Home » Q&A » Four Theological Languages Through Intensive 4-Month Study

Four Theological Languages Through Intensive 4-Month Study

Dear Professor Arguelles,

I thank you, first, for availing yourself to questions from the general public, and hope that I can contribute some to the commonwealth of polyglots as a whole in my inquisition.

As I have a rather specific question, in a rather specific case, I would like to preface concerning my environment and the course of my studies up to this point.

I have always been an autodidact and have always learned via librorum. I rarely have any occasion to employ my languages in conversation. Thus, while I can understand and read certain texts in certain languages quite fluently, I still have difficulty speaking, thinking, and composing even basic thoughts in them.

Those languages which I have studied are, in order of time spent, German, Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish, to this I add brief excursions in Italian and Mandarin. In German I have read Goethe and Kant with good results; in Latin, Cicero and Livy; in Greek, some Plato and Aristotle, but mainly New and Old Testament greek; and in French, Camus and Lovsky (an Orthodox theologian).

My basic project is this: I have the roughly four month period of this coming summer to study without ceasing. I have no obligations and nothing to distract me from my studies, as I am a college student studying theology, which is greatly assisted by possessing faculty in these languages. Within these four months I desire to be able to read, speak, think, pray, and compose poetry, in my four main languages, being Latin, Greek, French, and German.

My current curriculum is to consist mainly in reading my Book of Concord (two column text in German and Latin), my edition of the Opera Omnia of Xenophon (two column text in Greek and Latin), and the reading of enlightenment epistemologists, which interest me, such as the empiricists (English), the rationalists (mainly French), and Kant (German).

For output and production I have a more obscure method which I feel will not be perfect, which is the memorization of the psalter in all of the languages. I have begun doing so in the English of King James.
If this real period be too short to be practical, then perhaps a hypothetical period of a longer duration ought to be considered, for relevances sake and for the universality of the inquisition, which I have sought to make edifying and worthwhile to all.

I apologize if at any point here I have made too long, what ought have been shorter, or too short, what ought have been made longer. I have tried to be terse and concise throughout.

Multissima Gratia,

Jacob Lemke

My reply:

Dear Mr. Lemke,

Thank you for writing with a fascinating learning situation. I would find it highly rewarding to assist you to achieve your goal of not only being able to think, read, and write in your four target languages, but further to pray and compose poetry in them. A four-month period with no other obligations and nothing to distract you from your studies sounds like an ideal mini-version of my own “monastic” period of intensive language learning in the remote mountains of Korea back in the 1990’s and you should indeed be able to make a great deal of progress in that time. I do hope you will be satisfied with taking strides towards your ultimate goals rather than necessarily achieving them, as if you currently have difficulties composing even basic thoughts in your languages, then advancing towards composing poetry is obviously a very long-term goal.

You have described the materials and methods you plan to use, as well as given me an idea of your current levels, and your strengths and weaknesses. However, in order to really help you, I need to know some things that you have not provided, most critically: what is your stamina? That is, how many hours a day can you productively study? If you have no other obligations or distractions, then in theory you should have about 16 hours a day available to you if you sleep for 8 hours (do you? Or do you need more? Or less?). However, you must still care for your physical self, which means not only the basics of eating, ablutions, and the like, but decent amounts of exercise (long runs or walks are ideal) and probably some other sort of artistic or musical outlet to keep a sense of balance, harmony, and sanity in your life. So, may we assume that you will be doing 12 hours a day for 4 languages in equal portions, or 3 hours each for Latin, Greek, French, and German?

In that case, the first thing we must do is determine a rotation schedule for you. At your stage and with your degree of prayerful engagement, I imagine that you will find 30 minute segments to be better than 15 minutes at a time. In order to keep your mind fresh as you go about memorizing the psalter in all four languages, I do recommend that you go between them in turn rather than attempting to devote the first quarter of your day to one language, the second to another, and so forth. So, a good schedule might be 30 minutes of psalter in Latin, short break; 30 minutes of psalter in Greek, short break; 30 minutes of psalter in French, short break; 30 minutes of psalter in German – long break – repeat x4.

