Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/February 1875/Reason Against Routine in the Study of Language II


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Part II.

I. GRAMMAR.—Can the exercises of the university and of our lyceums give to pupils the advantages they ought to expect in linguistic study? No, a hundred times no! There is little in these exercises that addresses the judgment, or that will be useful in the course of life. The pupils never read authors, they translate them before they comprehend them; or else translate them in fragments—two infallible means of never knowing them.

The first book put into their hands is a grammar, the most abstract, the most fatiguing, the most unintelligible book that can be imagined, while, at the same time, it is the most useless at the beginning of the study, when the pupil has not yet gained a knowledge of the facts on which it rests. Contrary to reason, the grammar treats of words that occupy the attention before the ideas they represent. It is but a collection of rules and definitions, more or less obscure, incomprehensible, and inapplicable, as preparatory study.

If, as reason teaches, the art of reading is the first object of this study, grammar is not the least help in securing this end: it does not give the meaning of phrases and words, the only difficulty in beginning to read a foreign language. The thought of the author, in other words, the translation that interprets it, not the grammatical condition of the words, should be the first object of consideration with the beginner. He might know the grammar from beginning to end without understanding a word of the language. It certainly is not the art of reading, and cannot be the introduction to the study of language. The method that gives priority to the arts of speaking and writing has recourse to grammar at first; for, in default of example, rules are the only guides of study. But in reading, as in listening, the phrase presents itself, as a whole, to the mind; rules which coordinate the composition have no force until its parts are understood. It is, in fact, by language that we comprehend the grammar, not by grammar that we comprehend language.

Admitting that grammar teaches to speak and write correctly, that is not teaching to speak and write, but only to do them correctly; in other words, to avoid or correct errors that might glide into expression and thought. It is, therefore, necessary to begin by speaking or by writing, to get any advantage from the rules of grammar.

In beginning with grammar, children do not see its utility, and are disgusted. They are neither interested nor profited, because they do not give it their attention. On the contrary, what interest grammar awakens, when, in place of presenting it dead, so to say, in an abstract manner, it is made to arise from the phraseology, rousing the curiosity, leading to the generalization of facts through observation and reflection, and so opening a vast field to the intellect!

Of all the means that tradition and routine have established in teaching language, grammar is, perhaps, the most prejudicial in retarding practical knowledge. By a deplorable violation of the laws of Nature, substituting synthesis for analysis, putting precept before example, theory before practice, grammar is made the base of language. The minds of children are loaded with principles and theories, roots of words and their etymologies, as if they were all to be philologists and teachers of languages.

Grammar indicates, only in a limited way, the received usage; there are many idiomatic expressions concerning which it is no help. It does not explain the value of words, nor their proper use, and adds little to our vocabulary, though an abundance of words is indispensable to correct speaking and writing. It teaches neither pronunciation nor accent, nor the orthography of the variable parts of words, nor their diverse meanings, nor the difference of signification between words improperly called synonyms, nor the propriety of figurative language, nor any of those delicacies of expression which constitute the genius of a language, and characterize a clear, elegant, and correct style. So grammarians, who devote their lives to the rules of language, are scarcely famous for their style. I do not know of one who has ever distinguished himself as an orator or writer. On the contrary, the greatest writers, such as Corneille, Pascal, Molière, La Fontaine, and others, owe nothing to grammar; it did not exist in their time. The same is true of Homer, Thucydides, Virgil, Cicero, Dante, Petrarch, Milton, and Shakespeare. Grammar, then, is not the art of speaking and writing correctly, and still less is it the art of reading, by which we ought to commence the study of language. "I should be glad," said Locke, "if I could be shown the language that could be learned by the rules of grammar." "A century of theory," said Lemare, "will not advance us a step in the knowledge of language." "It is the grossest mistake," said Condillac, "to commence with rules."

