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Long-Term 7-Language Learning Strategy for Philosophy and Theology

 Dear Professor Arguelles,

I appreciate your responses on YouTube. It is a pleasure to be answered by
you as your videos have been helping me develop my interest in language

I am a 25 years old, single, and from Brazil. I plan to have my life focused mainly on studies, so I will be able to devote a lot of time on that. My main goal is philosophy and theology. Since I am Catholic, the literature of the Church is a precious treasure I want to acquire. Not only that, I want to be polyliterate too, since I value erudition and know how important it is for an integral formation, not only as an intellectual, but as a person, morally.

I have always been a quick learner when it comes to languages and I have a good ability to imitate. What I lack is the skill or habit of studying. I spend a lot of time at home and don’t mind being alone most of the time. It’s part of my personality. Even though I don’t have the habit of studying, I seek to acquire it as I want to be an intellectual, a man of high erudition, specially in philosophy and theology. Time will prove if my aspirations are really part of God’s plan to use my capabilities.

Currently, the languages I know are Portuguese (as my mother tongue), Spanish (I can read it well, but not literature), English (I am actually better at it than Spanish, I can understand most everything and also write passably well, but I don’t have any literature under my belt). My most important goal is to learn Latin, then French: I know almost nothing, only pronunciation, since I know some songs by heart. After that it would be on to learning German, Italian, and Greek. I also want to truly master the languages I already know (English and Spanish).

However, I have stopped studying languages for a while and I don’t have the habit of studying in general, so I think this is something to consider. I believe I might currently be able to study for about 3 hours a day, though I have more time and if I could improve my study stamina, that would be great.

As overall goals, my main one is to be able to read literature well. Once I have attained that, I would like to continue working on them until I reach true fluency.

Latin is my top priority. I would say that I am currently A1. I feel my pronunciation is fine, I have reached Hans Orberg’s Familia Romana Cap X, and I also pray in that language everyday (reciting memorized prayers like Pater Noster, Ave Maria, Gloria). My main goal is to read scholastic philosophy and specialize in that, but I would also like to read Roman classics like Vergil, Cicero, etc.,, and moreover to actually speak and think in Latin. Again, the main reason I want to learn it is that it is the Church’s language and also because of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ and the Church Doctors.

French: I am an absolute beginner, but I think I can pronounce it fairly well because I sing some songs in French, like Les Temps des Cathedrales. I want to read philosophy, literature and be fluent as there is a lot of saint’s literature to be read in that language.

English: For this one, I believe I only need grammar work and to read masses of literature. I also need to speak it more to acquire a better and natural pronunciation. I already consider myself fluent, but I know that I make mistakes in writing, and I am sorry for that!

Spanish: Since I am Portuguese, I can read it fairly well with a dictionary. I value it’s literature more than French literature. I would like to read the classics like Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Góngora, Espinosa Medrano, Juan de la Cruz, Cantar de Mio Cid, etc., and be fluent at it.

Italian: Being of Italian descent, this language is important to me. Its literature is the one I value the most after Latin and Greek. Dante’s Divina Comedia is one of the most impressive works of poetry I’ve ever
seen. Since I’m Catholic, it resonates a lot with me. I would also like to be fluent at it.

German: I know next to nothing about this language, but I really appreciate its importance and know that there is a lot of rich literature to benefit from. What fascinates me the most is the beauty of its pronunciation. It’s a mystical language, and it’s important for philosophy as well: Edith Stein, Kant, Husserl, Hegel, Goethe, Kleutgen, Joseph Ratzinger are all authors I am interested in. As with the other languages, I want to access its universal literature.

Greek: I only know the alphabet, so I can read philosophical Greek vocabulary. But I want to be able to read it’s ancient literature one day (Homer). I do not aspire to speak Modern Greek fluently as my main goal with Greek is to be able to read the Septuaginta, philosophy and literature. It’s an important language to study the Church’s Greek Fathers as well, I know, but I just don’t value it as much as I value Latin since in fact a lot of philosophical Greek works were translated to Latin during medieval times and I can read them in that form. Of all my interests, I think this language will be the hardest, especially for Ancient Greek.

In sum, I want to be all-round polyliterate in all these languages, but my main goal is philosophy. Perhaps I will change my mind about the fluency-speaking goal in a few languages and learn them only until I reach a high comprehensible reading level. Nonetheless, I want to read literature for my entire life, so I feel that even If I don’t speak them, that will be fine.

