Last updated: 25 March 2010
What is Polyliteracy?
What are the Principles of Polyliteracy?
Sample Systematic Study Chart
What is Polyliteracy?
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. As an academic discipline, Polyliteracy is the direct descendent and heir of Comparative Philology. However, whereas Comparative Philology had a tendency to focus inwards upon the origins of the Indo-European family in a nationalistic sense, Polyliteracy faces outwards towards expanding the individual scholar’s
horizons by imparting the ability to read classic texts of Great Books in the tongues of other civilizations.
Polyliteracy can best be described as a wedding of resurrected Comparative Philology with Great Books education. 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. Towards the twentieth century, as other fields of Linguistics developed, Comparative Philology was engulfed by them and, under the newer term of (comparative) historical linguistics, it is now only a relatively minor and unimportant branch of the whole discipline. Today, although the term "Linguistics" sounds as if it has to do with languages, it most often does not concern the actual study of foreign languages. Indeed, with the disappearance of Comparative Philology as an independent discipline, there is now no place for anyone who wants to study multiple foreign languages within the established academic paradigm, and the production of reference works such as dictionaries, grammars, and language manuals is not considered to be "research."
Thus, I propose resurrecting Comparative Philology with a difference under the term Polyliteracy. The difference is that, whereas Comparative Philology focused only upon closely related languages, Polyliteracy can and should involve the study of widely disparate languages as well. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the work of the great nineteenth century scholars was so thorough that there is little left uninvestigated in the traditional areas of European Indo-European language families, and the grammars and dictionaries that they produced stand still today as standard reference works. Furthermore, while it is most instructive to employ the comparative method when studying phenomena that share many commonalities, given that this has been done and the results can be used as a foundational point of reference, the time is ripe for the study of Language itself as a commonality. Surely, in the ever shrinking global village, a group of scholars who learn and discuss the learning of a variety of different languages will come upon some new and interesting perspectives on Language as a whole. This is a worthwhile intellectual endeavor in and of itself, and in an era when many languages are in danger of extinction, the research scope of scholarly polyglots can include valuable documentation as a means of preservation, as well as the production of reference materials and better language learning courses that will help others learn languages from the perspective of those who have actually done it themselves multiple times.
As for the Great Books aspect of Polyliteracy, this is also a logical return to the not-so-distant past, when philologists such as the brothers Grimm, Rask, F. Max Mueller, and others not only studied grammar but also folklore, the history of religions, and literature - in other words, when scholars in the humanities and the social sciences had a much broader range than they do in the hyper-specialized reality of today. The fact that the current degree of isolated, fragmented study is actually inimical and counterproductive to true understanding is recognized in many calls for interdisciplinary approaches, above all to the humanities, but these are most often relegated to an undergraduate core curriculum to be studied as a prelude to a specialized track. The study of literature and philosophy and history together as a unified whole in their original source material as Great Books is practiced as an entire well-rounded essence of continued life-long education only at a few select institutions, such as St. John's University in Annapolis and Santa Fe. However, there is little language instruction in such programs, even though it would seem to be a very logical step to say: if these books are so great that they are worth reading and rereading, then surely they are worth reading as they were written, that is, in their original tongues of composition. This is probably because there is an underlying presupposition that it is simply not possible for one person to read many languages well. It is, however, possible to do this, and the establishment of Polyliteracy as an academic discipline will put this possibility in the reach of its practitioners, who will focus on learning multiple languages by means of and for the purpose of reading great texts in their original tongues. Thus it is that Polyliteracy is a combination of these two naturally connected impulses for a complete and holistic humanistic education.
What are the Principles of Polyliteracy?
The Principles of Polyliteracy is the title of a 500-page manuscript that I have written about the study of foreign languages. I need to rewrite it under the guidance of a committed professional editor before it will ever see the light of day. The extant table of contents is:
- Introduction: hyper-specialized study vs. broad comparative study
- What is Language?
- What is a language?
- What is linguistic taxonomy?
- What kinds of relationships can you have with languages?
- What methods are most efficient in the study of foreign languages?
- What reasons are there for studying foreign languages?
- What factors influence your success in the study of foreign languages?
- What does it mean to know a language?
- How many languages can a person know?
- How many languages have historical personages actually known?
- How many languages do I know?
- How many languages should you know?
- What languages should you know?
- In which order should you learn languages?
- What classic texts of the world's intellectual heritage should you aspire to read in the original?
- How can an Academy of Polyliteracy be developed?
- How can Polyliteracy reform general education?
Sample Systematic Study Chart:
The practice of Polyliteracy requires many hours of systematic hard study every single day of your life. Keeping a chart to record your division of hours is essential to balancing your progress. Students to whom I have shown my own charts in the past have found them to be helpful and inspirational, so I make one available here:
Downloadable Study Chart
The record keeping on this chart began on the 1st of January 2007 and ran until the 31st of March 2008; the large number in the upper corners is the total number of days documented, the smaller number underneath it is the number of days in this calendar year.
The chart documents hours spent on four activities:
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- Scriptorium = writing and transcription, measured in pages and then divided into hours
- Narrative = reading and listening to recorded books
- Analysis = grammatical study and practice
- Shadowing = listening to recorded material and simultaneously speaking it aloud while walking swiftly outdoors