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Some Thoughts on Polyglottery


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How do you find this method developed by a 17 year old who has more or less taught himself 13 languages.

Yeah, I think that guy's doing great, especially for being so young. :D

I think where he and I might differ, however, is that my learning philosophy is more content-based, and I prefer to know a culture/language more in depth, whereas I think he seems to take a more practical and functional approach, which is perfectly fine too.

But in any case, I've been thinking a lot over the past few months/years, that finding the right methods will naturally come about if you put in good effort and a a lot of time, and have a lot of motivation. So from that point of view, it'd be interesting to see where this guy will be in 5 or 10 years. I'm sure his progress would be amazing.

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  • 3 months later...

For those that might be interested, here's a bit of a progress report:

For the new languages that I'm attempting:

-Hindi/Urdu- was going really strong in first half of 2010, and made decent progress in doing Intermediate Hindi Reader (doing about 50 pages, listening to audio several times per new reading). However, the reading started to get into the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and I really started to get bogged down. To a large extent, I think all cultures have sets of weird stories with warped logic that they tell themselves, and often the logic and meaning of the stories are so ingrained that no explanation is given by native speakers, because they assume that the story makes sense on its own. (For example, I got physical angry at the ancient Chinese story of adding feet to a snake, which reminded me a lot of the Chewbacca Defense from South Park. Indian ancient epics seem to be full of these things too). To make a long story short, getting bogged down in the reader started to sap my enthusiasm/passion, and so I finally made the obvious conclusion to downshift to easier stuff again. So, I'm re-listening to audio Hindi materials while slowly going through Harry Potter, which is much easier in the sense that I can check the translation. So, hopefully, I'm back on track here.

-Bengali- Also not making a tremendous amount of progress, but have been ok at doing regular listenings. I'm now on Chapter 4 of Colloquial Bengali, and review the first parts of TYS Bengali now and again. I've also made a few hundered Bengali flashcards. Also, I've discovered the wonderful Santiniketan podcast through my interest in Bengali.

-French and Arabic- basically I had to shut these two down for the time being. I now think of starting a language like flying a kite. You need a certain amount of wind and speed at the beginning, and then later, as it starts to soar, perhaps less attention can be paid and you can go on passive building mode. But there needs to be a significant burst of energy (and time spent) at the start. Otherwise, you simply won't be able to master the basics. Since I'm starting Bengali, and to some extent, am still starting Hindi/Urdu, I don't think it's possible to begin too many languages at once. But hopefully I'll come back to these in a few months/years.


- Mandarin: still doing passive learning, a decent amount of reading (mainly newspapers and work related stuff). Went on a busines trip to US in June with two colleagues frrom Beijing. It was interesting watching reactions in Mexican restaurants, taxis, bars when they saw two Chinese people and a white foreigner speaking in Mandarin.

- Cantonese: Speaking more at work and on the street, listening to podcasts. Joined Cantoneseclass101 for the Advanced and intermediate stuff.

-Spanish: Still listening to BBC podcasts every now and again, but not much else.

Overall, I'd say that my efforts in polyglottery from January to April or so were a 9 out of 10, but then slacked off to a 3 out of 10. This happened for various personal reasons, and because a lot of my energy got shifted over into distance running, and I decided to put off a trip to India this winter. But now I hope to correct course, and get back some of the intensity.

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Interesting stuff wushijiao, though a bit humbling! Gato, I'm starting Cantonese these week, just waiting for a book -- also from Greenwood Press! -- to arrive, though it's a different one, A Short Cut to Cantonese. But the idea of learning a new language not (really) related to either English or Chinese, there's no way I'm prepared to do that now...

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Greenwood Press really makes good materials. Unfortunately, I haven't used A Short Cut to Cantonese or Cantonese for English Speakers. (Although A Short Cut to Cantonese is made by Cream Lee, author of Wedding Bells, so I'd bet it's pretty good).

For people who know Putonghua, I'd strongly recommend Cantonese in Hong Kong. I listened to that book over and over for about 6 months to a year, and felt it was very useful in shifting Putonghua knowledge over to Cantonese.

I'd also highly recommend: Feng Shui Master and Wedding Bells, both of which provide interesting (graded) content, with audio. Advanced Level Current Cantonese Colloquialisms and The Story of Minami are worth checking out as well.

Overall, from a pedagogical point of view, Greenwood Press is probably one of the best publisher (of any language) out there. Unfortunately, the "learning Cantonese" market is relatively small, otherwise I'd like to see more products out there. Oh well.

Enjoy learning Cantonese Gato and Real Mayo!

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  • 4 months later...

Here's my year-end progress update, for anyone who's interested.

Progress made (on scale from 1 to 10)

Hindi/Urdu -- 6

Overall, I made good progress in the first half of the year, finishing the TYS series in Hindi and Urdu, and doing several chapters of Intermediate Hindi Reader. However, over the summer, my primary passion switched from languages to running. Still, I've been trying to pick up the pace again as far as Hindi studies recently, and have finished Conversational Hindi and am 50 pages into a Harry Potter book (going brutally slowly, however). Nonetheless, I can say that I'm roughly on track as far as the main long-term goal to be fluent/competent in three years time.

Bengali -- 3

Again, made decent progress during the first half of the year, and then put this language on hold.

Cantonese -- 3

Only studying sporadically, and I still don't use it often. However, I do now speak Cantonese at work with a few co-workers.

Others (Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, French...etc)-- 1

-I put all of these on hold.

Maintenance Languages

Mandarin -- 6

No spectacular progress made here, and no new projects started. I did manage to read and speak and decent amount through.

Spanish -- 2

Listened to some podcasts, but certainly no active improvement here.

