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On the Use of Multiple Autodidactic Manuals in Language Learning

Dear Professor Arguelles,

After watching, rewatching, and taking notes on both of your step-by-step shadowing videos (this one, and your other from many years ago for a 30-minute study session), I was wondering if you could briefly explain how you would recommend using several books for the kind of shadowing you are describing here and that other video.

That is, in your original video, you suggested that one ought to make use of 2-3 manuals such as Assimil, Linguaphone, and so on in conjunction with one another for the diversity of vocabulary and presentation you will get. (I’m referring, specifically, to your older video from about 45:30-47:00.) There are other videos in which you’ve recommended as many as 4-6, if I recall correctly.

I’m trying to determine in what ways several introductory manuals would show up in a study routine. So, my question is this: is it your recommendation to work through these books of a similar level sequentially? That is, should a beginning student strive to finish one manual (e.g., an Assimil course) before moving onto another course, such as Linguaphone, or some other?

If not, how would you go about incorporating several manuals into your study routine such that you’d be studying more than one at the same time (or the same season)?

My initial understanding was that you were recommending studying more than one manual at a time, but I’m now wondering if you mean to suggest finishing one manual before moving onto another. For instance, in your “Moving From Intermediate to Advanced Foreign Language Knowledge” video, you recommend “Further Textbook Work” in the first segment of that video, suggesting other generations of Assimil or Linguaphone courses to be followed by more “intermediate” or “advanced” textbooks.

I couldn’t tell if your comments in that video on moving from intermediate to advanced language proficiency actually answered my question or not, so I wanted to check in with you about this.

As far as how this fits into my own work, I’m working to learn ancient Greek in as close a fashion as I can to a modern spoken language, and I’ve been heavily editing and reworking existing high-quality grammars in conjunction with their English translation answer keys to achieve a parallel ancient Greek-English text with notes similar to an Assimil volume. Audio recordings have been made with good accents by more experienced speakers of several of these volumes, so I plan to use them in this fashion. (I’m also doing something similar with Le Grec Ancien from Assimil to have several different grammars to work out of, and I’m already working with materials from the Polis Institute in a similar fashion.)

In any event, as I prepare the main text I intend to use for this purpose (Athenaze), I wonder whether it would be a distraction to be preparing several other grammars to serve the same purpose so that I have something like 4-6 grammars to be prepared in this fashion so that they can be used in conjunction with audio recordings for shadowing.

That’s what I’m most working on at the moment, but I also have modern language materials for French and German, but my main focus for now is ancient Greek.

On another note entirely, I have seen your video for the Great Books of the Eastern World, and I would definitely love more information about how best to navigate the language learning journey that would entail.  

If you could go back and do it all over again, knowing the resources that you do now, what would you use for studying the main source languages of those traditions? I know that my initial query just had to do with Classical Chinese, but if there are grammars or manuals that you would recommend for that as well as, for that matter, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, and the like, what do you feel have been the most helpful resources for you in that journey, or what do you think would set up the next generation of students well for continuing that work?

I hope this helps clarify my question!

Best regards,

Stephen Harris

My reply:

Dear Mr. Harris,

Thank you for writing with your original question about sequential use of manuals, and then your other note entirely question prompted by my recent (as of this writing) video about Great Books of Eastern Civilizations. As these are two utterly different issues, let me just address the first one here and now, and we can follow up on the second one later as posting it here should serve as a prompt for to return to it in the near future.

Yes, based on my own experience teaching myself languages most intensively during what I refer to as my “monastic stage” in Korea between about 1996 and 2001, I found it extremely helpful to go through multiple manuals. Conversation with others in venues such as the polyglot conference have given me cause to believe that this is not uncommon among autodidacts. This may stem from the obsessive-compulsive collector’s impulse side of the pursuit, but I think there is great value in it. Manuals such as Assimil and Linguaphone tend to come in “generations,” i.e., every twenty-five years or so, they publish a new and different volume, often not just a reworking of the previous one. Thus, although they all ultimately cover the same structural material, they do so in such a fashion that working through one after you have done a previous one is not only review and reinforcement of what one has learned before, but a often a rearticulation of a concept that can help with ultimate mastery of a complex or different aspect of a language – and above all, these volumes all provide new vocabulary, such that when one finally moves on from them, one will have a much broader and more solid base than if one only used a single volume.

Regarding your basic question of how to do this, the simple answer is sequentially, not simultaneously. You will of course find that you can go through each additional volume more rapidly than the one before, and also of course during this learning phase, continuous review of what you have learned before is the key to real internalization. Thus, while you are working on one volume, you should have the previous volumes on various review cycles or ellipses (picture a model of the universe, with the names of manuals in place of the planets).

Regarding a number of such manuals to use, there is no fixed and set answer. This depends upon both availability and the relatively difficulty of the language. Though it is helpful to go through the different generations of the above mentioned publishers, there is no point in doing this for its own sake. At a certain point you will find that you are ready to move on to more advanced materials, and there is no sense in holding back just to go through everything in your textbook collection. Edging towards a general rule, though, since both Assimil and Linguaphone work more intuitively, in addition to using several of these, I would also add some other textbook that approached the grammar in a much more explicit fashion.

I hope this was helpful for now, and again I would be happy to revisit materials for the core languages of Eastern Civilization with you in the course of our continued correspondence.

With best regards and all best wishes for your successful study of Greek,

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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