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In praxis "law-of-7"/2 for polyliteracy?

 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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Volte
Tetraglot
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 Message 9 of 49
19 August 2011 at 1:59pm | IP Logged 
Zwlth wrote:

Volte, I'm sure that with your obvious interest as well as your wide knowledge of sources, you will some day become a practitioner of polilteracy if you are not one already. Before I was able to read major works in a variety of their original tongues, I felt just as you do, i.e., that it was a waste of time and energy to attempt to engage more than one at a time. But, having developed that ability, I find myself almost compelled to attempt this for the sake of the languages. And, I find to my delight, I am able to engage in it simultaneously in what I now find, to my surprise upon re-reading about this "law," to be a nice round 1/2 of the languages that I could conceivably choose to do it in at any time.


I'm capable of reading major works in English, Esperanto, and Italian. While I don't generally do so in Italian, I spent a brief bit of time just now with Professor Argüelles "Western Cannon" and didn't run into severe difficulties (with the Italian work I selected, at least - I certainly can't understand "Beowulf" in the original, despite it being classified simply as English, rather than Old English, on his list). I can hack through such works in some other languages, but without a level of understanding high enough that I feel it's even as good as reading them in translation as of yet. When it comes to getting through a novel with the gist, the list of languages widens a bit more. I wouldn't classify my current abilities as "polyliteracy" in the Argüellian sense.

I'm more of a polymath than polyglot, by both history and volition. I have fairly deep interests in a number of fields, and numbers of sub-branches of some of those fields. Given this, the temptation to read more than one tome at once is something I am well familiar with. If I'm forced to by circumstances, I can do it - but it always seems painfully inefficient and like far too much of a loss of focus. I get a lot more out of a book if I read it in one long session, or barring that, over a few days. If it's a particularly deep or interesting book, I can delve more deeply into it on rereading it, optionally after having done more background and peripheral reading.

The number of languages involved doesn't materially change this situation, or even increase the temptation that much. I enjoy days when I read at least a few words in over a dozen languages, or puzzle out a bit of Basque or Mandarin from context, or do some light reading in German. I'm also a firm believer in the value of extensive reading of lighter work being one of the best ways to gain the linguistic background to address "Great" works on their merits, rather than having the language be too dense a thicket to get the point through, so these days even contribute somewhat to the goal of polyliteracy - but I don't think they contribute, in direct skillset, anywhere near as much as more focused reading does.

Back to your original question, I think people have an unfortunate tendency to make "laws" based on far too little evidence, especially if it reminds them of some other "law" they've heard about, or if the numbers strike them aesthetically in some way. This is endemic among the 'softer' fields.

My honest opinion is that a "7" or "7/2" law for polyliteracy holds absolutely no validity whatsoever. There are far too many people attested as reading significantly more than 7 languages to a high level, despite the scarcity of polyglot-related documentation.

Zwlth wrote:

As to reading in more than "7" languages, of course that is possible, particularly if one isolates the skill and includes all the "in the bargain" related languages as separate in the count as well. But, when you really knuckle down and get into developing them to peak performance, then I'm not so sure anymore. Being able to get the gist of a short and light piece is one thing, especially if you can check a dictionary when needed, but being able to consume and cogitate upon a lengthy and substantive tome without any recourse to a lexicon is another thing altogether.


There are a number of different points here.

a) I don't think that reading "Great Works" requires anything near peak performance. It requires a certain amount of competence in a language, and a certain amount of time already invested in reading in that language and having absorbed some factual and cultural preconceptions of the era, and some cross-linguistic skill in thinking and dealing with literature. Aside from that, the difficulty varies depending on the concepts of the author, your previous familiarity with the concepts, and the literary tradition. Some traditions and authors favour very clear, direct, unornamented prose and a concise statement of ideas, while others actively strive to avoid this, preferring the cryptic or opaque. It requires a fairly clear head, and a fair bit of prerequisite knowledge, but if reading almost any "Great work" seems like a peak performance, my personal tendency would be to solidify fundamentals and find the tome easier on a later approach. If this continually fails to work, I would seriously question whether the tome is compatible with my standards of good writing, regardless of the acclaim and/or significance it may have.

