4

The Reddit thread Alexander Arguelles’ Six Most Important Languages, which started earlier this year ("5 months ago" from October 2018) states that the polyglot Alexander Argüelles once said that an educated person should learn six languages that fall under the following categories (quote from the thread):

  1. Classical languages of one’s own culture.
  2. Major living languages of one’s broader culture.
  3. The international language.
  4. Exotic languages.

The reasoning, cited on Reddit, is as follows:

The first category gives us insight into our past, our present and possibly even our future.
The second category helps us to understand the cultures that surround us or that are close to us.
The third category puts us in touch with the world at large.
The fourth category broadens us and challenges us to look at the world in a very different way.

The person who posted this on Reddit points to a thread from 2005 on the Language Learning Forum as a source. However, that thread turns out not to be the original source, since it does not contain a post by Argüelles in which he makes the above statements. The thread contains a post in which Argüelles explains how the "should" should be interpreted, and refers to an older post using the words, "Somewhere in another topic you said that an educated person today should speak 7 or so languages."

Unfortunately, I can't find the orginal post. My searches have led me to a relevant thread from 2011 (Arguelles’ Six Most Important Languages), but the original source must date from 2005 or before 2005. Where can that source be found?

If the four categories were not defined by Argüelles, I would like to know where he originally said that "an educated person today should speak 7 or so languages", a statement that is attributed to him in the 2005 discussion thread.

(Note: The man's family name is written with a diaeresis on the 'u', Argüelles, but most sources on the Web, including his own website, spell it without the diaeresis.)

  • 1
    Based on Wikipedia, the name seems to be Argüelles. Maybe add a link to the wiki page or some other website for readers who do not know the person. – Tommi Brander Oct 4 '18 at 12:06
  • 1
    @TommiBrander I know, but he doesn't use the diaeresis on his own website ... – Christophe Strobbe Oct 4 '18 at 12:21
  • He types it out at the bottom of your 2005 link. – AML Oct 4 '18 at 15:26
1

I believe the answer comes from two sources.

The first part...

  1. Classical languages of one’s own culture.
  2. Major living languages of one’s broader culture.
  3. The international language.
  4. Exotic languages.

...comes from that 2005 post that you mentioned. The full text is here:

I have gotten into trouble for this before, so let me begin by clarifying that when I say an educated person 'should' know half a dozen languages, I mean this 'should' as an attainable goal to be striven for, not as a criterion for judgment that anyone who does not know this many is not well-educated. Since contemporary culture does not hold up this goal, individual products of its educational systems are hardly to blame if they have not attained it. Also, I certainly do not believe that linguistic knowledge is the only measure of a good education;there are many other things I believe a well-educated person 'should' know, but since this is a forum about languages, I only discuss this here. I do believe that for self-motivated lovers of languages, this is an attainable goal that should be striven for, and I have several distinctly different reasons for this belief:

  1. Ample anthropological evidence that it is normal for normal individuals from truly multilingual societies such as parts of Africa and India to know half a dozen languages. Obvious thus it is in the standard capacity of the human mind to know and use this many languages if the environment is right, and I think that concentrated intelligence and diligence should be able to match the quality of early childhood immersion.

  2. Ample textual evidence that this goal was attained in the not-so-distant past. Look at any scholarly tome from the 19th century and you will see that no translations are provided for quotations from other languages; if the book is written in English, translations will certainly be provided for Chinese or Sanskrit or Persian or Arabic, but NOT for Latin or Greek or French or German or Spanish or Italian. Obviously it was a reasonable and justified assumption that anyone who would read such a book would be able to read these languages. There is a common belief that the explosion of knowledge in our era has forced us to become specialists while these old fellows had the leisure to spend time on languages because there was so little breadth in their fields. I used to believe this myself, but it is simply not true. The range, the breadth, the depth, the quality, and the quantity of 19th century scholarship measured against the output of contemporary scholars in the same field is incomparably greater. Obviously, linguistic range facilitated flexibility of mind while its absence narrows it. At any rate, if our great-grandfathers could do this, why can't we?

  3. Ample linguistic evidence that half a dozen languages is a boundary mark. For those who have not reached it, the study of foreign languages is generally a hard task in which success is always uncertain, while for those who have reached it, the acquisition of further languages is no longer difficult. Given that languages are the fundamental element in human thought and communication, In the course of a lifetime, an awakened mind may well wish to acquire a new one, and so knowledge of this many is the fundamental base that one should have in order to assure the ability to acquire others at will.