It sounds as if your ability to read in your languages far outstrips your other abilities, and although conversation is not a particular concern of yours, this is negatively impacting your ability to think and construct thoughts in them, which is very much something that you want to do. Therefore, I think it is very important that you engage in one particular exercise to, hopefully, overcome this inability: you must record yourself reading fluidly and without stumbling and then, to plant the sound of your voice articulating ideas in your brain, shadow yourself. Concerns about pronunciation will obviously be a concern, so start with the Latin and Koine Greek, then work up to French and German. Even there, since conversation is not your goal, it does not really matter how correct or “good” you are as it matters how fluid you are. When you can follow the sound of your own voice correctly producing and articulating thoughts in a language, you will become accustomed to hearing yourself sub-vocalize in it, and that should move you closer to being able to compose your own thoughts in it.

I hope this is enough to get your started. I actively want to assist you with this project, so please send follow-up questions and let us stay in touch as it gets underway.

Finally, given your studious objectives, I suggest that you pray the Oratio S. Thomae Aquinatis ante studium before your sessions, as well as his Concede mihi, misericors Deus.

With all best regards,

Alexander Arguelles

Dear Professor Arguelles,

Thank you for your response. This is all greatly appreciated and very valuable advice, as always.

Naturally, as you said, the completion of these goals is not to be met in such a limited period of time, but merely striven towards.

As well, concerning stamina, I would say I could likely study productively for twelve hours, from past experience. In the remnant four-hour period, wherein you recommended basic feats of sanity and health be conducted, I would likely exercise physically by way of weight-lifting and artistically by way of piano-playing, as is my custom.

I believe that your allotment of engagement for the psalter is well put and concur in the supremacy of the more intermittent methodology of chunking languages. Though I have some mild confusion concerning the particulars of practicing shadowing in terms of content. That is, what should I be shadowing? Or should I be shadowing my psalms? Or else should I shadow some other text? Perhaps the previously mentioned Xenophon and Book of Concord for Greek and Latin, then what should I shadow for French and German?

And, concerning accent, you have mentioned here Koine Greek, of which accent I am familiar with, but more often than not I prefer the Attic pronunciation. Is there an advantage to one or the other? I only use Attic as my Latin is Restored Classical and it seems more fitting to have two more closely related accents. As well, I believe my German and French accent are sufficiently fit, leastwise I do not believe they would ever occasion misunderstanding, though naturally they can always improve. Further, you mentioned working up to German and French shadowing, do you mean that I should wait a few weeks before engaging in shadowing myself in German and French, focusing solely on Latin and Greek for a time? Or should I engage in all four at once, but merely have a pronounced emphasis on Latin and Greek?

Finally, the total time devoted to psalter memorization is eight hours, thus remains four hours for other activity, would you recommend this entirely be devoted to shadowing? Or should I simply endeavor some extensive reading in some literature or philosophy in each language?

Thank you again for your assistance and direction, and thanks as well for your mention of two very beautiful prayers by St. Aquinas, I will likely begin to implement those at once into my studies but will doubtless continue therein when I begin my summer studies in the future.


Jacob Lemke

My reply:

Dear Mr. Lemke,

I am pleased to provide you with further clarification and guidance as needed. It seems your follow-up questions center around shadowing – what to shadow, and how much to do.

Given your original concern that your ability to read far outstrips your other abilities, and your desire to actively think in and indeed even compose poetry in your languages, what you shadow should be whatever it is that can plant your languages most actively in your brain. When you not only hear but shadow your own voice, it will resonate all through your brain, and soon your mind should accept this as hearing itself think in the language. And if you have the vocabulary to read well, it should – hopefully – start to feed off of that. At any rate, I cannot tell you if the best material for this would be the psalter, other psalms and prayers, or other texts. You will need to experiment with all of these and perhaps other texts as well to see which best convince your system that, because it is your voice, it is you yourself thinking in the language, so that you can then continue to do when when you take off the earphones.

