Man who speaks 50 languages gives his tips on learning French

It should not be a difficult language to learn for English-speakers due to significant common ground, although a sympathetic ear may be necessary, says hyperpolyglot Alexander Argüelles 

Professor Alexander Argüelles can speak more than 50 languages
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Few people can converse in more than five languages – a hyperpolyglot is someone who can speak more than six. We spoke to Alexander Argüelles, who can converse in more than 50, and ask for his advice on learning French.

The list of languages that Alexander Argüelles can speak reads like a library catalogue: Afrikaans, Ancient Arabic, Ancient Greek, Arabic, Bokmål, Catalan, Dutch, Esperanto, Finnish, French…

Cult YouTube following

The American professor gained internet fame in 2008, pacing back and forth on a wooden bridge in a YouTube video, repeating Chinese from a walkman as he demonstrated his ‘language shadowing’ technique – a method to attune one’s ear and tongue to the sounds of a new language without stopping to understand every word.

He has since garnered a cult following on YouTube, where he offers advice on the problems of language learning, sometimes with his cat Merlin purring on his lap. 

Surprisingly for a man who has devoted his life to languages, he cannot say how many he can speak fluently.

He certainly had enough mastery to direct teaching programs for Finnish, French and German at Concordia Language Villages (Minnesota) and to research the mythical and religious symbolism in Middle High German at Humboldt-Universität Berlin.

However, for Professor Argüelles, fluency is not the end point of language learning.

“Of course communication is the goal, but the path is made up of puzzles, which is what has kept me engaged for over 50 years. But I prefer to think of myself as a learner.

“Next year, I will turn 60 and I would say that I’m better than ever at learning.”

He spoke to The Connexion from his home in Chicago (sans Merlin) to share his advice, not on learning Chinese, Old Norse or Sanskrit, but on the rather humdrum problem of getting to grips with French.

“Relatively speaking, French is not a hard language to learn for English speakers,” said Professor Argüelles. “However difficult it may seem, the common ground is significant, as is the shared history and culture.”

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Be that as it may, for many learners of French, this common ground quickly falls away after a garbled word results in a gallic shrug, a blank stare and the dreaded phrase “je n’ai rien compris.” 

“That is certainly a cultural challenge of French,” said Professor Argüelles. “All languages have them, some more than others, you just have to work through it. Find a sympathetic ear if you can and don’t see discouragement as a problem with yourself, but as a lesson about something that you could do better.”

Natural knack

French has played a key part in Professor Argüelles’ impressive history of learning different languages. 

It was one of the first he learned as a child, and has since served as the diving board for the dozens that he went on to learn through the classic Assimil language textbooks, which were previously only available in French.

However, he accepts that most people do not have his knack for languages. 

“People without experience in language learning might expect to find the road paved for them, whether it be by a method, a book or a teacher. This is never the case.

“Language learning is a slow and steady process – and inexperienced learners go more slowly. 

“If you have not learned a language since your infancy, then do not expect it to be easy when you are my age, but that is no reason to give up.”

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His unshakable motivation is clearly one of the key elements in his success as a learner, indeed, his consistent regime of learning and practice requires some nine hours of work every day.

Fortunately, this is not something he would advise for all but the most hardened hyperpolyglots.

“You need to work with what you have,” he explained. “If you have a minute in the morning when you are drinking your coffee, use that. Grab a language book and dive into some problems.

“There are some languages you can learn without a book, but I would not advise this for French.

“Some, like Chinese, you can learn like an infant would. Same goes for Swedish and some African languages. But in French you have to learn like an adult and understand the grammatical rules.

“But this is something you should see as an advantage: the rules are there to be understood. Use your intelligence, find what you have and what is missing from your skill set.

“Some days it might seem you are not making any progress, that you have stalled and there is a stumbling block in front of you. When that happens, you need to decide: either bang against it again day after day, or go around the stumbling block or try to move it."

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“It might be that you can only concentrate for a short period, or that you are not used to the sort of logical thinking you need, or that you can’t remember the vocabulary or the grammar – in which case it is not something you should just ignore. 

“You might have to learn how, make your mind more agile, or recognise what is the best amount of time for you to concentrate on a problem.”

“The key point is that if the process of learning French will take 10 years, so be it. Ask yourself if in 10 years you can speak French, is that something you would want? If the answer is yes, then start work towards it now, and don’t give up.”