21 February 2014

A STROLL WITH ALEXANDER ARGUELLES (For International Mother Language Day)

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." ~Nelson Mandela

There are so many controversies about the actual number of languages Prof Alexander can speak. Some say 20, others say 40; but from research through You tube videos and other documents online, we can say he speaks and writes in at least two dozen languages.

Now, if you're like me, who is finding it difficult to learn a second or third language, then you'll really appreciate the achievements of Prof Alexander.

He is one of the world's foremost polyglots and has dedicated most of his life to learning as many languages as he can in a very systematic and scholarly fashion. In course of our stroll we talked about language and culture; his language learning skills; and he ‘kind of’ cleared up the controversy on the actual number of languages he can speak--I say kind of because, he's a man of many words and sometimes it's easy for one to lose count while having a conversation with him, but you can find out for yourself, here's our stroll.

Ebenezar: Thanks for honouring this invitation to stroll with me Prof Alexander.

Alexander: Of course Ebenezar, happy to do this with you.

Ebenezar: Recently UNESCO released an atlas of the world's endangered languages and it was obvious that many languages in the world today are on the verge of going extinct. It's really something to be worried about, what do you think is causing this?

UNESCO Atlas of  the world's languages in danger
(Image Credit: UNESCO)
Alexander: Globalization in general, urbanization in particular. Ethnologue says there are 7,105 living languages right now, with 906 “dying” and 1,481 “in trouble.” In truth, nobody knows exactly how many languages there are because so many of them are undocumented, but it is certain that the great majority of languages are only spoken by relatively small numbers of people living in a relatively small and specific areas. These languages can sustain themselves as long as they stay under such circumstances, but when their speakers move to larger areas and need to interact with speakers of other languages, they tend to communicate through a larger regional or international language. Thus, a few languages such as English most notably but also Spanish, Portuguese, French, Hindi, Swahili, Malay, and Tagalog are growing as they absorb the speakers of these smaller languages after a generation or two, and most of these smaller languages are disappearing. 

Ebenezar: Is there a way to bring these endangered languages to a 'safe place'?

Alexander: Honestly, there is not much hope for them unless the overall pattern of socio-economic development changes drastically. If the conditions favoring urbanization were to be reversed, if people around the world were to flee from cities rather than flocking to them, and if they were to live in small isolated groups again, then the number of languages would swell, not shrink. Barring that, however, most undocumented languages are doomed under the current order of things. 

The best we can do is to take substantial samples of them so as to preserve them. If we do that, if we undertake a massive movement to record and otherwise document dying and endangered languages, then in the future linguists will be able to study and decode them so as to at least know about the variety of languages we have lost. To keep them preserved in a museum is at least better than letting them vanish without a trace. Furthermore, if they are preserved in this fashion, then in the future, if a people wishes to revive the language its ancestors spoke, it will have this possibility. This is the case now with certain Celtic languages such as Cornish and Manx. Modern spoken Hebrew is probably the greatest success story in this regard, having gone from a liturgical “dead” language to a vibrant living language in less than a century. So, while we might not be able to stop most of them from dying out, we may still be able to save samples of them that we can use in the future to bring them back. 

Ebenezar: What has learning so many foreign languages taught you about the world, and the different races and cultures on earth?

Alexander: I can draw polar opposite philosophical lessons from my experience. On the one hand, languages are only fascinating (or frustrating, depending on your point of view) as long as they are foreign – once they become familiar, that is, once they are simply used as a vehicle for communication, then they all do the same thing. So, in this sense, no matter how different they might seem, they are all the same. Obviously, this is true of us as human beings as well. 

On the other hand, each language has certain unique characteristics, words, and concepts that do not exist in other languages. Furthermore, there is an enormous variety of ways to express ideas and thoughts. Many of these ways of expressing what is in the brain seem absolutely essential to those who use them, but in point of fact they are not, as other languages do without them entirely. 

Finally, as far as culture is concerned, all languages are created equal and all languages do carry the culture of their speakers if by culture we mean simply the ways and traditions of a group of people. 

Ebenezar: Now, there are many controversies online about the actual number of languages you can speak, so I'd like to hear from you exclusively. How many languages can you comfortably speak right now?

Alexander: I’m a word person so I just don’t do numbers, but I can give you some names. If I were to be invited on a lecture tour of Western Europe, I could give a presentation in the local language in just about any Romance or Germanic speaking country. In some cases, such as French, Spanish, and German, I could do this quite respectably if you were to whisk me straight from the airport to the lecture hall. In other cases, such as Swedish, Dutch, Italian, or Portuguese, it would be more polished if you gave me 24 hours to listen and interact in it first. In still others, like Danish or Catalan, I might need 48 hours or 72 hours to start sounding more refined. But I would not be uncomfortable trying to communicate in any of these, and indeed my experience with minority tongues such as Frisian or Rhaeto-Romance is that people are quite happy to meet an outsider who wants to be addressed in their language, who can understand it, and who wants to learn it. So, it is quite fun for me to try to communicate in any Germanic or Romance tongue. 

