balancing both these families simultaneously, after having read your learning sequences for both (links to which can be found http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?T ID=192&KW=romance&TPN=2 – here for Romance and http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?T ID=8259&KW=germanic – here for Germanic ). As you can see however, I have made some alterations to them to suit my overseas trip. Greek and Russian essentially comprise the third track, which I imagine I will deal with after the Germanic and Romance tracks have been ‘ticked off’. I will almost certainly be visiting Eastern Europe, though I am not sure how or if I will able to add anything to the Slavic list beyond Russian (which will take up an enormous amount of time as it is), though Czech and also Polish are certainly appealing to me. For Russian, I have a copy of Assimil’s Russisch ohne Mühe.

I might also mention in passing, that I do intend at some point to study Latin and Ancient Greek, which have been excluded from this list for purely practical purposes.

I started Chinese mid-way through last November and I have completed so far the first volume of Assimil’s Chinese with Ease and am a quarter of the way through Linguaphone’s Chinese Course, which is considerably more thorough and heavy-going. For characters, I am using T.K. Ann’s fantastic abridged version of Cracking the Chinese Puzzles, which teaches the components (the bushous) that make up characters and then arranges the order of characters thematically according to function or radical. For instance, there is an entire chapter devoted to characters with the water radical, and the characters are then broken down and analysed and often provided with their etymologies to help in remembering them. I am supplementing this with Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary by Rick Harbaugh.

After going through each chapter, I then input each character into a http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaced_repetition – spaced repetition program – in my case Anki – and practise producing the characters by hand each day. This has proved to be both marvellously simple and effective for retaining them.

I am in no tremendous hurry to learn Mandarin, though it is still as important to me as the European languages are. I have begun it now simply in order to get an early grounding in it, particularly as far as literacy is concerned. As my French is no longer a problem, I have commenced the study of Spanish (using Assimil), which is going well so far. My literacy in Chinese is still very low – I know the meanings of approximately 300 characters – and if I am to continue studying it, I may have to resort to using pinyin in the meantime to review vocabulary. This in effect raises two possible strategies for me :

Strategy #1. Focus exclusively on acquiring the meanings of approximately 3000-3500 characters, and in the meantime forge ahead with the European track (in this case probably Spanish and Swedish).

Strategy #2. Continue with Mandarin, using the pinyin in the meantime to increase and review vocabulary and balance one European language on the side (in this case Spanish).

In sum, I am requesting some guidance on how best to manage both Mandarin and the European languages and to achieve a measure of proficiency in the latter within around five to six years. Even just some general pointers or advice on how an aspiring polyglot might tackle this mammoth task would be very much appreciated!

Yours sincerely,

Christopher Button

My reply:

Dear Mr. Button,

Of course I remember and recognize you, not only from our past direct correspondence, but also from your general contributions to this forum. Indeed, you are a student whose personality has come alive even through this impersonal internet medium, and while I am happy to give you my advice now on the subject for which you seek it, I must say that I hope the future will hold the opportunity for us to work together in person at some point so that I can really give you the benefit of my experience and thus facilitate and expedite your life of language learning.

Given everything that you write in this letter – especially the facts that you have a likely deadline for an opportunity to awaken any European languages whose foundations you can successfully build and that you have no similar “appointment” with spoken Mandarin – I think that your first proposed strategy makes more sense than the second. In other words, put your energies into making progress on the European track and focus your Chinese studies on slow but steady character acquisition.

In fact, I would recommend that you consider giving your Chinese character study a radically (no pun intended) different character from your investigations of European tongues. It sounds as if you are already well on your way to appreciating the almost mystical beauty that is contained in their strokes, so why not deliberately elevate this to an even higher degree by seeking to make their practice as aesthetic and contemplative as possible?

As I recall, you have at times aspired to instill early rising and other systematically regular study habits in yourself. I think you would do well to begin with a single practice and build upon that. Rather than attempting all at once to revolutionize your sleep schedule, simply make a pact with yourself to arrange your life so as to awaken early so as to spend the first 30 minutes of each and every single day writing characters in such a way that may eventually lead you to become a true calligrapher?

I think you will find that after half a year or so of doing this with character lists, you will be more than able to turn to transcribing entire sentences. Doing this for another few years, while still focusing on character acquisition, you will nonetheless internalize a fair amount of grammar. All the while you will, of course, be spending your active, conscious, daytime study energies on the likes of Spanish and Swedish and Russian in accord with your five-year plan prior to your European trip.

When you return from that excursion, you will be able to devote your energies to mastering Mandarin, and I think that, with the foundation in reading and even in structure that you will have given yourself in this slow but steady, contemplative and aesthetic mode of practice, you will find that the only real immediate challenge for you (and it is indeed a major hurdle) is the pronunciation.

It is very good that you already understand that the great ultimate challenge of understanding the thought process and appreciating the culture is inevitably a lifetime’s engagement. At any rate, I wager that by laying a foundation in characters first and foremost in this fashion, combined with gaining general experience as a language learner by learning a good handful of European languages beforehand, you will cut the overall difficulty of learning Chinese from a Class IV level language to at least a III and probably a II.