b) Length and how substantial a text are seems to be extremely poorly correlated, even in "Great" works. There is also the somewhat related question of what a "Great Work" is. I honestly fail to see what people find in Dickens, for example; his primary merit for me is that I avoided spending time on novels for half a year after fully reading "The Pickwick Papers". Most texts of any length are not substantial; most books which are both substantial and focused (rather than encyclopaedic compilations) tend to be surprisingly short.

c) There are very different skillsets involved in 'cogitating' upon a "Great Work". In absolutely no work are all statements of equal value; some are worth considering at length, over the course of hours or even years - and these may be as short as a phrase, and are at times accessible even with a surprisingly low level of language ability. Analysing the conceptual structure of a work and the higher-level ideas it introduces and perhaps defends is another skillset entirely, including keeping a more substantive overview of the work in your head - and this is something I find highly correlated with my degree of comfort in a language. The more I struggle with not understanding the nuances (or worse, even having a gist of the idea) of relevant structures and words, the less able I am to form a coherent view on this level, even if things make almost perfect sense on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. Then, there is appreciating and analysis of the style, cultural impact, and other such factors of a work...

Related languages are extremely helpful for polyliteracy. Aside from sharing low-frequency vocabulary, they often have extremely similar literary backgrounds and common roots, and often cross-pollinate words and concepts diachronically. None of them are 'free', but the more you know of several members of a language family, and of the literature and culture of influential parent language(s), the cheaper they get.

d) Depending on what you are doing with a "Great Work", a dictionary may be counterproductive or very valuable. I'll defer to Juan for a more thorough explanation of the benefits.


Zwlth wrote:

Thus, the most interesting food for thought in the quote you provided was the statement that:   "The least demanding skill is normally reading." It is not just the oft-quoted Gethin and Gunnemark who say this. I suspect that there is a fairly wide consensus on this matter. I used to think so, too, but I don't anymore. Reading seems to be the least demanding because it is a passive rather than a productive skill, and because you can usually take your time with it, re-read, and look things up as you go along. However, spoken language, even at the highest level, uses only about half of the vocabulary of written language, particularly well-written language. Even when you yourself are writing, you are never compelled to use words that you do not know, so you remain comfortably within the confines of a relatively limited active vocabulary. All in all, you can converse (i.e., speak and understand spoken language) and write fluently with a vocabulary of only about 10,000 word families. However, in order to read a Great Book, you probably need to know 20,000+. Granted, part of that additional recognition can be passive, but part cannot. And, these additional words past 10,000 are all going to be less-commonly-used words, which are, by definition, harder to assimilate.

That's where extensive reading comes in, for this is the only way to get enough exposure to this kind of word for them to ultimately stick. Hence the constraint, I suppose, and hence the limitation to being able to do it with "only" a handful of languages at a time, humbling as that may be for "super polyglots" who can range much more widely than that if not digging into classic texts.

Think about it, even in a basic monolingual context in contemporary society: everyone can converse, and everyone can write something on the order of an information report (though not an expository argument), and while everyone can read an action-packed, heart-thumping, page-turning best-seller, very few can read a Great Book. Reading at this level is clearly already a more demanding skill than any of the others. Add more languages, and thus a much greater vocabulary range, and you will obviously make it even more difficult. In conclusion, far from being the least demanding skill, reading at the level of polyliteracy is the most demanding of all language skills.


Reading, writing, speaking, and listening to a very high level all require a variety of other skills, some of which are cross-linguistic, and some of which are tied to a particular language and culture.

Far more people read "Great books" than write them. I think this is a reasonable argument that reading is easier than writing, at any given level. That certainly doesn't make writing "Hello, my name is Volte, and here are the quarterly sales figures" as difficult as reading a "Great book" - but that is comparing apples to oranges.