If you took me over to Eastern Europe, though, while I could give a passable presentation in Russian, I would make many more grammatical mistakes. Nonetheless, if I met some Serbians or Poles who didn’t mind speaking their language to me while I spoke Russian back, we could have a mutually intelligible conversation that way. 

Ebenezar: Oh boy...

Alexander: (hahaha) Leaving Europe, I can also function happily in Korean and Arabic. 

However, I really don’t think that limiting my linguistic exploration to those languages that I can comfortably speak right now does justice to my lifetime of exploring languages. First of all, as we were talking about dying languages a little while ago, many of the languages I have learned – such as Latin or Old Norse or Middle High German - are dead – that is, no one speaks them anymore, so I can’t converse in them. I can, however, read them quite comfortably, which is why I learned them in the first place. 

Furthermore, there are lots of living languages that I have studied for years now, in which I have a very firm foundation and quite a wide passive reading vocabulary, but to which I have never had any exposure. So, I can’t speak them right now, but if I were to be immersed in them, I believe this would “awaken” them such that I would be able to speak them given that opportunity. My main languages in this category are Persian (Farsi), Hindi/Urdu, Greek, and Hebrew, but also Irish Gaelic, Turkish, and Swahili.

Finally, there are a number of languages whose study I have consciously abandoned, but I have not forgotten what I did learn years ago. Believe it or not, I do know what it is to understand absolutely nothing of what is being said around me. In fact, I had this experience quite often while I was working in Singapore when I was sent to do training in various countries throughout Southeast Asia. Thus, I also know that my experience of being surrounded by Chinese and Japanese, for instance, is nothing like this, as I understand not just isolated words, but also larger chunks. So, if I were forced to do so, I believe I could activate these languages as well in a relatively short period of time. 

(Image Credit: All Images)
Ebenezar: I was counting but at a point I got lost; It’s really a lot. You know people always believe Polyglots are like super human aliens who have a special gift for languages. Do you think this is true? Does your aptitude for languages come quite naturally? 

Alexander: You do need an affinity and a passion for languages in order to become a polyglot, and these things can lead you to develop an aptitude for learning them. Learning lots of languages, however, requires commitment, dedication, and above all lots of time more than it does aptitude. I believe learning languages is a skill that can be acquired. I am obviously more inclined to words and languages than I am to numbers or music or sports, but what I have achieved is the result of hard work, not of aptitude. Aptitude, unless it is applied, will not yield any results.

Ebenezar: Every day we see juicy offers by language tutors online. You see stuff like, "Learn French in one week", "Be fluent in German in 6 days", in fact recently someone told me I can learn Mandarin in 3 days. And I'm like, “huh? Is it magic?” (Lol) So is there any secret formula for learning a foreign language? Perhaps you can share some techniques you use...

Alexander: No, there is no magic secret formula for learning a foreign language. 

Once you are an experienced polyglot, when you study a new language that is similar to ones you have learned already, the thousands upon thousands of hours you have already put into foreign language study kick in and you can transfer knowledge and abilities such that you may be able to learn it lightning fast. But, if you are just setting out to learn your first foreign language or languages, then there is no getting around the fact that you need to spend great amounts of time and effort to acquire them.

There is a formula, but it is not magic or secret. It is: Right motivation; plus Good materials; plus intelligent methods; plus Systematic regularity; plus thousands of hours. 

Ebenezar: (hahah) that’s one really complex formula.

Alexander: (haha) let me explain it. On right motivation, you have to really want to learn, you have to like learning, you have to believe that it is valuable to learn, you have to enjoy learning, and you have to sustain these feelings over the long term.

Good materials: different people learn in different ways, so materials that might suit some might not suit others. That said, some materials are much more comprehensive, thorough, and accurate that others, so you need to look around and compare rather than just buying what is marketed widely, and you also need to use a variety of approaches rather than just one.

Intelligent methods: you have to know how to use your materials, adapt them to suit you, and develop a rhythm for balancing new materials with review so that you do your linguistic exercises with good form.

Systematic regularity: you need to study at the same place and at the same time every single day, at least until studying becomes an ingrained habit. After that, you can be more flexible and even take a day off now and then.

Thousands of hours: these might actually only be hundreds of hours, but they will feel like thousands upon thousands, and indeed that is what you need to get really good. Furthermore, these hours really need to be spread over months and years. That is, you can study intensively to a certain degree, but you need time to digest what you learn as well, and to let it start to grow on its own, so you can’t just cram this time in all at once. 

Ebenezar: Wow, thank you for that in-depth lecture sir, but somehow Language can stand as a barrier in times of trade between countries of different lingua franca. What do you think can be done about this?

