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Adventures with an Extreme Polyglot
January 12, 2012 4:14 AM   Subscribe

“Most of the languages I’ve studied I’ve never spoken, and I probably never will,” he told me. “And that’s okay with me. That’s nice if you can do that, but it’s rare that you have an interesting conversation in English. Why do I think it would be any better in another language?
posted by Brandon Blatcher (70 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why do I think it would be any better in another language?

Det stämmer. Intressant artikel; målet att läsa literatur på ursprungsspråket är värt, tycker jag. Känns konstigt att här i sverige läser många böcker översatt från engelska till svenska, trots att de är väldigt duktigt på engelska..
posted by beerbajay at 4:40 AM on January 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


ouais merde alors, j'arrête de faire un effort, peu d'intérêt à comprendre les différences infinies entre les personnes et comment ça pourrait nous aider à se comprendre

paskeuh "c pas intéressant"

non mais je crois rêver, qu'est-ce que c'est chiant ce narcissisme contemporain
posted by fraula at 4:43 AM on January 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


5 tongue clicks followed by hooting. Know what I mean?
posted by Renoroc at 5:00 AM on January 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


Compensation: A tendency to make up for under-development of physical or mental or emotional functioning through interest and training. Over-compensation reflects a more powerful impulse to gain an extra margin of development, frequently beyond the normal range. This may take a useful direction toward exceptional achievement, or a useless direction toward excessive perfectionism.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:03 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


English : Language :: Windows : OS
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 5:11 AM on January 12, 2012


Ach Du lieber Augustin, alles ist hin!
posted by readyfreddy at 5:23 AM on January 12, 2012


Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I still think if you haven't at least had relatively intelligible conversations in a language with a native speaker, you haven't really learned it.
posted by aught at 5:30 AM on January 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'm hoping the writer of the article just did a clumsy job of explaining the man. I love the idea of what he's doing. I was passably fluent in Spanish for several years, and I reveled in reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of my favorite authors, in his native tongue. I definitely felt like it was different than reading the translation of Cien Anos de Soledad.

But the way he approaches almost everything is painful. He comes across, at least in this article, as an insufferable prat. He can't be bothered to read newspapers in foreign languages because they're ephemera? They're also a wonderful window into the language as it's living now. He never wants, or at least expects, to speak any of the languages he's learning because he can't find a decent conversation in English? I'd suggest finding better conversation partners, in whatever language he'd prefer.

He sounds a bit like a misanthrope who doesn't want to interact with the world as it is today. He prefers to live in the past as told by authors, not the present as it is. That's a shame because it sounds like he's intelligent and could contribute an interesting perspective on language and learning. The fact that he aspires to be a polyglot teacher is at the same time worrying and surprising.

"As a graduate student, a professor told him that an ambition to learn more languages would mark him as a dilettante, not a scholar. Decades later, that comment still stings Alexander so badly that he longs to prove that professor wrong."

I'm curious how he sees himself as more than a dilettante when he's not actively doing anything with what he's learning. In my mind, a scholar learns something, then puts it to use. He's spent 40% of the past ~1.5 years learning 38 languages "in detail" and 67 others in overview. What has he done with that knowledge?
posted by This Guy at 5:32 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, I can converse with over four billion of the world's human beings. Such a shame that none of them have anything to say that's worth understanding, isn't it?

Remember the project to translate "I can eat glass. It doesn't hurt me." into all languages? Maybe we should launch a similar project for "Christ, what an asshole!" in this guy's honor.
posted by Naberius at 5:32 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


What has he done with that knowledge?

Read literary works in their native language.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:33 AM on January 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


This guy, right? An interesting case.
posted by pracowity at 5:38 AM on January 12, 2012


What has he done with that knowledge?

I suppose you may label me as a "dilettante", This Guy, and I'm OK with that, but your sentence strikes me as a "Trade School is the only college that should exist" sort of mentality.