M. Jules Simon, in suppressing the mnemonic lessons of grammar, has rendered a true service to linguistic teaching. Rules, no matter what, or how many, confided to the memory, will never instruct a man, nor will they give habits of patient observation. A man might learn by heart all the laws that govern the sciences, and hold them as certainties, without at all developing his intelligence. If we could introduce into a man's head, without effort on his part, a knowledge of all the facts and results of scientific research, he would be in reality less capable than he who had learned, by a rational method, to work out a sum in the rule of three.

As a corollary of the grammar, children make grammatical analyses which draw their attention to the classification and function of words, but do not in any way enable them to understand an author, or express their own ideas, or exercise the judgment. These analyses teach grammar, not language. The man without the least ability for making them understands what he says, or what is said to him, as well as the most profound grammarian.

II. Of Themes.—The theme, auxiliary to the grammar, and the favorite exercise of the university, is no better than the grammar to teach reading. The understanding of a written text does not imply the power to write. Reason requires that the learner read before writing, and so secure the means of knowing good usage and imitating the style of great writers. The particular figurative words of a language that have no French equivalents, and the idioms of frequent use in conversation, are quite outside of themes which simply exemplify the rules of grammar. They give some exceptions, but few in comparison to the whole number. The verb faire, to make, for example, is translated into English in more than a thousand different ways, in as many idiomatic forms of expression. Frequent intercourse with foreigners, or else assiduous reading of good writers, can alone make these expressions familiar. Besides, it is contrary to reason to oblige children to compose in a language they will never, perhaps, have occasion to write, when comparatively so little effort is made to acquire the talent in their own language where it is so useful in every moment of life.

Sources of error and ennui as are these sterile tasks, they seem calculated to mislead, rather than to form, the judgment. Like most routine processes, they appear to have been invented to give masters business in correcting errors that would have been impossible by processes conformed to reason.

Themes are condemned by all writers upon linguistic study. Rollin, timid as he was in reforms of teaching, said: "To compose well in Latin, one must know the turn, the phrases, the rules of that language, and have accumulated a considerable number of words, the force of which he feels, and of which he can make a proper application. All this can be done only in translating authors who are living dictionaries and speaking grammars; by which he learns the force and true use of words, of phrases, and of rules of syntax. To do this, themes must be absolutely discarded, as they only torment children by painful and useless labor, and give them disgust for a study which brings them only reprimands and punishments." The intimate relation between thought and style, in composition, exercises the highest reason only when the language is the direct and spontaneous expression of ideas, as it is in the mother-tongue; but, in writing a theme, the student is not occupied by the thought; his attention is only directed to the words—their orthography, their concordance, and their arrangement, conformably to the rules he has under his eyes, or that he has previously studied. However, the university makes the knowledge of a language consist in the art of writing it, the least useful part, the least interesting, and the least calculated to exercise the intelligence under the conditions in which it is done. The translation of a native author into a foreign language, which is frequently imposed upon beginners, surpasses in absurdity the method of syntactic themes. It demands of the inventive faculties that which depends solely on imitation. How, without having heard a language, or read it much, without knowing the true value of its words, without knowing what approved usage allows or condemns, and in complete ignorance of its idiomatic forms of expression—how, I say, can a pupil form correct phrases? Knowing neither the different acceptation of words, nor the shades of meaning which distinguish synonymous words, nor the constructions peculiar to the genius of the language, the student never has occasion to compare, to judge knowingly; he chooses neither the proper word nor the most suitable form, and cannot aim at clearness, force, or elegance of style. The longer he perseveres in this thankless work, the less chance has he of ever writing the foreign language in its idiomatic purity. Latin compositions of this kind have been kept up to the present time, because they were not controlled by critics of the time of Augustus.

Translation into the national language presents numerous difficulties to those who best understand it. Lamartine called a translation the most difficult of all books to make; and we set young children at this work in an idiom which is nearly unknown to them. As well force them to walk with the head in a sack. It is a real tyranny.