Similarly, unless my primary goal is to appreciate the aesthetic properties of the sound of word usage, I find reading a book to be significantly easier than listening to it, even in my native English. Being able to pause to think, and to go at my own pace (English audiobooks are painfully slow when material is not extremely conceptually dense, and far too fast when they are) is extremely valuable. Given a choice between reading Darwin or Zola, or listening to their works read out, but not both, I'd certainly choose the former.

If there has ever been anyone alive who could declaim the likes of a "Great Book" while composing it, in a way which would not seriously benefit from severe editing, I would be rather surprised.

Hence, I stand by the concept that reading is, in fact, the easiest skill. Like most skills, it can be practised at many levels, and some of the more demanding, such as polyliteracy, are quite a lot harder than the practice of other skills in a more quotidian manner. I certainly consider polyliteracy with any given number of languages to be easier than authoring literary "Great works" in the same number of languages, or being able to engage in high-level extemporary conceptual debate and synthesis in the same number of languages, or even being able to fully appreciate listening to the nuances of such.

On another note, I also think Iversen has a point. If you coin a word, it seems doomed to either languish in obscurity, or be used in ways other than those directly intended by its coiner. A bit of respect for maintaining a more restricted technical/original meaning of the word in some discussions, the occasional person jumping in and saying "look, that's causing such semantic drift as to make it meaningless" or "not here please" during broader use, and for acceptance of more colloquial uses in other discussions are probably all called for.

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Zwlth
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 Message 10 of 49
19 August 2011 at 10:16pm | IP Logged 
Volte, you raise a number of interesting points. But first and foremost, speaking of skills, is there some trick to using the quote button multiple times as you do? All I see is the end effect of nicely slicing out various portions of another post, but when I try to do it myself, I find the procedure of cutting and pasting it, then deleting the portions I don't want, to be rather awkward to begin with, and then when I try to do it again, I lose what I did the first time and all I wrote after it. So, unless and until you can explain that to me, I'll have to do without the nice white box effect.


In reference to attempting to read multiple works simultaneously, you wrote that "The number of languages involved doesn't materially change this situation, or even increase the temptation that much." I think that, once you have developed more languages to the level where you could read in them, you will find that this changes, as not doing so means letting the language languish untouched for far too long. In this regard, it is not a question of needing to use or maintain the language lest you lose it, but rather of not wanting to be separated from something that you love.


You also wrote:

"Back to your original question, I think people have an unfortunate tendency to make "laws" . . . My honest opinion is that a "7" or "7/2" law for polyliteracy holds absolutely no validity whatsoever. There are far too many people attested as reading significantly more than 7 languages to a high level . . ."

There are some hard and fast laws, such as: there are 24 hours in a day. A certain number of those (say 6 ~ 10) must go to sleeping, preparing and eating food, hygienic functions, etc. A variable but generally comparable number must most often go to employment activities and/or familial and social interaction. Even if these should entail language use conducive to a career or lifestyle enabling polyglottery, any individual who finds himself with "7" (i.e., 5 to 9) hours a day that he could conceivably devote to something like studying languages in one phrase and then reading books in them at the next stage can consider himself unusually fortunate; rarer and perhaps not luckier but certainly more disciplined is the individual who can actually study/read for "7" hours a day.

While that is absolute and what follows is not, I think we can still agree that to get through something like the Братья Карамазовы or Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung or Les Bienveillantes in the first place, and, in the second place, to really get out of them what the authors put in, screams out for if it does not positively require reading for at least 1 hour at a stretch, ideally more.

So, go do the math. If your goal is ultimately to do engage in reading this kind of work in the original, then it doesn't make sense to ever try to learn too many languages in the first place. Look at Professor Arguelles, for example - he felt that he spread himself too thin and so had to abort and cut back on many languages, did he not? So, on the one hand you get a common belief in the world that you can't really learn a foreign language, or that if you can, you can learn perhaps 1 or 2, and, on the other hand, in a community like this forum you get people claiming to know 20 or 30 and seriously discussing the possibility of knowing 40, 50, 60, 70, 80...

