Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/January 1875/Reason Against Routine in the Teaching of Language I



Part I.—What Reason prescribes.

TWO Different Classes of Languages.—The mode of teaching living and dead languages is nearly the same. The differences between these two classes of languages, and the ends sought in studying them, need to be better defined.

Living languages, like the mother-tongue, are simple instruments which cannot be too soon mastered for instruction in our own social relations, and information of the political, scientific, and industrial life of other people. But dead languages are not the depositories of science, nor do they serve for the exchange of ideas; they are studied solely for the intellectual development they favor.

A professor of Greek or Latin, who knows to its foundations the language of his pupils, in teaching the ancient language, can give them critical and rational instruction—can call into exercise their highest faculties. But a foreigner, teaching his own language, rarely learns the niceties of the French, and seldom knows it as well as his pupils. He cannot, therefore, in any way, use their own language to aid them in learning his; so he only attempts to give them a practical knowledge of it. Hence the methods of studying these two classes of languages should differ essentially. Exercises in the ancient languages should be a gymnastic of the mind resulting from their comparison with the national idiom; each lesson in Latin being also a lesson in French. Exercises in modern languages should be vehicles of thought without the intervention of the national idiom, and they should be so familiar as to become, through reading and hearing, sources of natural instruction.

The complete knowledge of a language includes four distinct arts—reading, hearing, speaking, writing. In an ancient language we need only the first of these arts. Its study should have no aim but that of giving the pupils the ability to read the classical authors, and appreciate the charm of their compositions. It is in meditating on the thoughts of the great writers of antiquity, and in translating their masterpieces, that we discover their beauties, and are able to transfer them into our native language.

In living languages these four arts should be the object of study. To say that one class of languages is learned to be spoken, and the other class to be read, does not express the exact difference of aim in the two cases. The art of speaking is useless unless we understand what is said, and this talent of understanding is a hundred times more useful than that of speaking. The same is also true of reading, for we rarely have occasion to speak foreign languages, while we may read them daily with profit. In reading, as in listening, we always learn something, and especially the language. In speaking we learn nothing, not even the language; the mind is not enriched with a word or an idea. The habit of following, in reading and hearing, the logical connection of ideas which characterizes serious discourse, forms the mind to all modes of reasoning, to all kinds of argument. But the habit of speaking, to the exclusion of listening and reading, implies a loss of judgment. The least instructed are often those who talk the most. It was not by speaking French, but by reading it, that the Prussians learned what they needed to know to insure their success against us.

It is infinitely more useful to read modern than ancient languages. The latter are seldom read after the period of school; but we read the former throughout life, not only for the intellectual pleasure they afford, but to gather knowledge needed in the professions and in our social relations.

Order of Study for a Living Language.—The child learns successively the four arts of his language. He first seizes the phraseology that interprets to him the language of action which accompanies the first words addressed to him. Gestures, expressions of the face, tones of the voice, are equivalent to phrases, not to words. So he understands the sense of phrases long before the words that form them. By the aid of these natural signs the infant listens and understands, then he imitates and speaks. It is only when articulate sounds awaken in his young intelligence the ideas of which they are the signs, that he seeks to reproduce them as he heard them. He owes his progress to example, not to precept; to practice, not to theory. Such is the method of Nature, admirable in simplicity and infallible in results. The nearer we come to it the surer will be our success.

Articulate and written words, the signs of ideas, being conventional, we can apply them justly only so far as we have received the impression associated with the ideas they represent, only so far as they are made familiar by the habit of reading and listening. In other words, the double talent of understanding the written and spoken foreign language conduces respectively to the arts of writing and speaking. Just as in learning our native tongue, it is by the judicious exercise of imitation founded on this double talent that we easily acquire the arts of speaking and writing. On this point the laws of our constitution and the nature of language are profoundly in accord.

In fact, we possess, as means of improvement, two powerful instincts, curiosity and imitation, which urge us ever toward the end Providence has assigned, and assure our success in the acquisition of language. Curiosity is the source of progress in the arts of reading and listening; imitation, which comes after curiosity, is the source of progress in the arts of speaking and writing. The duty of the professor is wisely to stimulate and direct these admirable instincts of his pupils.