Must knowledge be put to use, to be desirable? Whole systems of mathematics have been developed that were essentially "useless" for decades, beyond the lifetime of their developer, before finding use in Physics. Euler's "imaginary numbers" allow the efficient design of power grids the world over, a practical application that had no mirror in his time.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:39 AM on January 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


If you can say "My god, there's an axe in my head!" that's good enough for me.
posted by otherthings_ at 5:39 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Foreign language acquisition is a field afflicted by a particularly virulent strain of Dunning-Kruger.
posted by jet_manifesto at 5:48 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Must knowledge be put to use, to be desirable?

there was a word from an unfamiliar language
i couldn't tell you what it meant
i don't know where it came from
but honey, i know where it went
cause it seemed to take on a kind of power
it felt like some kind of clue
so i put it into a song, babe
the song i never wrote for you

i was in a crowded room
everybody there was mumbling
the voices were shifting and blending
any semblance of meaning was crumbling
so i filled every page of my notebook
hey, what else could i do
i was taking dictation, darling
for the song i never wrote for you

now, everybody's looking for a well turned phrase
some lines that'll speak to their soul
to help 'em make sense of the chaos
give the illusion things are under control
words to enoble the spirit
words that'll always ring true
well i put all that, babe, and so much more
in the song i never wrote for you
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:49 AM on January 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


IAmBroom

Trade school is great for learning how to put existing knowledge to use in the real world. I think it's much more deprecated in today's society than it should be, but that's a discussion for another time.

"Putting to use" in my mind encompasses furthering knowledge about the subject. I definitely don't think that Trade School is the only useful college experience. Esoteric math, physics, philosophy, political theory, whatever-you'd-like is a completely valid course of study even without a practical real-world application. But if you spend all that time learning something, why wouldn't you at least DO something with it. Explore the limits of your (the world's?) knowledge on the subject and see if you can produce something new. That's how uses for those systems of math were discovered.

I probably come across as being against learning-for-the-sake-of-learning, which isn't true. I'm the type of person who will read about pretty much anything and everything and I love diving into a subject to see what's there. But I don't consider myself a scholar of any of that. I'm definitely a dilettante. I'm ok with that.

Brandon Blatcher: " What has he done with that knowledge?

Read literary works in their native language.
"

And I even mentioned that in my comment. I love that idea, and I would definitely do that if I could. What's your point?
posted by This Guy at 6:00 AM on January 12, 2012


Knowledge for knowledge's sake is cool. I support it. And learning languages is especially cool, because it's the best place, I think, to learn subtleties and perspectives.

Still, there's something about this guy's approach that rubs me the wrong way.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:09 AM on January 12, 2012


I suppose you may label me as a "dilettante", This Guy, and I'm OK with that, but your sentence strikes me as a "Trade School is the only college that should exist" sort of mentality.

Must knowledge be put to use, to be desirable? Whole systems of mathematics have been developed that were essentially "useless" for decades, beyond the lifetime of their developer, before finding use in Physics. Euler's "imaginary numbers" allow the efficient design of power grids the world over, a practical application that had no mirror in his time.


I don't think the issue is whether knowledge is put to use, but whether the point is a contribution to some field of research, or just one's self. These systems of mathematics advanced the field of mathematics, and their authors typically communicated the results to others, it just took a while for some impact outside of their field. Polyglot-ism for the sake of polyglot-ism is good for self-improvement I suppose, and might make a good hobby for the right type of person, but in and of itself makes no contribution outside one individual. Also, it seems that the guy's PhD was probably in history or something, judging by his advisors, and in that context, I suspect (having occasionally had such conversations with grad students) the impact of the comment was meant as "you're spending all your time spread out learning 50 languages at once instead of spending the time going deep into your particular research topic, get working on that dissertation!"

My personal favorite polyglot was Ken Hale, who used his language-learning abilities to make tremendous contributions to linguistics and our understanding of indigenous / endangered languages.

All that said, it looks like the subject of the article (Arguelles) may now be putting this part of his knowledge to use outside himself. According to wikipedia, "He currently works in Singapore as a language specialist in the training, research, assessment, and consultancy division of the applied linguistics department of the Regional Language Centre of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO-RELC).[citation needed]"
posted by advil at 6:11 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I still think if you haven't at least had relatively intelligible conversations in a language with a native speaker, you haven't really learned it."