Thus, while some might be happy with philological explorations and linguistic insights into a wider range, for those who really want to know and use a considerable number of languages, in order to avoid wasting time and energy, it does make sense to keep both the existential temporal constraints and Спивак's findings in mind. In order for those with glossophilitis to keep a sense of perspective and reality, it is helpful to know that there are basic laws such as that the number you can learn really well is "7"-ish.


You also raised some interesting points about listening and writing as compared to reading.

You may be right that listening to a Great Book can be more difficult than reading it. However, I think that listening at this level is more properly "reading with the ears rather than with the eyes." Don't forget, audiobooks evolved for the blind first and foremost, and at the end of many commercial ones, don't they say something like "you have been listening to X, read by Y, thank you for being a Z audiobook reader."?

You are certainly right that it is more difficult to write a Great Book than to read one. However, the difficulty here lies in the cognitive process of having great ideas in the first place and being able to articulate them at all in the second. If you can fulfill those two requirements, then the actual writing them out probably comes as an easing relief rather than as a burden.

I still maintain that reading at the level of Great Books in one language, magnified in polyliteracy to the same multiple as there are languages involved, is the most difficult of skills. Again, it is not the reading in and of itself that is difficult, but rather the underlying requisite quantity of vocabulary acquisition behind it.


As to your final point about the use of the term "polyliteracy," I'm afraid I can't agree at all. That word can only be used in the sense that Professor Arguelles uses it. Didn't he carve it out - in part and in public here in this forum - to deliberately set this aspect of language learning apart from polyglottery as a whole? Who else knows or uses the term? To use it in a general sense to mean any old kind of reading in a large number of languages is utterly illegitimate, particularly in this room, particularly in a discussion that starts out clearly using it in his sense.
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Volte
Tetraglot
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 Message 11 of 49
20 August 2011 at 12:57pm | IP Logged 
Zwlth wrote:
Volte, you raise a number of interesting points. But first and foremost, speaking of skills, is there some trick to using the quote button multiple times as you do? All I see is the end effect of nicely slicing out various portions of another post, but when I try to do it myself, I find the procedure of cutting and pasting it, then deleting the portions I don't want, to be rather awkward to begin with, and then when I try to do it again, I lose what I did the first time and all I wrote after it. So, unless and until you can explain that to me, I'll have to do without the nice white box effect.


Here's a brief write-up.

Zwlth wrote:

In reference to attempting to read multiple works simultaneously, you wrote that "The number of languages involved doesn't materially change this situation, or even increase the temptation that much." I think that, once you have developed more languages to the level where you could read in them, you will find that this changes, as not doing so means letting the language languish untouched for far too long. In this regard, it is not a question of needing to use or maintain the language lest you lose it, but rather of not wanting to be separated from something that you love.


I suppose we have different preferences in this regard. I honestly do not mind going months without seriously reading in even the most beloved of my languages, or weeks without having any contact with them, as long as I do not go too long without reading in at least one language.

Zwlth wrote:

You also wrote:

"Back to your original question, I think people have an unfortunate tendency to make "laws" . . . My honest opinion is that a "7" or "7/2" law for polyliteracy holds absolutely no validity whatsoever. There are far too many people attested as reading significantly more than 7 languages to a high level . . ."

There are some hard and fast laws, such as: there are 24 hours in a day. A certain number of those (say 6 ~ 10) must go to sleeping, preparing and eating food, hygienic functions, etc. A variable but generally comparable number must most often go to employment activities and/or familial and social interaction. Even if these should entail language use conducive to a career or lifestyle enabling polyglottery, any individual who finds himself with "7" (i.e., 5 to 9) hours a day that he could conceivably devote to something like studying languages in one phrase and then reading books in them at the next stage can consider himself unusually fortunate; rarer and perhaps not luckier but certainly more disciplined is the individual who can actually study/read for "7" hours a day.