Those languages are all I want for now. I might consider other languages in the future like Russian (Dostoyevsky) or Chinese (mainly for practical speaking given its growing world importance), but right now I feel that is unlikely. I recognize that my languages are Western-centered, and I am fine with that for now.

How would you recommend that I pursue the path of the polyglot, professor? I have seen seen that you recommended Saint Thomas Aquinas’ prayer for wisdom and guidance in studies to in another response. God bless you, Professor Arguelles, I have already begun to pray that, for myself and for you as well.

Sincerely yours,

Gabriel Pagliuso Rodrigues Arsuffi

My reply:

Dear Mr. Arsuffi,

Thank you for your most interesting letter that so clearly outlines not only the languages you aspire to learn but the specific reasons you have for doing so. I will be most happy not only to offer you some advice at this time, but to hear from you periodically over the years as you come closer and closer to attaining your goals, as I am sure that you will.

You have a lot going for you in your aspiration to learn these seven languages. You have a powerful motivator in your strong Catholic faith, a set area of focus in particular authors of theology and philosophy, and a firm general purpose in your target of polyliteracy. Further, you understand that this is a long-term project, and at twenty-five you are quite young, so you are likely to have many years ahead of you to attain it. Finally, you have made your project quite manageable as you bracket your potential interest in more exotic – and more difficult – languages such as Russian and Chinese – and even limit your goals for Greek to reading older literature alone rather than overall mastery of the modern tongue. Indeed, to the extent that any plan to learn seven languages can be said to be relatively “easy” or “modest,” yours is indeed that – a desire to learn mainly Romance languages on the part of a native speaker of one of these, with the exception of one Teutonic one (German) on the part of someone who has already manifestly mastered another (English).

Frankly, what you propose has been attained by scholars throughout history, and you propose to live a scholarly life, so let us cut right to the heart of the matter: what you need is not advice about which methods or techniques or texts to use – you obviously know where to go for counsel on that. What you need is advice on how to develop the study habit, for scholars are people who study, who strive to become erudite, and you have indicated that you wish to lead a studious life and do just this, but that, as you state several times, you do not have the “studying habit,” even though you have the time to do so. Indeed, you suggest that you might be able to manage three hours a day now, though you would like to increase your stamina. In point of fact, professional scholars should be able to study all day, which ultimately means reading and writing and thinking for seven or eight hours a day or more, but which can – for those with polyitis – also include a good number of years learning languages for that same number of hours each day. So yes, to attain your goals, you will need to increase your stamina, but first and foremost, you will need to prove to yourself that you really do have it in you to study for three hours a day, then four, then five, and so on. In other words, you need to work up to it.

So let us begin not with three hours a day, but with one. Three is actually quite a lot for someone who does not currently do it. If you set your goals too high, you will likely fall short of them, which is demoralizing and frustrating. If you set your goals more modestly, you can attain them, and then increase them, which is more fulfilling.

May I take it that you have seen my now 6-month old New Year’s video on “Atomic Habits” or, better yet, have read James Clear’s excellent book by that title? If not, please do so, and then please implement the core idea of taking “baby steps” towards success. You will never learn a language just by getting out the textbook while you drink your morning coffee, or even by studying for five or ten minutes a day. However, by doing these things you can and will develop that study habit, and by continuing to build upon it until you reach fifteen, twenty, thirty, sixty minutes a day per language, you will build the habit and attain your goals.

You have indicated that Latin is not only your top priority, but one of the languages in which you have made the most progress. Please do whatever you have done to get to chapter X of Familia Romana with a bit of a “plus” to get through chapter XI, i.e., just a little bit more each day. Make an analogy, if you can to physical exercise, saying doing something like some sort of machine, an exercise bike for example, where you can set a timer. If you can go for 30 minutes one day, why can’t you go for 31 the next day? And so on? If you do this, within a month, you will be up to an hour a day! And if you can memorize prayers, why not go way beyond Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and Gloria? Look at https://www.preces-latinae.org/index.htm, where there are scores if not hundreds of prayers (this is where I got those of Saint Thomas)?

Trusting that this is the advice you need to get started on your journey, I wish you the best of pilgrimages.

Alexander Arguelles

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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 →

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