In order, then, to conform to the rules of Nature, we should commence the study of a foreign language by reading and listening, which enriches the mind with ideas and knowledge, and at the same time puts it in possession of the corresponding phraseology. At the Lyceum this plan is reversed. Without regarding this innate desire to know, to gather ideas, we occupy the young with words by prematurely directing their attention to the arts of speaking and writing. The mind is not nourished, it is hindered, and in its turn it refuses that which is imposed upon it; or it is enfeebled under an irksome and unproductive labor. If so many young people are indolent and unwilling to study, it is because they are weighed down with lessons and duties repugnant to them: we distort Nature, and do violence to their instincts.

The art of reading a foreign language should be the first in the order of study, as it is the basis on which acquisition of the other three reposes. Besides being easier, more accessible, and attainable without a master, it surpasses them all in the number and importance of the advantages it presents. We derive the greatest benefit from it in the ordinary circumstances of life. We can practise it in all times and places, at home or abroad, whether for profit or pleasure, and so never forget it. It furnishes the means of studying the phraseology and deducing the laws of language, and only by means of it are we made acquainted with the doings of other nations.

The art of listening is the second in importance; it is the best part of conversation. Like reading, it satisfies the instinctive love of knowledge. If we perfectly understand what is said to us, a few words, a monosyllable, suffices to sustain conversation. This art demands a special exercise all the more, as listening is the true and only means of acquiring pronunciation. The vocal power is entirely under the government of the ear. At the Lyceum, not an hour is given to this exercise in all the course of study. How few persons, after four or five years of English in class, can understand Englishmen when speaking their language, and how few can pronounce English correctly!

In the vernacular, we pass from hearing to reading. It is spoken language, the first manifestation of our thought, which gives us the key to written language. In the same way, but in an inverse order, those who learn a language in books should often hear the written text, to familiarize themselves with the pronunciation and to recognize the written words in the spoken words. Their progress in understanding the spoken language will be much more rapid, if they comprehend the written language without translating it.

Reading is direct or indirect. In direct reading, the written expression recalls the thought, as in reading our mother-tongue. In indirect reading we arrive at the idea by the aid of the mother-tongue, that is, by translation. To read a foreign language directly is to think in that language: translation is thinking in our own.

When we have, for a long time, seen in books and heard in the talk of the master words associated directly with the ideas they represent, we have no difficulty in reproducing the orthography and pronunciation, the first elements of writing and speaking. The phraseology thus insensibly engraved upon the mind by repetition becomes one with the thought.

However, inconceivable as it seems, it is insisted that the principal object of studying a living language is, to be able to speak it. From this popular error, from this false point of departure, proceed almost all the methods in vogue. They aim, for the most part, exclusively at the acquisition of this art. Despising the order and the wise slowness of Nature, they break the chain which binds together the great purposes of language, neglect direct reading—the inexhaustible source of instruction and intellectual enjoyment—and listening—the most useful part of conversation—and of necessity resort to processes little in harmony with our organization and the nature of language.

Grammar, exercises, reading aloud, and mnemonic lessons, mere word-practice—the sole resource in teaching to write and speak a foreign language—do not help in the least in learning to read and understand it, nor even in learning to speak and write it, for lack of imitation, by which means alone these arts are acquired. This, it is true, is no great evil, for, out of a hundred people who learn to speak and write, there are not two, perhaps, who ever have serious occasion to use their knowledge. But what pains for nothing! what a loss of time!

Processes and Results.—The art of reading English, for example, is acquired rapidly, without groping, and without error, by taking for the first lessons familiar subjects treated in simple language, as free as possible from idioms, but strictly conformed to usage and to grammar; the French text, equally free from idioms, being placed on the opposite page. The triviality of the language in the first books is, in the end, no hindrance to progress. The best writers, the greatest orators, have begun with puerilities and commonplaces in learning their own language, and it will be the same in another if we assiduously read good authors.