Drat, this presents serious problems in my attempts to learn both Latin and Moabitic.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:11 AM on January 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


And I even mentioned that in my comment. I love that idea, and I would definitely do that if I could. What's your point?

Then, why are you asking "What has he done with that knowledge?"
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:14 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty much the opposite of this guy in terms of what I'd do with a new language. I don't really care about reading a work in its original language honestly. However, I'd love to be able to be in a random country and be able to talk to the people there in their own language. There is definitely a change when you speak the language rather than waiting and expecting to find someone who speaks English.

I feel like I have interesting conversations in English all the time. I think it helps if you focus on what the conversation reveals about the person you're talking with, rather than focusing on what the conversation is about.

Also, food. I have had conversations in at least 2 foreign languages (extremely poorly) about food -- what the people there ate, what the person I was talking to liked to eat, how to cook this or that unusual looking vegetable. How is it possible for that *not* to be interesting?
posted by Deathalicious at 6:21 AM on January 12, 2012


If you read Arguelles' bio, you can see that he's done quite a lot in his life to put his language skills to practical use. Decades teaching and doing research in Germany, Korea, Lebanon, Singapore. In light of that, this seems like a case of a bungled interview to me. The guy's more interesting than the interviewer makes him out to be.
posted by otherthings_ at 6:25 AM on January 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


All that said, it looks like the subject of the article (Arguelles) may now be putting this part of his knowledge to use outside himself.

That misrepresents that guy. He says (but I'll cut a lot):
From 1996-2004, I was a professor at Handong University in South Korea. As director of foreign language education, I myself initiated the teaching of and developed the curricula for French, Spanish, and German programs in a 6-course 3-level sequence for each language. [...]

From 2004-2006, I was a professor at the American University of Science and Technology in Beirut, Lebanon. I was the chairman of the department of humanities and foreign languages, which had approximately 30 faculty members [...]

From 2006-2008, I was a visiting professor at New College of California in San Francisco, where I taught Great Books courses in the Far Eastern and Middle Eastern traditions as well as a linguistics practicum on efficient language acquisition through self-study. [...]

Since 2009 I have been a Language Specialist in the Training, Research, Assessment, and Consultancy Department of Applied Linguistics at the Regional Language Centre of the South East Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO RELC). Although I am based in Singapore, I lead intensive teacher-training seminars in cities throughout the 11 nations in the organization. [...]
So it's not just "now" that he is applying his knowledge. He has been heavily into language education for the past 15 years.
posted by pracowity at 6:26 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, the reason I come back to read all the material that's posted to metafilter (links and comments) is that I do appreciate something that I can't find anywhere else if I limit myself to websites with French content. There's a quality to each and every contribution that I've been trying to define for a while now, and, for lack of a better word, I would say that I find sentence structures, ideas and even interaction much more pragmatic here. That could be an effect of the tool (web 2.0), but I find this to some extent in all the English I read and listen to.
posted by nicolin at 6:26 AM on January 12, 2012


So if I can be so brash as to paraphrase the author, what he's saying is "I'm really fucking pissed that all I discovered was a really hard worker, and not the next crazy genius who I could exploit to write a touching screenplay which would serve as Meryl Streep's next Oscar-nominated vehicle. And for that, little man, you will pay."
posted by jph at 6:36 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Leaving aside discussion of this particular man's personality or life choices for a moment: I am really interested in what happens when you know enough languages well enough that you can perceive them directly and intuitively as belonging to families. I can catch glimpses of this with my limited knowledge of Portuguese, French, Spanish and Italian, and to a lesser extent Dutch. To be able to experience this for all the world's languages is a worthy goal in my opinion. Kudos to anyone who's willing to try, and kudos to Arguelles for devoting his life to helping others get there.
posted by otherthings_ at 6:38 AM on January 12, 2012


Reminds me of the old joke about a man who spoke many languages, he explains, I speak Spanish with my wife, French with my mistress, English to my accountant, Italian to my cook, Portuguese to my gardner. And German. To my dog.

you haven't at least had relatively intelligible conversations in a language with a native speaker, you haven't really learned it.

One has not really learned a language until you can explain to your mechanic in his native language what is wrong with your car and then successfully argue with him over what he charges you to fix it. Bonus points for using the appropriate slang and purposefully poor grammar.