While that is absolute and what follows is not, I think we can still agree that to get through something like the Братья Карамазовы or Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung or Les Bienveillantes in the first place, and, in the second place, to really get out of them what the authors put in, screams out for if it does not positively require reading for at least 1 hour at a stretch, ideally more.

So, go do the math. If your goal is ultimately to do engage in reading this kind of work in the original, then it doesn't make sense to ever try to learn too many languages in the first place. Look at Professor Arguelles, for example - he felt that he spread himself too thin and so had to abort and cut back on many languages, did he not? So, on the one hand you get a common belief in the world that you can't really learn a foreign language, or that if you can, you can learn perhaps 1 or 2, and, on the other hand, in a community like this forum you get people claiming to know 20 or 30 and seriously discussing the possibility of knowing 40, 50, 60, 70, 80...

Thus, while some might be happy with philological explorations and linguistic insights into a wider range, for those who really want to know and use a considerable number of languages, in order to avoid wasting time and energy, it does make sense to keep both the existential temporal constraints and Спивак's findings in mind. In order for those with glossophilitis to keep a sense of perspective and reality, it is helpful to know that there are basic laws such as that the number you can learn really well is "7"-ish.


There are 24 hours in a day. Whether I have half an hour free a day or twenty hours free a day, if I am seriously reading a book, I prefer to stick with it.

The idea of spending 1/N of my free time on each of my languages, once I know them well enough to read Great Books in them, is anathema to me - much as it is to spend 1/N of my free time each day on each of the subjects which I am serious about. It seems we differ in this.

I fully believe there is a maximum number of languages that a person can maintain polyliteracy at. I also believe that this number depends on the mental facilities of the person, similarity of the languages, time available, level reached in the languages, etc. I don't believe this number is as low as 3 for devoted enthusiasts of normal intelligence, hours of free time each day, and a long history of serious language learning; it is also clearly higher for some individuals. I have already hit 3 languages at this level; some of my friends from this forum with longer histories of serious language learning have hit quite a lot more. 7/2 is a mere 3, after all, since one can hardly claim polyliteracy in "half" a language.

If you absolutely need a certain amount of exposure to each of your languages each day for the sake of your own happiness, that is an entirely different issue from the number which one can practice polyliteracy in, in my opinion.

It is clearly possible to spread oneself too thin, for any given goal. I'd be amazed at anyone who could maintain polyliteracy in 100 languages, in 20 unrelated families. I don't think the upper bounds of what is feasible are adequately mapped out, as of yet.

Regardless, I do not think polyliteracy is best served as being treated as a game of numbers. Read in the languages you most want to. Until the day when parametrized charts of what is feasible are available, people walking this path with ambitious goals for the number of languages must chart their own course between the Scylla of forever missing out on enriching languages and the Charybdis of taking on more than can be maintained.

Zwlth wrote:

You also raised some interesting points about listening and writing as compared to reading.

You may be right that listening to a Great Book can be more difficult than reading it. However, I think that listening at this level is more properly "reading with the ears rather than with the eyes." Don't forget, audiobooks evolved for the blind first and foremost, and at the end of many commercial ones, don't they say something like "you have been listening to X, read by Y, thank you for being a Z audiobook reader."?

You are certainly right that it is more difficult to write a Great Book than to read one. However, the difficulty here lies in the cognitive process of having great ideas in the first place and being able to articulate them at all in the second. If you can fulfill those two requirements, then the actual writing them out probably comes as an easing relief rather than as a burden.

I still maintain that reading at the level of Great Books in one language, magnified in polyliteracy to the same multiple as there are languages involved, is the most difficult of skills. Again, it is not the reading in and of itself that is difficult, but rather the underlying requisite quantity of vocabulary acquisition behind it.