Based on the truth that a student can translate only what he understands, the interpretation on the opposite page presents to him the thought of the foreign text: he passes, phrase by phrase, from the interpretation to the text, that is, from the known idea to the unknown words. Without pronouncing, he reads the French on the English—attaches to each English word the corresponding French word. In accordance with reason, he proceeds from the phrase to the words, from the idea to the sign. This translation is preferable to the use of a dictionary, because it faithfully renders the thought of the author. It plays the same part as the language of action in the mother-tongue. In thus conforming to the law of Nature, by which we pass from the whole to its parts, this process saves the student from uncertainty and ennui in the understanding of authors, and he will naturally use it in reading outside of his lessons. The promptitude with which the pupil, by this method, seizes the thought of the author, gives an interest to the reading which cannot be attained when the attention is arrested on each word, and all connection of ideas destroyed by the use of a dictionary. Besides, in this way the pupil reads more in a given time, the same expressions recur oftener, and so are engraved upon the memory. Progress in reading is in inverse ratio to the time taken. For example, 100 pages translated at the rate of ten pages a day advances the student more in the art of reading than the same 100 pages read at the rate of one page a day.

My first reading-books of English are formed on this plan. Composed of anecdotes and familiar recitals that pique the curiosity, they are, so to speak, practical vocabularies, of which all the words have a determined meaning; they address the understanding as well as the memory. The reading again and again of the same passages impresses the words, with their terminations, upon the mind with more certainty than the mechanical learning by heart in grammars, vocabularies, and phrase-books, of the current methods.

Led by the interest of the subject, each sentence awakens a desire to understand the next, and to pursue the reading, while nothing is more fatiguing and discouraging than the work of reading disconnected phrases. The student will have only to read a few volumes with the translation on the opposite page, before he can translate good authors without this auxiliary. After this, the sense of the new words he encounters will be easily discovered from the context, or by the aid of the dictionary, and he will soon read the authors directly. From this moment he will progress in all the other parts of the study.

To free himself entirely from the translation, the student must read the same passages many times: he then seizes the sense more rapidly, and ideas associate themselves naturally with words. He must, above all, read the entire work. In proportion as he advances in reading a book, it becomes easier, while the same subject, the same style, remaining longer under the attention, the phraseology of the author will be more profoundly impressed on the mind, and will be more closely linked to the thought. The stories of which the first books of this method are composed belong to common language, and contain the words and phrases ordinarily employed, so that they familiarize the student with the most useful elements of conversation and correspondence.

The facility with which a pupil reads and the rapidity of his progress permit him to read more in three months than in three years by other methods. Those who object to this facility of work, condemn Nature; for the learning of the mother-tongue is so easy that it is acquired without any hesitation. Besides, this rapid progress leaves the student time for other studies.

Pupils who study alone are limited to written language, but with a master the spoken language may be entered upon by means of exercises in listening. By attention to the reading of the master, the art of understanding foreign speech is acquired even more rapidly than the art of reading; because the elements of language being very limited, they are frequently revived, and the association of the pronunciation with the written word is easily made. In this way an adult would be able in a year or eighteen months, in his own country, without ennui or effort, to learn to understand the written or spoken language as perfectly as the foreigners themselves; but never in the same circumstances would he be able to speak it as they do.

Children, by this rational method, could early learn a living language, and be in full possession of these two arts, which would serve conjointly with the mother-tongue in their other studies. As to the arts of speaking and writing, they cannot hasten acquisition, and they will be forgotten long before there is occasion to use them. Direct reading, on the contrary, far from being forgotten, will become by practice a habit of the mind, and, when the pupils leave the Lyceum, their knowledge of English and German will be powerful auxiliaries in the other careers to which they are destined, and they will be able through life, by the aid of the periodic press and new publications, to keep acquainted with all that is published by neighboring people.

The little time and expense involved in learning to read a foreign language, by means of translations on the opposite page, as well as the facility with which it is done, will be sufficient motives to make it an object of the higher primary instruction. Peasants need neither to listen, to speak, nor to write a foreign language; reading alone suffices them. The reading aloud of the mother-tongue, taught to children in the primary schools, without stimulating the curiosity or developing the taste for reading, leaves them all their lives with intelligence as limited, and in an ignorance as profound, as if they could not read at all. Such varied and extended reading as this method proposes, creates a taste for reading, and a desire to understand, without which the art of reading is worthless.