Being able to argue the route taken by a taxi driver shows mere proficiency as most taxi-drivers do not speak the national language as a mother tongue.
posted by three blind mice at 6:47 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


three blind mice: "One has not really learned a language until you can explain to your mechanic in his native language what is wrong with your car and then successfully argue with him over what he charges you to fix it. Bonus points for using the appropriate slang and purposefully poor grammar."

I can't even do this in English. Thank goodness I know a good, honest mechanic.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:51 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Threeblindmice: that would be Charles V (who spoke German to his horse).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:58 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I love that idea, and I would definitely do that if I could. What's your point?

His fucking point is that Arguelles can read the literature of other cultures. That's his fucking point. What, you ask, is the point of that? Indeed, what is the fucking point of anything?
posted by octobersurprise at 7:02 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


This dude really enjoys eschewing things. Maybe that's his true calling. I really have no position on what he uses his language skills for, but he comes across as a pompous ass.
posted by jonmc at 7:06 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


octobersurprise: "I love that idea, and I would definitely do that if I could. What's your point?

His fucking point is that Arguelles can read the literature of other cultures. That's his fucking point. What, you ask, is the point of that? Indeed, what is the fucking point of anything?
"

Whoa, what?
posted by This Guy at 7:11 AM on January 12, 2012


Um, uh, hmmmm.
posted by tommasz at 7:30 AM on January 12, 2012


Whoa, what?

With "what's your point" you came off as needlessly antagonistic, not to mention clueless, as Brandon Blatcher's point clearly included answering your question, "what has he done with this knowledge". It shouldn't surprise you that someone got antagonistic in turn.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:39 AM on January 12, 2012


Yeah, sorry. Brandon and I have been exchanging some MeMail to further discuss. Essentially I think it's a difference in our definition of "done with". As I said in my comment that he quoted, I addressed reading in a native language in my original comment. I definitely didn't mean to be antagonistic, but I was hoping for some further clarification on what he thought was gained by reading in the native language. And Brandon can be antagonistic if he wants, but I'm not sure why octobersurprise was. Especially to that level, and without really adding to the conversation.

Maybe I should just bow out of the conversation a this point. I'm not trying to fight, and I definitely wasn't trying to make anybody angry.
posted by This Guy at 7:50 AM on January 12, 2012


As he is portrayed in the article, he sounds like he has an Autism spectrum disorder (upset about lack of salutations in email), so in classifying himself, I don't think he knows himself very well.

I was intrigued by his comment about the similarity of human languages in that I recall reading something from another polyglot who claimed that there is really only one human languages and everything is just simple variations.
posted by plinth at 7:54 AM on January 12, 2012


Yeah, on quick scan I got really sick of the word 'eschewing'. I hope at least that Arguelles was using it, and that it wasn't imposed on him by the author.

Because the only good use of that word is when someone offers you a stick of Wrigleys and you say "No thanks, I'm eschewing gum."
posted by benito.strauss at 8:11 AM on January 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Why do I think it would be any better in another language?

That's easy. Your pool of potential conversationalists is expanded exponentially.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I still think if you haven't at least had relatively intelligible conversations in a language with a native speaker, you haven't really learned it.

Careful. You're showing your privilege there.

Compensation: A tendency to...

Project much? I don't understand the antipathy towards this fellow. Pompous jackass? Christ asshole? "there's something about this guy's approach that rubs me the wrong way" ... ?!?!?

Why do you care so much how he lives his life? Perhaps the antipathy comes from the way the article was framed: "Michael Erard meets a hyperpolygot who doesn’t even want to speak the numerous languages he’s learning" conveys a brash, bold asshole, when the guy (to me) comes off as self-effacing.

I empathize with the guy and I thought more people here would. It's something I would most definitely want to do--read foreign literature in its original language--and it's even something I enjoy doing in one foreign (to me) language (french), but I don't have anywhere near the discipline this fellow has. If I did, I would have gotten a degree in comparative literature. ... Maybe I will!

