One way to learn a language

Alexander Arguelles is a name you perhaps haven’t come across. Although he’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t notice, another face in the crowd, Mr Arguelles has, what you could call, a special kind of a party trick. He is fluent in up to 50 languages.
Now while this might seem like the most absurd claim, a stupendous lie that has taken on a life of its own or an urban myth, it is anything but. The American scholar of foreign languages is known for his unique ability to converse in multiple tongues, including Swahili, Italian, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish and Portuguese.
He admits to having no innate talent for being able to speak numerous languages, nor is he a genius as we understand it. He’s just academically inclined and like any aficionado of something, be it The Beatles, dinosaurs, football or American movies, he is simply passionate about languages.
It was learning German at university that really set in motion a life committed to languages, helped in part by his appreciation of the country’s notable writers and thinkers, including Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. After mastering German, the rest followed, with French, Latin, Greek and Sanskrit all grappled.
Learning a new language is something that many British expats will appreciate as being important when moving overseas, but it’s something that many adults figure to be a difficult, intimidating and taxing endeavour. In which case, what is Mr Arguelles secret?
Practice, practice, practice, and then some, the polyglot explains, which is an answer that at first might surprise many people, but one which ultimately makes sense. As with anything, from learning to drive to becoming adept at salsa dancing, commitment, hard work and dedication are some of the attributes that will help people become adroit in whatever it is they are doing.
“Drive, discipline, countless hours of systematic hard work, sustained interest and motivation, access to good materials and intelligent methods and procedures for using them – if you have all these, there is no reason why you cannot achieve what I have achieved or even more,” he has stated. Though, we expect, you might be keen to stick to just one language for the time being.
Mr Arguelles has, however, developed some special techniques, which build up a person’s autodidactic predilections, including what he calls “shadowing”, which is where a learner concurrently listens to and speaks along with a foreign recording. This, he notes, produces more efficient outcomes than if it were done sitting.
Another system, known as “scriptorium”, is a process by where a beginner reads a sentence out aloud, followed by saying each word out aloud as it is written, and then reading the completed sentence out aloud. This forces a person to slow down their learning and to pay greater consideration to detail.
As to whether people should complement their learning with one-to-one or group sessions with a teacher, Mr Arguelles is forthright in what he thinks of this system. Note, he’s not knocking it, for a lot of people are inclined to be taught as opposed self-directed, he just favours the latter.
“Studying a language with a teacher as one would study other academic subjects all too often results in students remaining in a detrimentally passive mode, expecting their teacher to control the process and somehow impart the language to them,” he elaborates.
“A good teacher may inspire you and provide you with external structure and discipline, but if you are a sufficiently serious and mature student, you are better off teaching yourself a language than enrolling in a course.”
Learning a language needn’t be a chore, that’s one of the key things to understand. Anything educational can be engaging if it is approached in a creative manner, if people make it fun and relevant. Look at it as an investment of your time, which might seem annoying at the time – locked inside on a sunny day that begs for you to be by the beach – but it’ll pay off in the end.
“It’s hard, but the rewards can be thrilling,” Mr Arguelles told the Guardian earlier this year. “When I started studying Spanish, for example, there was a moment when the living language – which I’d heard spoken around me when I was growing up – suddenly revealed itself to me, as if the wax was falling from my ears. That’s the moment I crave…and it’s very addictive.”
Cadogan Tate is an overseas removals company, specialising in helping expats set up home abroad by securely transporting their belongings.