When You Learn a New Language to Read a Single Book

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 was already coming to dominate research mathematics, and Grothendieck pointed towards thrilling paths ahead.

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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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is a math teacher. He blogs at Math with Bad Drawings and is currently working on two books for the publisher Black Dog & Leventhal. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, Business Insider, the Chicago Tribune, and the Huffington Post.

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