I would guess a lot of us here don't like talking to people either. I figured more would empathize.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:15 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


cuarto de baño loco
Mis huevos son sus ojos

All you need to know.
posted by stormpooper at 8:30 AM on January 12, 2012


I figured more would empathize.

You should check out yesterday's "Cover Letters from Unemployed Overachievers" thread where the consensus was that overseas travel is strictly for 1%er assholes who just want to brag about the stamps in their passports. Apparently Thursday is "travel broadens the mind" day here at Metafilter.
posted by yoink at 8:31 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


부기 우기 부기 우기 내려 내려
posted by stormpooper at 8:32 AM on January 12, 2012


It strikes me that his little, "Oh, there's no good conversation in any language" is a little ego-diversion. I studied French very hard for 4 years and at the end I was quite an advanced reader and writer, but conversationally I spoke like a child. With reading, I could take my time. With writing I could steer the topic towards safer areas. Conversation beyond placing an order or asking for directions requires quick thought and a deep grasp of a language.

In other words, speaking takes a different skillset than reading and writing. I suspect that for most of the languages he reads in, Arguelles simply couldn't hold a conversation with a native speaker.
posted by muddgirl at 8:33 AM on January 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't think the issue is whether knowledge is put to use, but whether the point is a contribution to some field of research, or just one's self.

advil, the same could be said of my daily exercises, the red pepper I just munched on as a snack (in lieu of junk food), the underwear I chose this morning from my assortment of styles & colors....

In short, I dispute that there exists a real division between "contribution to research(/others)" and "just one's self." Some things are explicitly given to others - a birthday cake; some are supposedly just for one's self - a hot bath; but in reality everything ....

Aw, fuck it. He's less than he could be as a human because he doesn't always meet everyone else's expectations. Everyone happy now?

(No, it's Metafilter; soon he will be accused of racism, sexism, logical fallacies, first-world privilege, and his musical tastes suck.)
posted by IAmBroom at 8:51 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Kaikki on naama norsun vitulla (joo, mun suomalainen on paskaa).
posted by omnikron at 8:57 AM on January 12, 2012


I guess that what rubs people the wrong way is that claiming to love languages while eschewing the communication part is a little bit like collecting erotica while being grossed out by sex.

However, it looks like the article is seriously biased. Arguelles' wikipedia page claims that he's learned many languages through conversation with native speakers. This is what Arguelles says on his website : Key to this was not merely studying hard but also developing a new gregarious and garrulous personality who sought out and created conversational opportunities from which my normal retiring self would have fled.

He stayed in a Russian family to learn Russian and has hired private tutors several times. Also, his wife is Korean so I guess he speaks to her in her native language. By the way, he doesn't exactly shy away from an improvised conversation with passing tourists.
posted by elgilito at 9:00 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


And Brandon can be antagonistic if he wants

Alright, let's do this!

I see your point about what Alexander has done or not done and can agree he sounds narrow minded. But hey, it's his life, so whatever and there are worst hobbies or devotions to have.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:02 AM on January 12, 2012


ricochet biscuit: "Threeblindmice: that would be Charles V (who spoke German to his horse)."

Well, maybe.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:02 AM on January 12, 2012


That's easy. Your pool of potential conversationalists is expanded exponentially.

Not much. Your pool of potential English conversationalists is rather less than the totality of English speakers; it's limited to those who have a convenient way to talk to you, know you, care about you, and have something to say to you. Your pool of potential $LANGUAGE conversationalists is subject to the same limitations plus the awkwardness added by your lack of familiarity with their language, and you won't be able to use very many of your English-speaking acquaintances to populate this new pool via networking. If your goal is to get more conversation partners you can do that more effectively by learning something new to talk about.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:04 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


What rubbed me wrong about this guy-and acknowledging that this may have been partly a product of the writer-was that he didn't seem to love language for itself. He didn't have any favorite grammar structures or anything. Commonly, polyglots like to learn languages because, well, they think they're neat (heck out many of the folks in The Land of Invented Languages, for example).

And that's okay, it's just that he seems to not show a lot of joy in his autodidactism.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:06 AM on January 12, 2012


Brandon Blatcher: "Alright, let's do this!