As to your final point about the use of the term "polyliteracy," I'm afraid I can't agree at all. That word can only be used in the sense that Professor Arguelles uses it. Didn't he carve it out - in part and in public here in this forum - to deliberately set this aspect of language learning apart from polyglottery as a whole? Who else knows or uses the term? To use it in a general sense to mean any old kind of reading in a large number of languages is utterly illegitimate, particularly in this room, particularly in a discussion that starts out clearly using it in his sense.


I fear we shall have to agree to disagree on most of these points.

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lichtrausch
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 Message 12 of 49
20 August 2011 at 5:16pm | IP Logged 
Volte wrote:

It is clearly possible to spread oneself too thin, for any given goal. I'd be amazed at anyone who could maintain polyliteracy in 100 languages, in 20 unrelated families. I don't think the upper bounds of what is feasible are adequately mapped out, as of yet.

It seems like Professor Arguelles' accomplishments in polyliteracy could be viewed as a sort of tentative upper bounds of polyliteracy. It is hard to imagine someone pursuing the goal of polyliteracy with more fervor and methodicalness and intellect than he has done. Although I suspect the upper bounds will be pushed up in the future based on marginal improvements in technique.

One restriction I've been thinking about is the need to branch out into lesser and lesser related languages. If there were 15 Germanic languages with a sizable "Great Books culture", then I would think of attaining polyliteracy in these 15 languages as a reasonable goal. But there are really only a handful of languages in any sub-family (such as Germanic) with a sizable Great Books culture. So one is forced to spread oneself out over at least a couple sub-families, which makes the task of learning and maintaining these languages presumably more difficult. A polyglot could limit himself to 15 Germanic languages, but this isn't really an option for a practitioner of polyliteracy.
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Sprachprofi
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 Message 13 of 49
20 August 2011 at 5:48pm | IP Logged 
Professor Arguelles wrote:
Polyliteracy is a scholarly discipline. It embodies a
quest to develop an encyclopedic mind and to philosophically understand the nature of
your own consciousness through the passionate, in-depth, and respectful study of as
many different languages as possible
, focusing both upon their diachronic evolution
as actual entities and upon the intellectual heritage they have left in the form of
great texts.
(emphasis is mine)

I cannot see how you go from there to 3-4 languages and still claim we're talking about
Professor Arguelles' concept of polyliteracy here.

Moreover, at http://foreignlanguageexpertise.com/about.html, Professor
Arguelles lists more than 30 (!) languages or dialects in which he has "reached his
goal" of being able to enjoy Great Books with high levels of appreciation and
understanding, in 25 of which he has the same level of comfort and understanding as in
his native language. The 7/2 rule clearly does not apply to him.

I think you're confusing ability and desire. There are people who have no desire
to read Great Books in more than a handful of languages, or even any at all. Or people
who get too caught up in a couple literary traditions and can't tear themselves away
from these in order to also read the rest. However, this has to be neatly separated
from the ability to understand Great Books at a really high level. If there is
an upper limit to the amount of languages you are able to study to that level, then it
must be greater than Arguelles' 30+, at least for some individuals.

If you consider it possible to read e. g. 700 Great Books in translation in your
lifetime (less than one every month), then I must consider it possible to read these
700 Great Books even if they're spread between 20 languages. For that, it is not even
necessary to be at peak performance all the time - you could learn French, spend a few
years picking off all the French Great Books while learning Spanish, then read all the
Spanish Great Books on your to-read list, rinse and repeat. But you don't need to go
this route. In my experience, passive language ability stays with us for a really long
time. If you knew French well enough to read Great Books at some point, then you will
still be able to do so 5 years down the road (maybe reading a bit more slowly for the
first 50 pages), even if you don't read any other French Great Book in the meantime. I
know because they made us read Shakespeare at high school; I last touched Shakespeare
in 2003, yet picking up a book now I find myself just as comfortable with it as I was
then.