The International Exchange of Thought.—The twofold talent of reading and understanding, the most important in international relations, may be acquired by the humblest; since the first can be learned without a master, and the second requires only the services of a reader for a few weeks. Their acquisition is so easy and so rapid, when their study is taken out of the grooves of routine, that a pupil would be able, without neglecting any of the usual studies, to learn and understand half a dozen languages in less time than it would take to learn to speak and write a single one easily and correctly. It is so difficult to speak a foreign language, that in most cases recourse to this art materially hinders international exchange of ideas.

The order of studies in our lyceums inverts the order I have recommended. The university imposes written exercises in composition for the living languages, from the lowest classes to the highest. Imagine a French officer, strong in this department, in the country of an enemy, whose language when spoken he cannot understand. In his impotence to gather useful intelligence, what can he do but deplore the false direction given to his studies, and curse the incomplete teaching of the college? The attention of the young should be particularly directed to the arts of reading and hearing, which, if universally diffused, would alone suffice for the international exchange of thought. People of different nations, each speaking or writing his own tongue, would understand each other. Their conversation or correspondence would be every way much more intimate and satisfactory, when each used his mother-tongue, with the native freedom and clearness that he could not attain in a foreign language. In this way would be secured the great desideratum of modern society—the means of international communication.

By endowing youth with the ability to understand a foreign language when spoken, those who travel could, on reaching a country, enjoy the society of the inhabitants, mix in the movements of science, listen to the lessons of celebrated masters, and, in completing their scientific education, establish useful relations for life.

If the art of listening, a necessity of modern times, should take root in the schools of all civilized countries, it would second wonderfully the high aspirations of humanity. Never, more than now, have people felt the need of solidarity and fraternity; the mind of the century presses toward union in congresses, and associations for the discussion of important social, scientific, and political questions.

Mental Culture.—It is known that ancient literature offers models of composition, which aid, when studied, in forming and purifying the taste; while at the same time it cultivates observation and reflection by the analysis of thoughts and facts relative to an order of things above the realities of sense. But I shall not cease to repeat that, to obtain these results, the authors must be read directly. This acquisition should be the object of the first period of study. In the second period, critical teaching of the literature of these languages, if combined with profound study of the national idiom, will aid powerfully in the development of the intelligence.

As a means of cultivating the higher faculties of the mind, direct reading of the solid works of great writers, ancient and modern, is of indisputable efficacy. It is. in fact, a true logique practique. But the art of reading by free translation presents inestimable advantages, which cannot be obtained from any other branch of instruction, nor from a language of which only the first elements are known. Being able to enter into the spirit of the foreign text, the student easily seizes the relation between thought and its expression, and the analysis of the expression, needed to render it into French, becomes an intellectual exercise, which brings to his knowledge the genius of two languages and two peoples. If he translates a good author, he forms the habit of expressing in French only just ideas. He rises to the height of the author by appropriating his thoughts: his own conceptions become more clear by the effort he makes to express them clearly. He thus forms a good style, in trying to reproduce in his translation the qualities of the original.

Independently of its special use in giving power of expression, translation is an indisputable source of progress in mental culture. Correct expression and correct thinking are one and the same. Great eloquence implies high intelligence. The act of mind by which a student assures himself of the exact sense of the foreign text, and the search for expressions which shall better render the thought of the author, are operations of high intellectual import. They aid him to express his meaning, to analyze it, and to state it neatly in his judgments and reasonings.

In the efforts of a translator to render the original clearly, precisely, and conformably to the genius of his language, he corrects, expands, condenses his phrases, examines them under the relations of style and meaning. He reflects, observes, compares, judges, chooses understandingly, weighs the import of terms and reasonings, and appeals to analogy, to his recollections, and his own experience. It is this necessity of a complex action of the mind which is the principal merit of classical and literary study.

Some modern languages, as English and German, are rich in works which rival those of antiquity in force, clearness, and grace of expression, while imparting much more by the positive knowledge they contain. They might profitably replace the classics, but they would have to be taught by the French; and then, on the other hand, pupils would have small chance of being able ever to understand and read them like the English and Germans.

