‘Babel No More’ – Adventures with an Extreme Polyglot
A story from The Book Beast: “On a quest to find the person we could say spoke the most languages in the world, I stumbled on the online personae of a language learning guru and hyperpolyglot, Alexander Arguelles, who invited me to Berkeley, California, where he was living at the time. It was my first introduction to the life of the contemporary hyperpolyglot. On many mornings, once Alexander has greeted the sun doing extensive writing exercises in Chinese, Arabic, Latin, Russian, Persian, German, and other languages, he goes for a long run in the arid hills of the park above his neighborhood, while listening to a German audiobook tape on his Walkman. (So far, he eschews the MP3.) Marathon lengths are easy for him—once, he says, he got lost in the woods and ended up running more than thirty miles, though he felt faint. Later someone told him that long-distance runners have to eat every two hours, which came as a revelation; he finds the carbohydrate goo disgusting. He eschews that, too.
One morning, he discovered the campus of a theological seminary that he now covets for a polyglot academy he dreams of starting. The school was made up of low, Mission Revival–style buildings surrounded by redwoods and eucalyptus trees stirred by the wind. Alexander pointed to a fire trail cutting down the hill, saying that it would be good for shadowing. Shadowing is how he gets to know a language’s sounds: put a tape in the Walkman and, while briskly walking and arms swinging, you shout the sounds as you hear them. Though you won’t know what the words mean, later you read the dialogues and translate them, then you shadow the same material again. For him, parsing the sounds first then adding meaning later makes it stick. Shouting now is also an inoculation against embarrassment later.
At first, I assumed that his ambition was to speak all of his languages—otherwise, what’s the point of shadowing? This turned out to be wrong.”