In the meantime I read German, Latin and French Great Books. French studies is my major
at university, so I had to read particularly many of those. I can also read this kind
of book in Esperanto, and probably also in Italian and Dutch - I'll see later this
year. The thing is, my interest is not in Great Books per se. I'm just looking for some
good reading, and I love contemporary books like "La joueuse de Go" for example. Later
this year I plan to tackle two Great Books in Italian and Dutch, but that they're
considered Great Books is purely incidental.

Edited by Sprachprofi on 20 August 2011 at 5:49pm

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Zwlth
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 Message 14 of 49
21 August 2011 at 7:44am | IP Logged 
It doesn't seem like any of you have read enough philosophical texts off Great Books lists in any language to have developed the requisite vocabulary range to be familiar with the term "in praxis." So, I will explain: it means to take an ability, a capacity, a skill, or even a theory, and to put it into practice, i.e., to embody, enact, or exercise it. It means to apply or use a capacity or a skill rather than just to develop it or have it. It is the actual doing, rather than the potential to do. It is usually discussed in contrast to "in theory" or "in principle."

I have no doubt that Professor Arguelles (it seems like respect for him is the one thing we all share) can indeed read books in 30 languages or perhaps even more. But, although he could take 30 different tomes off his shelves and read them at once (not literally simultaneously, of course, but in the sense of engaging in reading a chapter from one and then a chapter from another over the course of a sequence of days), I highly doubt he ever does so.

One point I have been trying to make is that the polyliterate process of reading is quite different from the polyglot process of language learning. When learning, you can divide your time and attention between far more languages than you can when using them by reading in-depth.

I didn't start this thread looking for an argument, though it seems I've stirred up a nest of hornets, and I'm truly sorry if I've done that through any inadvertent offensiveness in my own tone. Seriously, though, what's with the confrontational spirit here? The last thing in the world I am doing is looking for is votes, but I can't help but wonder why every answer basically attacking what I am saying is being cheered on in this fashion when I identify myself as a practitioner of polyliteracy and you all don't. I started this thread looking for sincere answers from other practitioners of polyliteracy, i.e., from polyglots who get much or most of their language mileage from reading Great Books in a variety of tongues. However, the first respondent indicated that he was not one, and Volte said that though she is on her way, she is not there yet, and so now how about the rest of you who are now joining in?

From such practitioners, I was looking for straightforward answers along the lines of: "Well, I have some kinds of abilities in about 30 languages, and if I include what I can do with closely related and transparent ones with the occasional help of a dictionary, maybe I can read books in about 20, but I would only call myself "fluent" in maybe 9, so when it comes to this "law-of-7"/2 proposition –

a) in makes sense because, as it transpires, the number of languages I can engage Great Books in simultaneously is 4 or 5; OR

b) it doesn't make sense because I have no problem reading them in 9 or more at a time; OR

c) it doesn't make sense because I can only do so in 1 or 2 at a time; OR

d) some other answer along these lines that I haven't thought of.

Can any actual practitioners of polyliteracy offer any responses of this sort?
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Budz
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 Message 15 of 49
21 August 2011 at 8:04am | IP Logged 
Quite possibly the nature of the replies has been generated by the pompous tone of the original post(s)...
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Iversen
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 Message 16 of 49
21 August 2011 at 7:31pm | IP Logged 
First I would like to stress that I don't have the intention to get into a discussion with Zwlth just for the discussion or - even less - to irritate him. I give my opinion because I see problems with a too narrow definition of polyliteracy. After all polyliteracy is derived from the word 'literacy', which has no built-in restrictions on the kind of things you read. The restriction to 'Great Books' was added by professor Arguelles, and I have already made clear that I don't see this restriction as logical - although if you drop it you should of course make clear that you use the word in another way than he did.

OK, what then can 'Great Books' be? The list at Arguelles' homepage is here.