Main Lessons Learned:

Kite Metaphor. I now think that getting a new language off the ground, so to speak, is perhaps a bit like a flying a kite, in that there needs to be an initial sustained burst of effort to get it off the ground, or else it will fall. From my own experience, I think this relates to 2-3 hours per day over the first two or three years. Perhaps then, once at an intermediate level, and once one is in the long slog of the intermediate plateau, then one can go on as fast or slow as one wants, or is feasible. However, starting a few languages at the same time, it seems to me now, is not advisable, unless one has a lot of time and energy to make it a top priority in life. To some extent, that's why I've chosen to focus mainly on Hindi, until I feel that it's safe to re-branch out.

Monasticism. Arguelles mentions that if one is to become a hardcore polyglot, one should be prepared to live a "monastic-like life". I think this speaks to the obvious issues of priorities and time, but to some extent, I think a polyglot has to have a certain passion or drive, which may be fueled by different, complex factors. Since this monastic-style life is not practical for me at the moment, I think I'll have to more realistically assess my ambitions.

Anyway...I'm thinking of my 2011 goals, and will post soon...

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Plans for 2011:


Main Goals

-Finish Harry Potter book (hopefully within 6 months)

- Finish Intermediate Hindi Reader (also, with audio and doing dozens of listens to each reading)

- Start on (if not finish) Hindi Newspaper Reader

- Take regular Hindi/Urdu lessons with locals in HK, focusing on practical speaking stuff

- Re-listen to various audio materials, about 30-60 minutes per day

Secondary Goals

- Finish A Primer of Modern Standard Hindi (although it may take quite a bit longer to do this book).

- Watch roughly one Bollywood movie per week

- Get serious about Urdu materials: Advanced Urdu Reader = CDs, same Harry Potter book in Urdu...etc.

- Take a trip to Hindi-speaking areas in late fall

Other Pie in the Sky Goals

- Start Imagining India (I have both English and Hindi versions)


-Re-pick up Bengali and finish two courses by the end of the year (currently midway through each)


- Finish Introduction to Sanskrit, Part 1


-Start learning Tagalog, focusing on listening and speaking.


- Speak more

- Watch more TV & movies

- Read Apple daily with Cantofish

- Listen to podcasts


- Read at least two books

- Perhaps take HSK

- Read papers/magazines often

- Listen to podcasts

So, overall, I hope that by the end of 2011, I'll have at least some solid intermediate skills in Hindi, as defined by being able to communicate in a wide array of basic situations, understanding the main gist of conversations, and knowing some of the core vocabulary needed for reading. Luckily, I should have more time for studying starting in the summer.

Just writing this makes me excited about all of the possibilities!

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I don't know how you do it. Just reading your post made me need to lie down for a while and rest.

Haha...well, I'd add that these goals are more like a normative guideline (or Christmas wishlists), that will hopefully keep me honest during the rest of the year!

On a practical note, however, I live in Lantau in HK, which means that I take a ferry twice a day. I try to use the ferry time (1-2 hours per day) to study (languages, or other things). Also, I've found that with running, when I'm running relatively hard (doing speed work, tempo runs...etc) my brain doesn't have the ability to focus on much, except maybe English podcasts/music. However, for relatively slow or easy runs, I've found that I can do audio review. So, with that in mind, I try to get in as much work there as I can. So, between just commuting time and running, I should have 1-3 hours per day to focus on languages.

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  • 1 year later...

So, after a 2011 in which after two or three months of solid effort, my motivation for engaging further on the polyglottery project faded away. My New Year's Resolution for 2012 was to get serious about it (again). So far, after a month, I'm happy to say that the progress is back on track.

In short, I'm concentrating mainly on the following:

Spend at least an hour a day on Hindi. Over the past month or so, I've gone from chapter 24 in Hindi Newspaper Reader to chapter 37. I hope to get to the end -- chapter 51 -- by the end of Feb or so. After that, I'll probably re-start Harry Potter (about page 80, i think), or mix that up with intermediate Hindi Reader. Luckily, I bought quite a few other good materials, so I'll try to go through them this year.

I'm also planning to fit in a good hour or so per day of Tagalog. My current goal is one chapter of Teach Yourself per week, combined with frequent speaking.

These two languages will be the main priorities for the next year. Mandarin and Cantonese are a bit on the maintenance mode (although I use them both daily, Mandarin to a large extent, Cantonese just for daily stuff). I would love to re-start Bengali, but I think part of the challenge is to make realistic assessments of time and motivation, and then prioritize. So, I suppose there's a chance that I'll re-start it sometime this year, but probably not.

In any case, I'd still love to hear from anybody else who is also planning a similar project.

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  • 2 months later...
In any case, I'd still love to hear from anybody else who is also planning a similar project.

No, thanks :)

My current project is fluent Mandarin, Portuguese and Spanish in 3 years.

Then I'll pick a fun new language to learn. Probably Japanese or Arabic.

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I've started Korean and want to see how that goes after a full six months. For now I've given up on the idea of chasing fluency in Chinese, at least as long as I'm not living in China, so I'm simply trying to make slow steady improvements to my vocab range & reading ability with some listening and TV thrown in too. Oddly, starting Korean has helped me make up my mind that I should have a real go at Burmese: the two languages have some similarities, especially in the areas where they're most different from English. I've never ever thought of myself as a linguist or anything and I certainly have no particular knack or talent for picking up languages but I find I'm extremely interested in learning them for their own sake -- perhaps Chinese was my 'gateway drug'? :lol::help There's no real motivation in saying 'I can speak x number of languages', but simply that there are some languages that I've got very interested in and would love to be able to speak!

I have a now-dull job in an office but could easily fit in an hour or more a day of study so I figure I'll aim for a daily half an hour for each language and see where that gets me after a year. Doesn't have to be remarkable progress. Part of the fun is also the trial & error of working out the most suitable method and structure to the process.

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