That brings us to the second part – how much shadowing to do. If the goal of shadowing is to A) memorize material and B) get you thinking in the languages, then it is a useful technique indeed. That said, because it involves listening through earphones, you will need to do it with some moderation so as not to fatigue your ears. I would say not more than 1 hour per day, per language (so 4 hours) – and that interspersed with your reading activities.

Regarding accent and holding off on French and German to start with Latin and Greek – I had assumed that you might find this overall task of recording and then shadowing yourself to take some getting used to. However, if you are fine with the concept, and most especially if you are comfortable with your French and German accents (not self-consciously stumbling when you try to read aloud because you fear you are mispronouncing), then there is no need to wait for them, but you can do all four at once given how strong your overall foundation in all of them already is.

Once again, I wish you all the best in this fascinating autodidactic immersion experience.

With best regards,

Alexander Arguelles

Dear Professor Arguelles,

I thank you for the great amount of assistance which you have given me, I now believe that I understand precisely how and what I ought to go about shadowing, yet now I have been stirred by another pedagogic wind, and I am considering all sorts of things anew. As I will begin my studies within a day or so, having just arrived back home from my collegiate studies, I have some doubts and concerns. Namely, in my striving for the ability of production in these languages, I am unsure if there is enough content in the psalms to properly furnish this ability. That is, I am now wondering if I should employ a more balanced approach, with a memorizing of psalms divided with a time set for extensive reading in those languages as well.

I merely relate my apprehension of devoting too entirely all of my proverbial eggs into a single basket, when this basket, which is rote memorization as facilitated via certain memory arts which I have been researching, (and namely the associative method of Hermann Kothe and Rev. J.H. Bacon, who are obscure personages from the 19th century, and whose methods of artificial memory I believe best, as I have researched quite extensively into other arts, namely that of loci, and found them queer and inefficient), is a quite new basket, and therefore I have some reservations on the whole and entire allotment of my time to this method.

At any rate, I am looking forward to your response, and hope I have posed my question clearly enough, which, in sum, is whether I should devote myself entirely to the rote memorization of psalms or only in part, and then devoting half of my time to a more traditional method of extensive reading. 

Jacob Lemke

My reply:

Dear Mr. Lemke,

I hope this answer reaches you either before you begin your studies, or at least before you have settled into a routine.

If you truly have the soul and the spirit of a medieval monk, then perhaps focusing much or most of your energy upon memorizing the psalms, as you originally proposed, is a solid approach.

However, as you yourself now have doubts about it, I will concur that that provides you with quite a limited range of material to work with. On the one hand, so much repetition of the same material over and over again for an intensive period might well result in its permanent, long-term memorization. On the other hand, though, precisely because there will be so much redundancy, you might find that it soon becomes tedious and then you will grow demotivated to continue. Even if that does not occur, as this memorization, apart from its own value of internalizing this sacred content, is also to serve so that you can develop a better overall command of these languages, then the linguistic range of the psalms and the psalms alone is too restricted to provide this.

Therefore, I might suggest some sort of compromise between the original plan and the alternative of more extensive reading, namely a way to combine those. Instead of shadowing the psalms alone, why not work with the New Testament? Perhaps a Gospel at time, perhaps all of them, perhaps the entirety. That will certainly give you much more varied content to work with. By shadowing / reading / revising these repeatedly for the time period you propose, you may well find that you internalize portions of them so thoroughly that you will have in effect have all but memorized them without really trying, such that when you do put in that specific effort, it will be an easy task.

As always, with the best of wishes for this intensive endeavor,

Alexander Arguelles

Ask a Question

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 →

Share this Page