The hours passed out of school by the unhappy victims of routine, in writing their themes and versions, leave little leisure for reading; while, on the other hand, the correction of tasks consumes time in class which would be better employed in studying the great writers of Athens and Rome. With an excess of zeal, the master often corrects the tasks of his pupils at home, consuming time which might better be given to his own improvement.

In the intervals of the lessons, the pupils of the lyceums read what the professor can hear them translate in class—an insufficient amount of practice for acquiring the art of reading in the school-period. They translate scarcely thirty lines a day in class, two or three times a week, making a small volume in a year, when the complete acquisition of this art would require the reading of more than fifty volumes. The remedy for this evil would be an initiative, on the part of the pupils, which would lead them to read outside of the lessons of the master; but, unhappily, this initiative is not encouraged. Grammar, themes, memorized lessons, and translations with the dictionary, are too discouraging, and do not dispose to voluntary effort.

One of the worst evils of the university system is, that not a step can be taken without a master. In place of exercising the pupils in the imitation of good models, which would in part dispense with his aid, they are pushed in a false direction, where they seek their way painfully, and cannot advance without help; while the professor discourages them by corrections which are renewed without ceasing.

Self-guidance is the first condition of a reasonable, improvable being. Children should learn at school how to study alone—to discover for themselves what they wish to know. In giving them no initiation, in denying them their free-will, we prepare them to resign themselves to the passive part imposed upon the nation by governments that take the initiative in all measures of social interest. We thus form subjects for a tyrant, not citizens of a republic.

III. Oral Translation.—In the beginning, translation is only a means, yet, strange to say, it is the means only that is regarded in the lyceum, without ever thinking of the end to which it conduces. And, still worse, it is translation word by word. This occupation of the mind with words is bad in many respects: it does not appeal to the judgment of the pupil, who, in ignorance of the subject, translates them at a venture; it does not permit him directly to associate the idea with the word of a foreign language; it hinders the understanding of the text; for, the words sought by the aid of the dictionary and in the order of the foreign text being found by him in a disorder to which he is not accustomed, they do not present a clear and definite meaning. On the other hand, no two languages ever correspond word for word. In each there are a great number of phrases with no equivalents in the other, and, consequently, ideas that cannot be rendered into it. Hence it is impossible always to translate faithfully.

Translation with a dictionary, which substitutes the fingers for the intelligence, and, scorning reason, proceeds from the sign to the idea, rests on the false principle of the identity of signification in the corresponding words of two languages. Moreover, by its slowness, by the multiplicity of its interpretations, and the tediousness inseparable from its use, it repels beginners and retards their progress. Besides, to a child little versed in his own language, words translated one by one present but a vague meaning, or none at all. The text, which alone can determine it, he does not understand. Explain the unknown by the unknown; such is the vicious circle in which the dictionary places him.

It is, in part, to this illogical, repelling process that we must, in the majority of cases, attribute the failure of linguistic study. Those who say that the use of the dictionary impresses the words on the memory mistake strangely. They forget that this way of finding the meaning is not the fruit of reflection, and, consequently, leaves no traces in the mind. It is a simple acceptance of another's word, with the further uncertainty arising from the diverse interpretations of each word. A few years after leaving the lyceum, what do we know of the Latin and Greek learned with the dictionary? With this pretended auxiliary, observation and judgment are entirely inactive. The student does not choose between different interpretations, for, not knowing the thought of the author, he cannot know what would render it most faithfully.

Indirect reading or oral translation is insufficient, at all stages of advancement, to give a neat and precise idea of the thought of the writer, or appreciation of the literary value of a work. Still less, by its means, could the scholar study science with profit. The search for expressions corresponding to those of the original prevents the mind from following the logical connection of ideas, and from abandoning itself to the meditation which such serious subjects require. It is only in direct reading that the attention is left free from foreign considerations, and can enter fully into the thought of the author.