  4. Ample sociological and demographic evidence that the languages of the world are in great and grave danger of extinction now that the era of global languages has arrived. From the standpoint of communication this may well be a good thing, but from the standpoint of cultural preservation, it is a disaster. The only way to prevent the literary and cultural legacies of the past from being lost is to encourage the study of the languages that are their vehicles. If the general expectation that educated individuals should know this many languages can somehow, ideally, be established, then I think there is some hope for cultural preservation, even if the world of the future speaks only one language.

I really like your idea of what your 7 languages should be, taking one language from many different civilizations. This is a true ideal, one that I am consciously trying to provide for my sons, born of a Western father and an Eastern mother, by moving to and raising them in Arabia, with plans to move to India within a decade. However, most human beings are infinitely more culture bound, and when it comes to learning languages, culture is a critical factor. For a European, learning other familiar European tongues is one thing, while mastering exotic tongues is geometrically more difficult and consequently time consuming. The kind of range you suggest is probably attainable only for those such as members of this forum whose major focus is on languages, and I did mean my 'should' to refer to all educated individuals, whatever their fields of interest or concentration.

I do not believe there is any particular half a dozen formulaic languages that can be prescribed for all people because the issue is so culture bound. In general, I think that well-educated individuals in my ideal world should know a) the classical language(s) of their own civilization, b) the major living languages of their broader culture, c) the international language (English) if this is not one of these or a semi-exotic if it is, and d) one exotic language of their own choosing. **For example:

A well-educated Westerner 'should' know: a) Latin & Greek, b) English & French, Spanish or German, c) Russian, and d) Persian or Arabic or Sanskrit or Hindi or Chinese or...

A well-educated Middle-Easterner 'should' know: a) Arabic, b) Persian, Turkish, & Hebrew, c) English & French, and d) Latin or Urdu or Japanese or...

A well-educated Indian 'should' know: a) Sanskrit & Persian or Arabic, b) Hindi/Urdu & Bengali, Marathi or Gujarati or..., c) English, and d) Italian or Korean or Swahili or...

A well-educated Easterner 'should' know: a) Classical Chinese, b) Mandarin, Japanese, & Korean, c) English, and d) Greek or Pali or Persian or...**

And so on.

At the bottom of his post is the original list. Reddit or other people may have paraphrased later on, but Arguelles provides the substance. More likely, the blog post below (from TheLinguistBlogger) is the source of the paraphrasing.

As for the second quote...

The first category gives us insight into our past, our present and possibly even our future. The second category helps us to understand the cultures that surround us or that are close to us. The third category puts us in touch with the world at large. The fourth category broadens us and challenges us to look at the world in a very different way.

...as far as I can tell, it comes from this blog post back in 2008. The complete section is:

I like this list because each category serves a purpose. The first category gives us insight into our past, our present and possibly even our future. The second category helps us to understand the cultures that surround us or that are close to us. The third category puts us in touch with the world at large. The fourth category broadens us and challenges us to look at the world in a very different way. Proficiency in six languages from these categories would make one cultured, worldly wise and probably very well read, not to mention very employable.

By categorizing, instead of static listing, we are free to choose the languages that interest us while making sure that we learn useful languages at the same time. Since each category can be filed by a single language, the challenge to know six languages allows for more than one language in one or two categories. Never becoming competent in six languages or learning more than six is probably just fine in the end but, nonetheless, I think that knowing six languages in these four categories is a noble goal to strive for. If you were to learn six languages from these four categories what would they be?

In conclusion: The substance was provided by Alexander Aguelles, and the paraphrasing was provided by TheLinguistBlogger.

  • I'm afraid you are quoting back to me what I already know. The 2005 thread already said, "Somewhere in another topic you said that an educated person today should speak 7 or so languages". So I am looking for the source of that statement*, which must be older than that thread itself. I don't see anything in your answer that I didn't reference in my question. – Christophe Strobbe Oct 5 '18 at 14:38
  • TheLinguistBlogger summary is new and seems to be where the Reddit thread got their summary from. – AML Oct 5 '18 at 15:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.