I see your point about what Alexander has done or not done and can agree he sounds narrow minded. But hey, it's his life, so whatever and there are worst hobbies or devotions to have.
"

[Throws gauntlet down]

I may have overstated my position due to a poorly-written or biased article. He seems to have done a good amount with what he's learned, which wasn't exactly elucidated in the article. And even if he hasn't there are definitely worse uses of time than self-improvement.

Take THAT Brandon.
posted by This Guy at 9:10 AM on January 12, 2012


> I don't understand the antipathy towards this fellow.

Me neither. I'm sorry this is such a shitty thread, but Erard's book is excellent and I would urge everyone interested in polyglots to read it.
posted by languagehat at 9:16 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was always my greatest fear to be considered a dilettante, so I have worked hard to learn as little as possible.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:20 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


My second greatest fear is to inadvertantly learn what "dilettante" means.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:22 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was intrigued by his comment about the similarity of human languages in that I recall reading something from another polyglot who claimed that there is really only one human languages and everything is just simple variations.

Yeah, this is one of those highdeas that always grabs me every now and then ... usually when my daughter tells me that "blorpderblerp" is another word for "yes, please."

I suspect that for most of the languages he reads in, Arguelles simply couldn't hold a conversation with a native speaker.

And he would likely be the first to agree. That's not why or how he's learning the languages.

Conversation beyond placing an order or asking for directions requires quick thought and a deep grasp of a language.

Absolutely. And it's a whole different variation of language too, i.e. formal/written vs. vernacular/spoken. I am a far better French reader/writer than I am a speaker. And while I would enjoy improving my conversation, I don't have the spare time to seek out speakers or classes. I do have a 20-minute train ride when I can read.

It strikes me that his little, "Oh, there's no good conversation in any language" is a little ego-diversion.

No, it's just an opinion, based on what is likely a far too small sample of conversations. And to be fair, that's not what he said. He said:
That’s nice if you can do that, but it’s rare that you have an interesting conversation in English. Why do I think it would be any better in another language?
His opinions are that good conversations are rare and he doesn't seek them out among foreign nor English speakers.

As he is portrayed in the article, he sounds like he has an Autism spectrum disorder

It is a very short article, but based on his tracking system I would guess OCD more than autism.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:33 AM on January 12, 2012


... a little bit like collecting erotica while being grossed out by sex.

And yet I'm sure there are scads of people who collect "erotica" and are grossed out by sex. I can understand saying "i don't get it," or "not for me." I don't understand the hostility to a personal opinion, practice, or belief that doesn't hurt anyone. It seems irrational.

i.e. I can get "ew, that's weird." i don't get "ew, that's weird. you suck. let's fight." I never have ...

there are worst hobbies or devotions to have.

seriously. if I want to project a little myself, I'd say most of the haters are folks who waste too much time watching tv or internet pornography. ahem.

It was always my greatest fear to be considered a dilettante, so I have worked hard to learn as little as possible.

i am a proud dilettante. the euphemism was always "renaissance man" but that's too gendered now (as is "jack or jill of all trades").

"Jack of all trades, master of none,
Certainly better than a master of one"
posted by mrgrimm at 9:42 AM on January 12, 2012


I've been called a renaissance man a few times. But I think it was just because I'm old.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:47 AM on January 12, 2012


I think this guy sounds awesome, I wish I had the capacity for language learning that he seems to have and/or the drive to make it happen.

Was anyone else unsurprised that his PhD is from the University of Chicago?
posted by Carillon at 9:56 AM on January 12, 2012


Yes, there certainly is pleasure to be derived from learning foreign languages, and if someone would pay me for learning languages all day long, I would probably sign up. I would go for the more "exotic" languages, though, like Korean or Guarani (Guarani for the sounds).

I definitely felt like it was different than reading the translation of Cien Anos de Soledad.

Yeah, I read Cien Anos de Soledad in the original, but about half-way through I thought that ten or twenty years of solitude would have been enough.
posted by sour cream at 10:08 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I still think if you haven't at least had relatively intelligible conversations in a language with a native speaker, you haven't really learned it.