All the qualities and graces of style, which are the principal merit of works of imagination, are lost when the attention is absorbed in the choice of words which will best render the thought of the author. Poetry, especially, cannot be read by the translator. All its beauties and merits disappear in passing into the prose of another language. Besides, the study of poetry is of no use in acquiring the materials of discourse for the exchange of thought with foreigners, or in following the progress of civilization among other people. The student should enter upon such reading only at an advanced period of study, when he can mark the rhythm and the cadence. Milton, for instance, who is on the programmes of the university, is not understood by the majority of the English, and yet our young people, who have not read more than four or five volumes of English prose, are expected to understand it in the translation!

IV. Pronunciation.—The premature exercises in pronunciation, made necessary by the priority given to the art of speaking, are contrary to reason in proceeding from letters to sounds; since it is necessary to know the pronunciation in order to establish the value of the signs which represent it. It is this inversion of logical order which has given birth to reading aloud, to all the systems of written pronunciation, to all those dissertations on the letters of the alphabet in the beginning of most grammars.

The real use of reading aloud is to test the progress made in pronunciation; and, when once it is acquired, to keep it in memory by practice. But, at the beginning of study, it is a process doubly irrational: it implies that the sign leads to the thing signified previously unknown; and it presents characters to the eye instead of sounds to the ear, thus moulding the pronunciation upon the orthography, which often represents it only imperfectly; especially in the case of the English language. The attention of the pupil is occupied with the pronunciation of words without regard to their meaning, to which pronunciation is subordinate. This proceeding has become very general only because, demanding no knowledge on the part of the master, it is suited to the capacity of those who wish to teach.

Reason requires that we adapt means to ends, but reading aloud is precisely the reverse of that which occurs in conversation. In reading, we pass from the word to the idea; the orthography suggests the sound. In speaking, on the contrary, we pass from the idea to the word; the sound suggests the orthography. Reading aloud can be only a source of error to a beginner. The corrections required will never form good habits, for these are the result of the repetition of correct impressions, such as are produced by the words of the master when reading to his pupils. To speak and pronounce a foreign language correctly, we must hear it spoken habitually. The alphabetic combinations by which we represent the foreign pronunciation are equally irrational. They can only bring to the mind of the student the sounds of his own language. It is by hearing sounds, and not by seeing letters, that pronunciation is made familiar, and yet exercises for the eye have the first place in our methods. It is impossible to represent unknown sounds to the eye by any combination of letters whatever, still less the diverse shades of intonation which characterize the speech of a people.

It is an error to believe, as is commonly done, that we cannot read a foreign text, in the sense we attach to this word, without pronouncing it, at least mentally. In the mother-tongue, the meaning of written words is conveyed to the mind only by the sounds that they represent, the ideas being a priori associated with the sounds. But the words of a foreign language do not recall to the student, any more than to a deaf-mute in his own language, any sound associated with-the sense. There is, then, no necessity, as there is no possibility, of pronouncing it. It is, in fact, with the written signs of a foreign language, as with all other signs—we may know their value without attaching to them a sound; the Chinese characters, for example, are understood detached from all pronunciation. The young child associates the sense with the sound of words, and has no need to think of their orthography; in the same way, the student of a foreign language should associate the sense with the orthography of words, not with their pronunciation. If, as the rational method prescribes, we always pronounce the French when following with the eye the foreign text, we protect ourselves from a false pronunciation; for it will be impossible to pronounce English at the same moment when the organs of speech are occupied in pronouncing French.

V. Lessons in Memory.—Of all the exercises which most favor ignorance in teachers who are not duly prepared, and which inspire most ennui in students, the worst are those mnemonic exercises in which the master acts a purely passive part, and the pupil an automatic one. It is said that by such means we develop the memory of children, but for this no special effort is needed, as the culture of memory, like that of attention, is secured by the activity of the other faculties. It is more particularly in exercising the judgment that we enrich the memory with useful things. The knowledge we gather in the first years of life we owe to observation and experience—the best of masters—and it is more profoundly engraved upon the memory than all the memorized lessons of college. The mother-tongue is acquired without learning any thing by heart.