Wishing you fulfilling studies and best regards,

Alexander Arguelles

23 January 2009

Dear Professor Arguelles,

I had planned to update this thread six months from the original time of posting, but since I’ve made some serious alterations, I thought it would be wise to update it now in case I go off-track completely here.

Firstly, the European track is going well and Spanish is currently my main European language of focus. I am noticing good, steady progress so far. I am having a bit of a hard time pushing my way through Assimil’s Swedish course, and so I have put that on the backburner for now while I devote my attention to building up Spanish first.

The real major change I have made – and my reason for posting this – is to do with my Mandarin studies. I did not mention this in my original post, as I thought I had solved the issue more or less, but I had been seriosuly considering for some time to postpone Mandarin and take on Korean as my first exotic language. I eventually chose Mandarin after considering all the money I had invested in materials for it, but Korean would always be in the back of my mind for a number of reasons: for one, its status as the least studied of the three major Eastern Asian languages always intrigued me and I knew barely anything about it compared with either Chinese or Japanese, which are of course much more popular choices as foreign languages. In addition I have a growing cultural curiosity about Korea and a much greater affection for its sound (I really find Korean to sound much more pleasant and interesting than either Mandarin or Japanese). As a result of all of this, I gave in and ended up purchasing B.J. Jones’ Let’s Learn Korean as per your http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?T ID=7606&KW=korean – ideal systematic approach and have made good progress with it. I also intend to order both Jeyseon Lee and Kangjin Lee’s Beginner’s Korean and your own Historical, Literary, and Cultural Approach to the Korean Language.

I know German, and have scoured what really feels like every corner of the Internet for a copy of Wilfried Herrmann’s Lehrbuch der modernen Koreanischen Sprache with the accompanying cassettes, but to utterly no avail. I even e-mailed Buske directly, but they have no copies remaining, so it truly is unavailable anywhere. They did suggest Dorothea Hoppmann’s Einführung in die koreanische Sprache instead, but judging by both its name and page count (230 pages), I imagine it would not even come close to Mr. Herrmann’s work. I don’t suppose you are familiar with it by any chance?

I have been making steady progress on the characters now for my Mandarin, and can currently write from memory just under 1000 given an English keyword with the character’s meaning. My plan of attack has been to acquire the meanings of around 4000 characters by the end of the year and to then acquire their pronuncations by incorporating reading, listening and shadowing initially to the Assimil and Linguaphone courses. However, with Korean now thrown into the mix, I am quite lost as to how to proceed with this without spreading myself too thinly, which I know is very much at risk of happening. I should also stress here, I am under no illusions: I do not seriously expect in the least to “master” or reach advanced fluency in Korean and Mandarin within the next several years, but I would like to get at least a conversational foothold in them, and begin developing some measure of literacy which consequently means limiting my European track in compensation. Thus, my overall plan would now look something like this:

Mandarin -> Korean -> Russian -> Greek

German -> French -> Spanish -> Swedish -> Italian & Dutch -> Portuguese -> Romanian etc.

Just looking at this list makes me feel somewhat ridiculous, given my aforementioned plan of travelling to Europe in five years and my current preference for Mandarin and Korean over what should really be Russian instead. I have actually been considering working in either Taiwan or Korea after I graduate, in order both pay off my loan and save for this trip while being immersed in another language. To this extent my preference for the exotic language track can be justified, though how and when to sort them out is proving difficult to plan.

Basically, I would spend the rest of this year going hard at Spanish and Swedish and then, if possible, make a start on Italian and Dutch. When the second semester ends in mid-November, I plan to spend the following three or so months like a hermit, and spend eight to ten hours a day on Mandarin to make a breakthrough as soon as I can. My main area of uncertainty is when and how exactly I should proceed with Korean and, for that matter, Russian given that three months is clearly not going to be enough to get Mandarin under my belt so-to-speak. Should I in fact spend the next year focusing exclusively on Mandarin for my exotic track, while working on the European languages and then add Korean and Russian sometime in 2011? This might make more sense, though I have a real urge to get started on Korean as soon as possible. Consequently, the difficulty in managing my interests versus being realistic makes it difficult to formulate a satisfactory plan without overloading myself completely.

I do apologise for the length of this post, as I know you do not have much time, so any general thoughts or suggestions will of course always be appreciated!

Yours sincerely,

Christopher Button

25 April 2009

My reply:

Dear Mr. Button,

Thank you for your early six month update. My basic advice for your Korean/Mandarin dilemma is the same that I gave before: focus upon calligraphy, or, more specifically, what it is that you are transcribing through the pen strokes. As long as Korean and Chinese (and Japanese and maybe even Vietnamese) are abstractions for us Westerners, then I think that you can concentrate upon the etymological sources and building blocks first and foremost to your great ultimate advantage. The more truly and thoroughly you know the 漢字 inside and out, forward and back, the easier it will be for you to acquire any language from the East Asian cultural circle when you really and truly get around to learning it. As long as the Western sphere dominates your short and long term plans, continue systematically reinforcing the Eastern block through its stroke order, little by little, day by day, without fail. You are still young (if not all that young any more), and I do believe that any Western child who can be gotten into the habit of daily 漢字 practice and exercise will not find the East Asian languages to be Class IV anymore when he matures.

Best regards,

Alexander Arguelles

02 May 2009

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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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