Not all books on the list are fiction, - the main qualification for being on the list seems to be that a certain book in some way epitomizes some aspect of the culture in which it was written. For instance we find the medical writings of Hippocrates alongside with The Process by Kafka (the list uses the English names). So I take the main message of Professor Arguelles as being that you should learn about the culture(s) of the world through original texts in the original language. And that's fine with me - actually I have spent a lot of time doing precisely that. However I have grown tired of reading literature bulkwise. Zwlth may not have great thoughts about me, but I have actually read a substantial part of the books on the list and sometimes I still delve into things that are on the list or could have been there - and then I will of course read them in the original language if I can (though Ancient Greek is outside my scope).

It might be of interest to see how the word 'polyliteracy' actually came about. In a thread from 2008 professor Arguelles wrote this:

Regular visitors to this room will know that I regard Polyglottery as a distinctive scholarly discipline consisting of two main features:

1.     the systematic, comparative, diachronic study of large numbers of languages, not only to understand them as linguistic phenomena, but also
2.     so as to be able to read the classic texts of the great books of the world’s major civilizations in their original tongues.

I have certainly not been having any second thoughts about the validity of the endeavor – that is in my life’s blood – but only about the descriptive nomenclature I have chosen. “Polyglottery” has always seemed better than any other alternative that I could think of, but really only by default, and there have long been several things that I do not like about it.


(end of quote) This is clearly the kind of study which now is covered under the term "polyliteracy" at his homepage. But it was not a given thing that the search for a more suitable term than 'polyglottery' would end up with 'polyliteracy', and as I already have made clear I find this choice unfortunate because we then haven't got a word for being able to read confidently in many languages - i.e. 'literacy' in many ('poly') languages. Professor Arguelles could accept this because of his profound interest in the 'great books', but I find it problematic because most of my reading now is composed of things outside the canon. I do see the problem in finding a word that covers the studies of culture through the most important books combined with doing this in many languages, but this isn't a reason for taking the word 'literacy' and narrowing its meaning drastically just because you want to stress that reading canonical books should be practiced through the original languages of the books in question.    

That being said, most of the books on the list are long and will take a lot of time to get through even for the most seasoned reader - Proust's "À la recherche du temps perdue" is probably the most striking example of this. I notice that the poetry of Baudelaire, Mallarmée and Rimbaud is absent from the list, so there is no way of escaping the long novels in French (and woe betide the one who thinks that the first 100 pages of Père Goriot is enough!).

My feeling is that one reason that one even could think about a low limit for the number of great works you can read at the same time simply is the time it takes to get through each of them. If you read novels, would it then be logical to put seven big fat novels on your table and start reading them in parallel? Of course not, but why would you then want to do it just beause the books are in seven different languages? It doesn't make sense, and therefore it doesn't really make sense to qualify people's 'polyliteracy' in terms of how many such projects they would do at the same time.

For me with my less restrictive definition of polyliteracy there isn't a problem. Within a given time span I read through read a lot of things in small packages, and some of them are on the list of great books, other not, and things that are more than an inch thick will be read in sequence or in part - NOT in parallel. I do find it relevant to ask how many languages you can read well, and whether you can keep up the level for all your languages at a given time. But trying to limit your reading to canonical books from days gone by is not acceptable for me. My interest in science is definitely not covered by great works from the 19. century, I need to read modern sources. And I cannot accept that my ability to read about dinosaurs in twenty languages should be nameless just because the obvious word for that ability has been defined in a concrete situation in a way that excludes popular scientific texts from 2011. The study of human culture through the ages is a noble pursuit, but it is not the only worthy field of study.

At his homepage professor Arguelles writes:

For those who may not know, Comparative Philology was the term for what was done with both languages and literature when these were studied in tandem throughout the nineteenth century; it involved not only the comparative grammatical study of closely related language families, but also the cultures and literatures that these languages produced. As its core training, Comparative Philology demanded the in-depth study of many languages.

So a ressurrection of the word "philology" (maybe with the prefix 'poly') instead of a redefinition of the word "literacy" (with an added prefix) would in my opinion have been a better solution.


Edited by Iversen on 21 August 2011 at 8:22pm



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