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Planning a Lifetime of Language Learning

Dear Professor Arguelles,

At the very beginning I want to say what my great gratitude towards the members of this forum and particularly towards you persuades me to say: you are the one who has led me to the mental state I am in: the state of perpetual confidence in my skills, not because they are very special but because I realize that I can do with my average talents what other people with such talents can- learn exactly what I want to learn. I’ve read your posts with more and more blushes and I came to the point, where I said to myself: Kamil, you are not a fool, you can do something similar. It was a final height of the process, which was reshaping me for few years from a language ignorant to an aspiring polyglot.

I have to say I was bad at languages at school. Since my 15 year of life I was dreaming of an academic carrier and bounding my hopes with Old Polish literature. When I started my university studies, I realized that I would do very little or nothing without good fluency in Latin, as many Polish texts are written in this tongue. So I began my work with a Latin book. After a few lessons I felt I need someone to guide me in the jungle of verbal tenses and nominal cases. I found a teacher and visited him several times. Unfortunately, I was forced to abandon my lessons with the Latin teacher, but continued to work on my own. Surprisingly, after about a year of quite irregular study I realized I am already able to handle with the Latin texts. At the same time my curiosity about Coptic Church inspired me to look for in formations concerning her. The only book I found was written in English. I had only very few year of English in school and was doubting if I could read a single chapter. To my great surprise, I went through entire book of about 120 pages and I understood everything. So I realized I have some language skills indeed. 2 years later, I left my Polish Literature studies and started Classics, which is, as I’ve discovered, my real vocation. Last years of the former studies were filled with experiments with language learning techniques. What I’ve achieved is a good reading fluency in English, not so bad ability to read Latin and German and my final achievement, some reading knowledge of French and Italian. I’ve learn English through reading English books and articles on the subjects of my interests and I decided to try the same method with German and French. I give myself support from the grammar, which is, however, much less complicated in modern languages than in Latin and Greek. I know one thing: to read German I have to read German, to read Greek I have to read Greek etc. The same with speaking. I’m in perpetual search for optimal method. Today I’ve discovered I can try to take notes from the lectures I attend in German and I’ve done so. It isn’t Goethe by no means but I guess a German speaker could understand some part of it. There are texts I can follow fluently and there are ones where I hardly can find single word to catch. But I’ve learned English this way at degree where I can read real English and Latin on my own, so it is just a matter of vocabulary and good results are to come.

Furthermore I’ve done a usual discovery of the people with some Latin background- Romance languages are just simplified Latin. I’ve discovered also, that German word building works exactly the same as in Polish and I found the language of our neighbor perfectly self-explained. I’ve discovered that English word “to” has the value of Latin Dative. I’ve discovered many similar things nobody taught me at university.

When I consider your dream Academy and recall your sense of the philology, which is no longer available to study I know at last that my similar ideas I have for few years are not so insane. Every day I meet the people who want to have their diploma in Classics without reading Latin and Greek, I meet Romanists who really don’t know why one should learn Old French when there are Modern French translations of medieval texts available. Every day I recognize that what they give me at university is just a basis and potential to develop on my own. And I know an image of a polyglot you draw is not a noble nonsense but something that can be done.

Now I would like to present my goals. I strongly believe that I can learn 10 and more languages, I really have no reason to think I couldn’t. At the moment I’m trying to make my individual language studies compatible with my university program.. Language I learn could be divided in subsequent categories:

I.class: English, in which I have a good reading fluency

II.class: Latin, German and French: an average fluency with Latin being a language which grammar I understand the best

III. class: Italian, Portuguese, Spanish where I’m just beginning but I know much of vocabulary for the sake of my Latin and English and Russian which is a good Slavic language to begin with

IV. class: Greek. My Greek class will cover basics of the grammar within this year so I hope I will be able to read some longer texts in summer.