Those who, in teaching their pupils to speak a foreign language, give them words to learn, to form into phrases, commit a triple error. In the first place, the child does not learn to talk by passing from words to phrases. In the second place, in order to speak, he learns to understand what is said to him. In the third place, no mother ever attempted such a proceeding: the instinct of imitation alone suffices the child in learning to speak.

The expression of thought is not aided by learning extracts from authors, because, for the most part, these extracts contain not a phrase or an idea that would aid in conversation. In this work, the attention is directed exclusively to words, and the memory is aided by their juxtaposition. By means of repetition they are revived in the mind in their order of succession, each word suggesting that which follows. The more we repeat the lesson in order to retain it, the more easy and rapid the recitation, the more the text escapes analysis and the will. Excellent as the exercise may be in pronunciation and oratory, it is inefficacious as a means of learning to speak. To learn a model by heart, no more teaches to speak, than tracing a drawing-model teaches to draw.

The monotonous repetition of a text is a mental operation diametrically opposite to that employed in the expression of thought. To speak is an act of judgment, to recite is an act of memory: the first is spontaneous, the second mechanical; by this we associate words with ideas, by that we associate words with each other; in the one we are masters of an ever-changing phraseology, in the other we are the slaves of an invariable text. In speaking, the mind is exclusively occupied with ideas; words present themselves as consequences. In reciting, on the contrary, it is words that absorb the attention, ideas following in their suite, and sometimes even are not present to the mind; children often fail to understand what they know by heart. Montaigne said, with reason, "To know by heart is not to know."

As to dialogues or exercises in conversation, whatever the number of them with which the student has charged his memory, he can say nothing beyond some trivialities which it has pleased the compiler to group together. His individuality disappears, and he is only the servile echo of phrases that have been imposed upon him. It is manifest that the art of speaking, of managing a language at will for all the needs of conversation, consists less in remembering a great number of ready-made phrases, than in the power of constructing at will, and instantly, those that meet the necessities of the moment. It will be more profitable, then, to follow the process of Nature, which consists in constructing phrases for one's self, on a given model, by analogy.

The time given to learning dialogues profits little; for, most commonly, they are forgotten long before there is occasion to use them. Phrases learned by heart are rapidly forgotten. Not only are these lessons worthless, but they require painful labor and considerable time; they are, for young people, an incessant cause of disgust and punishments, which can only inspire aversion for the study. They do not even serve usefully to cultivate the memory; for the power to retain these words in a given order is of no use except to actors in learning their parts.

We cannot by special processes obtain the general improvement of a faculty. The power or aptitude of a faculty never transcends the limits assigned to it by the special exercise to which we submit it. All the faculties are subject to this law. Thus, persons in whom the ear, exercised in melody, distinguishes the most delicate tones in music, are not those who best seize the pronunciation of language. The eye exercised in colors does not better appreciate form and distance; and reciprocally.

Again, the development of the intellectual faculties is always conformed to the kind of exercise which produced it. Those who have learned much by heart, learn easily by heart; but they are not in consequence better able to recall facts, dates, localities, forms of objects, subjects of discourse, the details of a profession—nothing, in fact, which is useful for the exigencies of active life. It is to falsify Nature to ask from the memory of words that which can alone be given by the memory of things.

All the time spent by a child in learning its lessons by heart is lost, as far as concerns the exercise of judgment and the practice of language. In a class, the great majority of pupils remain idle while waiting their turn of examination. As to the master, what does he do? He does not instruct. Whatever he knows, his knowledge is a dead page for his pupils. He who, in his teaching, does not go beyond the contents of the book is unworthy to be a teacher.

