Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/545

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
541
THE ACQUISITION OF LANGUAGE

The only evolutionary tendency in language which we can recognize is this tendency towards analysis, towards dismemberment. So great an authority as Sir Charles Eliot, vice-chancellor of Sheffield University, who perhaps knows a greater variety of languages than any other man, from Portuguese to Russian, from Turkish to Japanese, languages of Central Africa and of the Polynesian Islands, tells me that he considers that this progress favors thought. Gender, number, case hamper language, restrict its flexibility, impede thought. A monosyllabic root-language, such as Chinese or Burmese, is a swifter and more precise solvent of thought than are the highly inflected Bantu tongues. If this be true—and it does not seem to me open to doubt—it is easier to think in English than in Latin.

The drilling of boys in languages of lower type than their own must have some strange, mysterious sanction to justify its use. There must be an explanation of the undeniably good results which have followed this generalized, purposeless training—results which caused those who were best qualified to judge to cling to it with such tenacity. It is not of the schools of to-day that I am speaking. So many reservations and qualifications would be necessary that I could not hope that my thesis would be approved. The schoolmaster has for some years been engaged in the process of sloughing his skin—a process which he seems very reluctant to see accomplished. The rattle at the end of his tail which so easily subdued the pupils under him has gone. Yet he still clutches at his gold and purple scales. The lineaments of Greek gods and Roman orators are still to be distinguished in the folds of the sadly crumpled case with which he is so unwilling to part. He feels strangely cold clad in nothing but his native wisdom. It is not of this half-accomplished rejuvenescence that I wish to speak. Let us go back to the golden days of grammar schools. It is not as long ago as Mr. Gladstone's youth. Many of us of a younger generation experienced their heroic rule. Assuredly it was not the content of the classics which proved in our case of educative value. It could not, for the reasons I have stated, have been the languages, as such. I have but one explanation. It was the rebound on to English which the classical drill produced. We were ceaselessly searching the pages of the dictionary. We were learning new words. We were studying English syntax. In my opinion any foreign language would have served equally well to produce this rebound. Or it might have been brought about by the intelligent paraphrasing, construing, analysis of English authors. The last course would probably be the shortest road to the supreme goal—skill in the use of the language in which we think and with which we speak.