Intelligible does not equal intelligent. I have had many intelligible conversations in Japanese with Japanese native speakers, and in English with Japanese exchange students learning the language. I was pretty disgusted to eventually come to the conclusion that our language studies shaped these conversations, to the point where we only knew what to talk about what we had learned how to talk about. I even saw one textbook for Japanese ESL entitled "How to Talk About Japan in English." I read through it and discovered all the same boring themes I had heard over and over from Japanese exchange students. And then I realized I had done the same thing, to some degree, from the materials in my own JSL textbooks.

Anyway, as far as intelligible, I recall a dialogue in a Japanese textbook illustrating the minimalism of the textual content of a conversation that required "ishin denshin," which is a concept that combines nonverbal communication with a bit of social collective unconsciousness and telepathy. A linguist reported that he witnessed a dialogue that consisted of two people saying the single word "un" to each other repeatedly. I think I can reconstruct it here, with a bit of subtextual explanation. A guy drives into a car repair shop with a smashed front fender..

Un! (assertively) [Hey you!]
Un. (assertively) [Yeah I'm right here]
Un. (dropping tone) [Check this out.]
Un. (tone of concern) [That's bad.]
Un. (questioningly, rising tone) [So how much is this going to cost?]
Un. (gravely, growling dropping tone) [A lot]
Un. (exasperated) [Dammit]
Un. (questioningly) [So, shall I do the repair?]
Un. (resigned) [I guess I have to.]

Un is one of the most wonderful words in the Japanese language. It is technically known as "aizuchi," or "back-channel communication." It is most often heard from a listener, who intermittently grunts this sound to indicate he is still listening. It is sometimes amusing to hear people on the telephone using this sound repeatedly while they listen, accompanied by occasional bowing (which of course is futile since the other person can't see it, but it is a habit). I recall a prank by a linguist, he thought he could fool Japanese native speakers into thinking someone was fluent if he could only teach them how to grunt Un at the appropriate times while listening to them speak. He taught a student to do this, and brought them to a gathering of Japanese speakers. He reported that he was able to fool almost anyone, for as long as 20 minutes, with this ruse.

But I have been hung up on this aizuchi before. I was well trained by my teachers in "conversational strategies" like aizuchi, and was pretty good at it. I had to be, since most Japanese people would assume you were unable to speak the language at all, unless you used aizuchi according to the proper social conventions. I remember one day on my first stay in Japan, I was in a conversation in Japanese with the mother of my host family. I was grunting un as I listened to her, and then she stopped and expected my answer. I was trying to think of the words for a response, I guess I took too long, and she just exploded. "What the hell? Can you even understand a word I'm saying? All you do is sit there and say 'un' and you don't answer!" I protested that I could understand her, but it takes me some time to figure out the words I want to say in response. She was not convinced. She actually contacted a friend of hers who had lived in the US, and invited her over. The two of them sat down with me, and the English speaker told me to listen carefully to their conversation. They chatted for a few minutes, and then Miss English asked me, what were they just talking about? It was a test. I told her, they chatted about a silly incident when they were schoolgirls, she washed her socks one night, but they weren't dry when she had to go to school, so she draped them over her shoulders to dry during the walk to school, and then put them on when she arrived. So she got a weird slangy nickname of Miss Socks-something-or-other that I didn't catch. The host mother still seemed unconvinced of my comprehension, but it was good enough for a dumb gaijin.

So I will assert quite the opposite of this proposition. Until you've had a relatively unintelligible conversation with a native speaker, you haven't really learned it.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:51 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've been called a renaissance man a few times. But I think it was just because I'm old.

Or the codpiece.
posted by pracowity at 10:52 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


In short, I dispute that there exists a real division between "contribution to research(/others)" and "just one's self." Some things are explicitly given to others - a birthday cake; some are supposedly just for one's self - a hot bath; but in reality everything ....

Well, you can dispute that if you like, but with respect to particular examples relevant to the post at hand I think you will be unsuccessful. There is a clear and substantive difference between compulsively learning languages only to not even bother to use them, dismissing even the possibility of having conversations in them, and compulsively learning languages and using that knowledge/experience to help others learn languages. The article made it seem like he was in the former category, and what I intended to point out is that he is in the latter category. It turns out as pracowcity commented (wasn't clear from wikipedia) he is even more-so than I thought -- he has been teaching languages at the university level in some capacity for most of his career.

