Friday, January 27, 2012

The Polyglot Alexander Arguelles: Living on "unemployment checks and Korean translation work"

Alexander Arguelles

In a book review by Peter Constantine for the NYT, "The Art of Mastering Many Tongues" (January 20, 2012), we learn of Michael Erard's search for true language virtuosos, genuine polyglots who have mastered multiple languages, a quest that Erard writes about in Babel No More and that led him to Berkeley, as Constantine informs us:
One polyglot . . . [whom Erard] meets, Alexander Arguelles, who lives in Berkeley "on unemployment checks and Korean translation work," shows that anyone who hopes to achieve fluency in more than six languages must dedicate himself to the task rigorously -- in fact almost exclusively. Arguelles keeps his languages in shape by subjecting himself to an unforgiving schedule, keeping spreadsheets that record the hours and minutes he spends on each one. Arguelles "tracks his linguistic progress through the hours as saints once cataloged their physical self-sacrifices," Erard writes. Of 4,454 hours of language study Arguelles did over a period of 456 days, he spent 456 hours on his native language, English, and also 456 on Arabic, and then a descending number of hours on the remaining 50 languages on his spreadsheet. Though his learning techniques may seem strange, they also appear to be effective. In one, called "shadowing," students listen to language recordings on a portable player while briskly walking in a public place, gesticulating energetically as they shout out the foreign words and phrases they are listening to. Though one is bound to make a spectacle of oneself, this technique seems to help the beginner shed some of the self-consciousness connected with speaking a foreign language.

That's the very man in the photo above. Our globe-trekking paths have crossed, apparently, both of us having spent time in Berkeley. Arguelles is probably joking about the unemployment checks, for Wikipedia shows him more gainfully employed than that. He may have good advice for language learning, but I don't intend to take him up on shadowing. If I tried that technique here in Seoul to work on Korean -- "walking in a public place, gesticulating energetically . . . [and] shout[ing] out . . . [Korean] words and phrases" -- I'd be committed to an asylum . . . by my wife! Not that such a fate would necessarily be much different than the mad life I already lead, confined here in the bedlam called Seoul.

I wonder if Arguelles used his shadowing technique here in Korea. Wikipedia refers to his "his years of residence in South Korea," during which he studied "a wide range of languages." A citation is supplied that leads to a biographical entry by Dr. Arguelles in which Wikipedia's information is confirmed:
In order to live . . . [in Korea], I obtained a faculty position at Handong University on the eastern coast of the country. This university had only been founded the year before, and they needed somebody to develop and lead a foreign language program, so my initial duties were to teach French, Spanish, and German . . . . [To] get down to serious language study . . . . Handong . . . was exactly what I needed . . . , for the campus was on an isolated hill amidst pine and bamboo forests and rice fields with a view of the Pacific Ocean from my back porch. Furthermore, it soon became clear that, while the university was recruiting foreign faculty to give it international stature, we were viewed as outsiders and thus completely shut out of the administrative decision making process. Other people found this intolerable and soon left, but I turned the situation on its head by reasoning that as my sole duty was to teach languages, I could devote myself entirely to their study on my own . . . . Initially, of course, I focused on Korean and, after I got grounded, on Classical Chinese and Japanese in a comparative context. However, I also ranged very widely through the world of languages . . . . This period came to a close when I belatedly sat down with a calculator and did some serious time management projections. Developing structural knowledge and conversational ability in a language and refining and maintaining that ability can be achieved with just 15 or 20 minutes a day, each and every day, over a period of years. However, developing deeper knowledge and above all enjoying reading the literature of a language requires more like an hour a day, and there are all too few of these . . . . I . . . began to allow myself to simply enjoy reading in my more familiar ones. I also began to "get a life" by getting married, siring a son, and paying more attention to my career by writing and publishing more . . . . [I know many languages, but] in a class all by itself, there is Korean. I lived in its land for nine years, and when I left I took it with me personified in my wife. I have published numerous reference works about it and produced scholarly translations of it, and I have proven time and again that I can handle any situation life throws at me in it, and yet -- there is still so much I do not know.

Our paths truly have crossed! He seems to have been more successful, however, particularly in learning Korean. If he used his shadowing technique in Korea, I suppose Handong's isolation made that practice more comfortable.

But I'm almost motivated to again attempt learning Korean since Arguelles insists that mastering the tongue is mainly just a matter of hard work.

Almost . . .

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At 10:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hard work and effective strategies that work for you. I've adapted into my own ESOL classroom some strategies that helped me learn Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. Unlike the fellow in the story, I prefer to do productive work and get paid for it and spend my free time learning languages that I can actually use, which, sadly, do not include Korean. My communication skills have atrophied terribly in the last several years.


At 11:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're something of a polyglot yourself, Sonagi. How many languages do you know?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shadowing happens at Ewha too!

At 1:16 PM, Anonymous michael erard said...

Indeed, Alexander is employed now, as I point out later in the book. I'm the author of Babel No More, and I can tell you there's a lot in there that Wikipedia doesn't about Arguelles, other polyglots, and the phenomenon itself.

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Productive" is subjective.

At 1:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, that link seems to go to a dead end, but thanks for the information.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dear Mr. Erard,

Thanks for dropping by, a nice surprise. I took a look inside your book at Amazon, and it does look very interesting.

Sonagi might be someone for you to know, for she is (as mentioned) something of a polyglot.

I'm certainly not, though I did once know a professor at the University of New England (Australia) named Alan Treloar who was a polyglot.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous (same? different?), you'll need to take that 'productivity' issue up with Sonagi.

I hope the discussion isn't counterproductive . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many important things are subjective, including the report card comments I just completed. My own annual job evaluations are subjective. So are my opinions of the presidential candidates. Decisions which are the outcome of higher order thinking skills evaluation and judgment are by nature subjective.


At 9:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Subjective . . . but not arbitrary.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:49 AM, Blogger Roy Lofquist said...

I am a polyglot - in computer languages. It's easy because they all map to a basic machine, the Turing machine.

Languages are a whole different problem because they map to a culture.

I certainly never became fluent in Latin, French, German and Spanish but I did manage respectable grades in all. Again relatively easy because the cultures had a common thread.

The question, I guess, is whether one is fluent in the commonalities or truly "thinks" differently when dealing with the differences.

At 7:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm terrible at languages, but I can get by in German, and at one time I could read Coptic fairly well, but I consider myself something of an idiot savant linguistically -- I'm an idiot in every language but English, in which I am something of a savant . . . albeit a modest savant.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've imported two language habits from Korean into English:

First, I use auxiliary verbs like "appear" to communicate degree of certainly more frequently than other native English speakers. I like the way the Korean language uses auxiliary verbs and verb endings to convey whether the speaker knows the information as a fact, is inferring or guessing based on appearances, or recalling something from the past. The English language has the tools to do these things, but English speakers tend towards simple statements of fact.

Second, I use the word "savory" to denote non-sweet foods like pizza or potato chips. My Brazilian friends say that the Portuguese equivalent of "savory" has a wider use like the Korean "gosuhan."


At 7:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'll savor that detail, Sonagi.

Jeffery Hodges

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