When You Learn a New Language to Read a Single Book

a dispatch from the fourth annual Heidelberg Laureate Forum

In 1984, the legendary Alexander Grothendieck released one of the greatest mathematical texts of the century: “Esquisse d’un Programme.”

It became a viral hit. Like an epic novel, it painted a sweeping vision of the blossoming field of algebraic geometry. The topic would soon come to dominate research mathematics, and Grothendieck pointed the way.

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The young Vladimir Voevodsky was desperate to read it. There was just one problem: it was in French, and Vladimir didn’t speak French. So he did what any ordinary person would do.

He waited for the translation.

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Kidding! Of course he didn’t. Vladimir is not an ordinary person; he is a research mathematician. More than brainpower, I find researchers are defined by their singular drive, their obsessive passion. So Vladimir did what no ordinary person would do.

He began teaching himself French for the sake of reading a single text.

He succeeded. Before long, he was helping to pursue the path of research that Grothendieck had outlined. And in 2002 his work led to mathematics’ most prestigious prize: the Fields Medal.

Learning a language is hard.

Learning a language for one book is crazy.

But sometimes, crazy is worth it.

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8 thoughts on “When You Learn a New Language to Read a Single Book

  1. Nice one. But I WANT FUNNY ONES PLZ GIMME THOSE FUNNY ONES, MAN. No, seriously. You gotta get those funnies going again… (hey, I love math too, so I’m not following for just humor :D)

  2. I knew a fellow who just sat down with a German-English dictionary and fulfilled the foreign language requirement for his PhD.

    He said “well a third of the paper was numbers, a third of the paper was names of theorems, and a third was actual German, mostly words like “thus” and “it follows” and “that”.

  3. There is a potential parallel with Shinichi Mochizuki’s proposed proof of ABC: reviewers need to learn a new language to understand it. When I last read about it, most were balking (though it has been a long time, so maybe that’s changed?) For Voevodsky, the text he wanted to read was clearly of value and, anyway, there are a lot of other interesting things to read in French, so the decision wasn’t really that hard.

    Also, I’d submit that most high school students are asked to try something even harder: learn a language even though they have no planned or desired uses for the language.

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