Alexander: The only answers I can think of to this one are either to use professional interpreters or for international traders to become, if not full-fledged polyglots, at least proficient in three or four languages. That way, when they ran into one linguistic barrier, they would stand a good chance of being able to get around it. 

Ebenezar: What do you think are some benefits of having so many languages in the world? Because many people feel the world will be better if we had one universal language.

Alexander: Language lover though I am, I can understand where people are coming from when they say wouldn't it be good if there were just one universal language. However, the fact is that in the natural order of things, there is not one language, there are thousands of languages. This means that this kind of variety is the way it is supposed to be. Now, I find too great a degree of homogeneity to be monotonous at best, and ultimately quite horrific. Variety really is the spice of life. I think it would be terrible to live in one of those housing complexes where every home is the same as far as the eye can see. How much worse that would be in a natural environment: imagine a forest where there was only one type of tree, or a field where there was only one type of flower or one type of grass – and that not just in one area, but on and on and on covering the whole planet! 

Prof Alexander recording a language-learning tutorial
There is also the aspect of culture in the more specific sense of rich intellectual, spiritual, and literary heritages. Whole traditions of thought have been expressed in a wide variety of tongues over the past 5000 years or more, and it is not possible to really savor these traditions in translation. 

If there were only one language, I don’t believe there would be any possibility to escape from thought control. We are essentially programmed to think in our mother language(s). Because there are a variety of languages on the planet, we can choose to reprogram ourselves by learning foreign languages and so to see things from a new perspective. If there were only one language, we could not do this. 

Ebenezar: Apart from linguistics are there any other things you're into? Perhaps other hobbies and passions we are not aware of?

Alexander: I learn languages not only because I love learning languages, but also because I like to get at the cultures behind them. Above all, I love reading literature, history, and philosophy. And then there is music: I play a wide variety of instruments in the flute family, both traverse and recorders. I am particularly fond of Early Music, that is, Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music. I used to make my own flutes, and I also play more exotic ones such as the Daegum, a giant piece of bamboo with a vibrating reed, a traditional Korean flute that I learned how to play in Korea. I even play the didgeridoo to a certain extent. I have always believed in a mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body) and so I am passionate about exercise. I run and/or swim every day, especially when I can do this in a beautiful natural environment, for I am a great lover of nature. I not only love trees, but also animals, and so I have been a vegetarian my whole adult life.

Ebenezar: Thank you so much for your time sir, It was really great having this stroll with you.

Alexander: It was a pleasure Ebenezar, thank you too.

To contact Professor Alexander you can visit his website 

The UNESCO atlas showing endangered languages is not a fictional document. See, this thing is as real as reality. I feel like there's a gap between the outgoing generation and the incoming one--and that gap needs to be filled. The current generation needs to pass down something to the next generation because with the way things are right now, these endangered languages might go extinct faster than we imagined--and I'm not trying to be a prophet of doom.

Parents should pick up the challenge; kids should be ready too. Let's start documenting these endangered languages; teaching it to the next generation and learning it as well. Let's save our languages. Let's save history.

Till my next stroll on March 3rd; when i'll be talking with Dr Tamsin WolleyBarker--an evolutionary-biologist and Biomimicry writer--for World Wildlife Day; March 3rd. Keep speaking the right words, Jesus Loves You

                                                                                                                            Ebenezar Wikina

"These people are working together because they all speak the same language. This is just the beginning. Soon they will be able to do anything they want" (Genesis 11v6, Contemporary English Version)


  1. Thank you Ebenezar for educating us on languages and introducing us to Professor Alexander!
    You re doing a good job. Keep it going, our God rewards faithfulness.
    #Blessings. Vivien Ngozika.

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  3. Woooow!!!

    I'm so mind-blown! A million thanks to you Eben, 'I see you'. I'm totally into languages, but now meeting Prof Alex, who can speak upwards of two dozen languages - and he's still a young man; my initial reaction was, "Are you kidding me?? Is he even human???" :o :/ :|
    It's gonna take me some days to fully digest this... . Once again, thank you soo much Eben, you're the best! :)

  4. Wow this man is inspiring! I love when he says that "each language has certain unique characteristics, words, and concepts that do not exist in other languages" I'm using English every day and sometimes in a french conversation, I can't think of a better word than the english one (and vice versa) Sometimes I just feel & get things better in English. Sometimes in French. And I'm far from being bilingual.

    and what he has to say about the one-language question. Sometimes I'm wishing there were only 1 or 2 languages because it's complicated enough in Belgium with 3 official languages. I'm french speaking, living in the flemish region of the country, and speaking english with my partner (mixed with french and flemish words) it's kinda funny!
    But he made a very good point with the mind control. And I'm big on thinking by myself as you know!

    At the end though, words are just words (and I love words) We could have a total conversation without speaking one word if we'd allow ourselves to feel each othe energies and read our body language. Sometimes you go to another country and connect with someone without speaking the same language, but you understand each other at another level. I love that :)

    Great interview Ebenezar!