It is clear that, for this intellectual gymnastic, the language must be read directly. By so much as one falls short of this, he cannot derive advantage from the reading. In the first exercises of translation, whether we pass from the phrase to the word by the way of reason, or from the word to the phrase by the way of routine, we can neither take in the full import of the text, nor enter into the spirit of the author. We should seek the promptest means to free ourselves from oral translation, which is best done by means of the translation on the opposite page.

Translation, as ordinarily practised, not as an exercise in French composition, but to construe the authors, violates the law of Nature, which requires that we pass from the phrase to the words. In our native tongue we know the precise sense of words only by the phrases in which they occur; taken separately, they have no determined meaning. A phrase cannot be translated unless it is comprehended, and, to secure this comprehension, we make the translation for the student by employing words to which he attaches no precise idea! How could the mind develop under such a muddle of a system?

The Art of speaking a Foreign Language in Public Schools.—Not having determined in a precise manner the relative importance of the objects proposed in learning a language, the means are confounded with the end. To persevere a long time in translation, whether to understand the language, to speak it, or to write it, is to form a habit which excludes the possibility of thinking in that language, and retaining the phraseology for use in conversation.

In the absence of classification, and of principles known to be in harmony with the constitution of man and the nature of language, the true objects of study are forgotten, and the order which facilitates acquisition is reversed. Pedagogy based on a knowledge of principles is unhappily a science little known, and generally ignored by teachers and professors.

The natural application of these principles to the acquisition of our native language offers us an infallible guide and simple processes of marvelous efficacy. By what perversity or blindness are we kept from, the route traced for us by Nature? Why not avail ourselves of those powerful instincts, curiosity and imitation—especial sources of progress in the acquisition of language? Providence has given them to man to accomplish his destiny. It is an aberration of the human mind, it is almost an impiety, to reject them and seek other means for learning a second language.

Most authors of new methods make, it is true, the pretense of following Nature in their processes; but this is an illusion. Besides, they disagree among themselves, and consequently cannot all be true. Truth is one. There are not two ways of imitating Nature in attaining a particular end. All these methods and those of the university have this in common, that, in direct opposition to the laws of our organization, and the nature of language, they pretend to teach the speaking and writing of a foreign language, without depending upon reading and listening—without even making the least allusion to the necessity of thinking in that language. While public instruction perseveres in this false way, no young man will speak English or German on leaving college. He might be able, perhaps, in unconnected conversation, to pronounce some commonplace phrases, but he will not converse in the true meaning of the word.

The minister wishes that, after a little time, the classes should talk with their teacher in English and German; but what conversation can there be with professors, mostly foreigners, while the scholars are yet in the rudiments? The little they will have to say, which always relates to the lesson—a very limited subject—would never give sufficient practice to enable them really to speak the language. They find themselves together: the professor to give, the pupils to receive instruction. The teacher talks to them in a language they know perfectly well; they listen, and say nothing.

A general conversation outside the lesson would be less practicable. There is nothing in common between the professor and his pupils. There are no subjects, or they are always the same. But it is more than probable that, if, in the presence of thirty or forty pupils little versed in the foreign language, he should speak this language, and seek to make them speak it, all his efforts would produce only confusion, disobedience, and disorder. At best, this chit-chat could only take place in private instruction.

On the other hand, the difficulty of pupils in understanding the master, and the frequent correction of their errors, would constantly draw away the attention from the subject to discuss words; would discourage the pupils and fatigue the master, and make all genuine conversation impossible. But what time would thirty or forty pupils have to converse, in the three hours a week that is granted, even though they did nothing but converse all the time? Each one, if they took turns, would have four minutes a week!

The arts of speaking and writing are acquired without difficulty, if, conforming to the laws of Nature, pupils read and listen beforehand, and always associate the idea with the word. When they perfectly understand the spoken language, the professor can address his class in it, so that each lesson will be, for all, an advance toward the desired end. To listen, and understand what is said, is to learn to pronounce and to talk. Later, the book first used in reading and listening will teach, by imitation, the arts of speaking and writing. Recurring to example instead of rules, the pupils will take their phraseology as a model, and vary it infinitely in expressing their own thoughts.