It is with mnemonic lessons as with other useless drudgery imposed on the young, which, without profit, puts their intelligence to torture. All these preparatory exercises end in nothing practical. They only retard the acquisition of direct reading. If the employment of these diverse processes continues in our lyceums, they will give no better results than they have given in the past, with professors probably as clever, as zealous, as anxious to do well as their successors.

VI. Conclusion.—We would not object to the length of time spent in classical study, as we have hitherto had a right to d, if the pupils, giving not more than eighteen months or two years to acquire that which alone is useful in the ancient languages, the art of reading them, derive advantage from them during the remainder of their school-life, however long it may be, in cultivating their minds, and extending their knowledge of the national idiom. Unhappily, this is not the policy in public instruction. As regards the living languages, students leave the lyceum, for the most part, without having attained any of the objects of study. They are persuaded that they have nothing to learn, when they know by heart all the rules of grammar, have written all the themes they contain, and learned a volume of dialogues; when they commence to translate fluently, to read aloud good or bad, and to make correctly grammatical and logical analyses. However, nothing of all this is really the practice of language. Nothing of all this finds its application in the commerce of life. They know the language by rule, which means, in most cases, that they can neither read, nor understand, nor speak, nor write it.

It is particularly in the study of classics that routine is pernicious to the young. The university system, which involves an enormous expense of time and money, is no longer in harmony with our civilization. It disregards the diversity of talents, the specialty of individuals, and casts all minds in the same mould. It conforms neither to the laws of Nature nor the needs of modern society; it calls in play neither spontaneity, nor curiosity, nor imitation; it surcharges the memory to the prejudice of the judgment, and aims at verbal acquisition rather than mental culture.

It does not embrace any of the great classics. It reverses the order of reason in passing from words to phrases, from theory to practice, from the art of writing to the art of speaking. Finally, it sacrifices the great majority of students to a few privileged ones, and all are too much occupied in things of the past to the exclusion of that knowledge which the progress of civilization has made indispensable.

It is to be wished that the Minister of Public Instruction may, in the interest of our country and society at large, honor with his attention the preceding observations, and use his powerful influence in favor of the substitution of reason for sterile routine in our schools! To appeal to the past, as is done at the university to justify its proceedings, is to hold intelligence in tutelage, and to condemn France to immobility. The world, in growing old, adds to the experience of man. Enlightened as we are by what we have received from our fathers, we commence life in the most favorable conditions. We ought to know more than they, and be more able to distinguish truth from error. Let us go forward with our century. It is time to leave the rut of tradition.

Let the fathers of families unite in appealing to the minister not to permit our lyceums to perpetuate a system of teaching that favors the ignorance of the people as a means of government. But let him take in hand the great work of the regeneration of linguistic study. We must apply to mind, as to matter, new powers and new processes. France will awake to intellectual life, and rise to a level with the most enlightened nations, only when its university teaching is completely conformed to the laws of Nature and the demands of reason.


1. We follow in nothing the precepts of Nature. 1. We follow step by step the indications of Nature.
2. Curiosity and imitation are the source of progress. 2. We are not aided by these two powerful instincts.
3. We go straight to the object by example and practice. 3. We start from rules and preparatory studies.
4. Grammar becomes the consequence of language. 4. Language is made the consequence of grammar.
5. We understand the foreign text before we translate it. 5. We translate the foreign language before we understand it.
6. The art of writing is the last in the order of study. 6. The art of writing is the first in which the pupil is exercised.
7.Pronunciation is acquired without effort by the ear. 7. Pronunciation is acquired with difficulty by reading.
8. We cannot understand the foreign language when spoken. 8. We understand foreigners as well as natives.
9. Nothing is learned by heart. 9. Much time is spent in memorizing lessons.
10. All our processes tend to prevent mistakes. 10. All the processes tend to produce mistakes.
11. We have no need of a master for pronunciation. 11. We cannot learn pronunciation without the help of a master.
12. We are soon able to think in the foreign idiom. 12. We never come to think in the foreign idiom.