However, I'm not making a value judgment on doing things for oneself, as you seem to believe; I do it all the time, and I'm sure there are many indirect benefits for doing things for oneself. But someone who spends a lot of time acquiring knowledge or skills is likely to make a choice about what to do with the result, and there are sort of obviously more and less external/self-oriented things they can choose; learning languages only to never use them and apparently sneer at the possibility would be very much at the low end of this scale. I'm not even sure that in this scenario there is necessarily any ethical imperative to use the knowledge/skills for others, but the choice is still there, and this seems to be what is making people so fighty. Comparing the impact of this choice, involving the results of sustained and dedicated effort over many years to taking a bath is kind of ridiculous. And it turns out he is not at this point in the scale, anyways.

And again, the dilettante comment that had such an impact on him was probably from his advisor trying to prod him to focus on his thesis for a while (it turns out to be about old norse sagas or something), and probably specifically focus on old norse. From the perspective of that job market, I have no doubt that he _would_ have been perceived as a dilettante, which is probably why his career led him more or less elsewhere. But even this can't really be taken as a value judgment, just a comment that you can't be successful in a field of academic research unless your goals are externally-oriented relative to the field.
posted by advil at 10:55 AM on January 12, 2012


I definitely felt like it was different than reading the translation of Cien Anos de Soledad.

Yeah, I read Cien Anos de Soledad in the original, but about half-way through I thought that ten or twenty years of solitude would have been enough.


Try Sobre héroes y tumbas. That would be the one book I want to learn Spanish to read.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:10 AM on January 12, 2012


A linguist reported that he witnessed a [Japanese] dialogue that consisted of two people saying the single word "un" to each other repeatedly.

I hear you can do the same thing in Russian with 'ебать' (fuck).
posted by benito.strauss at 11:41 AM on January 12, 2012


Being able to speak a foreign language, even poorly, isn't exclusively about the conversations you can have, it's about the access to experiences that speaking the language buys you. Being able to speak Chinese opened up a lot of doors and allowed me to go and do things that I otherwise might not have been welcome to do. But yeah, arguing about the relative significance of Washington and Mao with a street pimp in Shanghai was also an interesting conversation.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:26 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe it's because I've spent a lot of my time learning dead languages, but I don't see why conversation is the thing that makes language-learning worthwhile. He doesn't eschew communication at all, he just eschews conversation.

Interesting that the article makes a big deal about him eschewing newspapers, yet the website that pracowity links to shows that he's published an edited collection of newspaper articles, which has the same issues talked about in North and South Korean newspapers. I don't know Korean at all, but if I did, that could potentially be interesting and/or fun.
posted by Casuistry at 2:39 PM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


A linguist reported that he witnessed a [Japanese] dialogue that consisted of two people saying the single word "un" to each other repeatedly.

A middle-aged American couple is watching television.

Each is snuggled into his or her own recliner.

A cat snoozes on the woman's lap.

The telephone rings.

They glance at each other.

The man raises one eyebrow.

The woman gestures expansively at the snoozing cat.

He slumps as if deflated then shrugs.

He pads to the kitchen, followed by the cat.

He picks up the phone on the sixth ring. It's for her.

He stomps back into the living room, and jerks his thumb over his shoulder.

She offers a cheesy grin, taps her imaginary wristwatch with two fingers, and slinks to the kitchen.

He shakes his head slowly, yawns, and gets back into his chair.

The cat materializes, jumps into his lap, and falls asleep.

Two minutes later, she returns from the kitchen, sees the cat in the man's lap.

She stands in the doorway with her hands on her hips, her mouth turned to one side.

He strokes the cat.

The cat purrs.

Fin
posted by Herodios at 3:23 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]




Hmm.. funny, Herodios, but, there is an, um, difference between nonverbal and subvocal communications, eh?
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:39 PM on January 12, 2012


Yalla!
posted by howfar at 6:43 PM on January 12, 2012


I hear you can do the same thing in Russian with 'ебать' (fuck).

You can do it in English too. Same word even.
posted by scalefree at 5:04 PM on January 13, 2012


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