Having pointed this, I would say that I would like to have a pleasure of learning as much Romance languages as possible, including their medieval literally versions. Then comes the Germanic branch with Dutch and medieval literally German languages. As I am a Slav, not penetrating my language family would be a pity, whereas I have interests in Russian, Old Church Slavonic which actually has a body of literature on it’s own, Slovak and Czech, Serbo-Croatian with Bulgarian. As you can see, I din not mention any non Indo-European language. At the moment I believe I have an idea about how such a language works but I would like to discover other way mankind can express itself through language. Hebrew with relatively simply alphabet is of great want, while the system of writing discourages me from trying Arabic, as it jus hurts my eyes. My oriental knowledge is limited to the East included in the former land of Roman Empire, I tried to learn Armenian, which I found has not so frustrating alphabet, but it is still an Indo-European. I tried also Coptic but I couldn’t find anything but grammar and I don’t thing I could learn any language from grammar book alone. Of Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages and literatures I know absolutely nothing , quite better with India, but Sanskrit is another “familiar” language. Considering oriental languages, writing systems are main blockade for me. There is last but not the least Turkish, as I have a great curiosity about Ottoman Empire.

I would like to have the ability to write correctly at least in English, Latin, French , German and Italian, as philological works written in Polish have no echoes in the word west to Oder. Writing in Ancient Greek may seem strange, but even our Polish renaissance scholars used to do it. For the rest, having in mind that life is very short, I would be satisfied with the ability to read books and have usual conversations.

I dare to ask for your advice: which languages should I choose, which keep for the future, which develop now. If you happen to have some other thoughts about the way I could achieve what I ménage, I’ll be honored if you share them with me.

With Best Regards,

Kamil Choda

My reply:

Dear Mr. Choda,

Thank you for your letter. It is always nice to hear from kindred spirits out there in a world that seems to be increasingly turning against language learning. Here in the United States there is an alarming trend of language majors being replaced by “language studies” majors, even at supposedly top-tier universities such as the University of California, Berkeley, where you can now major, e.g., in “Italian Studies” and thus read Italian literature in translation rather than majoring in “Italian,” which would have forced you to learn the language and read the texts in the original. The unimaginable has become the actual.

As for you, I see no reason why a university student of classical philology who conceives of a plan to learn 10 or more languages over the course of his life should not be able to actualize this. Time constraints and inefficient study habits may impede your progress, but as long as you keep your motivation and work steadily towards this goal rather than merely dreaming idly about it, you will make headway. You may not ever get quite as far as you now hope – but then again, you may ultimately get far further than you can now even imagine.

I think that your current plan of making your individual language studies as compatible as possible with your university studies is clearly the most sensible path. You do not give any indication of how many hours a day you can devote to your languages so I cannot provide much specific guidance, but I do think that you might do well to concentrate upon the languages that you list in your Classes I-IV before considering all those in the long paragraph that follows. These are obviously the ones that have you engaged for the moment and you ought to focus upon them; by the time you have them solid enough to move on to others, you may find that your interests have changed and that you have acquired an appreciation of exotic scripts. Even among your “Classes,” I think perhaps you ought to delay your excursion into other Romance languages for just a bit until you have strengthened your Latin and French first – that will make them all the easier when you can give them more attention. Given your Slavic roots and interest, however, I do think it would be wise to begin with Russian as soon as possible.

So for now: keep developing your English, German, Latin, and French while adding Russian and Greek. Plan on adding Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese in the near future. Always include a diachronic element to your studies so as to develop a reading knowledge of medieval literary forms as a matter of course. If you can manage all of this without losing your balance, plan then on systematically fanning out to take in more members of the Romance, Germanic, and Slavic families, trying to develop the perspective of seeing them as integral components of a larger whole. Do not worry about your ultimate choice of exotica until several years down the road, at which point your matured interests will make the selection for you. For now, concentrate upon studying systematically, diligently, and intelligently.

Yours with best regards,

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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