Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/December 1910/Learning Foreign Languages




WHEN we consider that in all the high schools and colleges of Christendom, with few exceptions, the pupils are required to study one or more foreign languages, we can not but admit that the subject is one of the utmost importance. And more than this: in the public schools of many of our large cities thousands of children are engaged in the study of English, which is to them a foreign language. Since in the latter case the end in view is solely and directly practical, we need not consider this phase of the problem further in this connection. It is only within the memory of many men now living that the value of such studies has been called in question; or more especially, the relative value of the ancient and modern languages. A few decades ago the latter had either no place or a very subordinate one in the educational curriculum. Every young man who entered college was required to have some knowledge of Greek and Latin. In a few institutions he might pursue a modern language, or perhaps two, but this part of the course was perfunctorily gone over because regarded as subordinate. After a score or less of recitations from the grammar the student was put to reading. Then a few master-pieces were in whole or in part rapidly gone over and that was the end of the program. So far as the principles of language-structure were concerned the student was supposed to have learned them along with his Latin and Greek. Gradually, however, the modern languages received an increasing share of attention, until at the present time in many of our largest universities not five per cent. of the students take Greek, while neither Greek nor Latin is required for graduation. In most high schools the former is not taught, and in all it no longer occupies the post of honor. In this country the contest between the progressives and the conservatives was carried on without much bitterness; but in Germany the latter contested every inch of ground and the discussions of the relative value of ancient and modern languages often gave rise to acrimonious debates. It was in fact a contest between the ins and the outs; between the college professors and what may be called the enlightened public; between the traditional views of education and the practical, not to say imperious, demands of the age. Under the old régime an education was supposed to serve a sentimental rather than a practical end. It was not necessary for either law, medicine, or theology, since comparatively few young men who entered any of these professions had had any systematic training. Owing, however, to the enormous expansion of commerce and manufactures the public began to insist that educational institutions shall make a wisely directed effort towards enabling young people to meet these demands with an adequate preparation. Education was no longer to be confined to the few; it must be so broadened and extended as to include all who wish to prepare themselves to meet the multifarious claims of the present age. Shortly before his death, Lord Salisbury said: "We do not sufficiently cultivate a systematic knowledge of foreign contemporaneous languages." And further: "If I were capable of prescribing the course that ought to be pursued, I should say that those who have to make their living by commerce in any of its stages, from the highest to the lowest, ought to know French and German, and possibly Spanish, before they think of Latin and Greek." Such words as these uttered by a man who had been educated in the conservative atmosphere of Eton and Oxford are highly significant. They not only reflect the prevailing spirit of the latter years of the nineteenth century, but do credit to the insight and freedom from prejudice of the speaker personally. In fact, it may be said of most of the leading English statesmen that in their public capacity they have always been responsive to the demands of their time, notwithstanding the circumstance that most of them were educated under conditions that were essentially medieval. The prominent place occupied until recently by the ancient languages is a heritage of preceding centuries. For more than a thousand years the former was the only language taught in the schools of Europe outside of the domain of the Greek church. It was, however, not the language of pagan but of christian Rome. The renascence added the Greek, which had become a forgotten tongue; but it directed especial attention to the great pagan writers, above all to Cicero. This change in pedagogical material was logical, since it was the substitution of a literature that had a value in itself for one that was hardly more than an auxiliary to the church, and a language that was a highly cultivated medium for the expression of thought, for one that had been developed along narrow lines. There was no other language and no literature that so well served its purpose. Although the church did not look with favor on this innovation, it continued to make progress to such an extent that the ecclesiastical writers were almost wholly extruded from the schools. Cicero was the model to which all authors who strove to attain to elegance of diction endeavored to conform as nearly as they could. Not only was Latin taught in the higher schools and universities, but the lectures in the continental universities were delivered in this tongue. No other language was used by the German professors until near the close of the seventeenth century, where it continued to be employed to some extent within the memory of men now living. In Germany until about 1570 fully seventy per cent. of books published were in Latin. Those printed in the vernacular were for the most part of a popular character and considered by scholars beneath their notice. One hundred years later the number of Latin and German books issued from the press was about equal. But in fifty years from that date the proportion of the latter to the former was about as one to two. This effort to keep alive a language that no longer had its roots in contemporary thought required a prodigious amount of labor. Nevertheless, the books written by scholars for scholars thus obtained a wider currency than they would have had if any of the vernaculars had been employed. On the other hand, all works that were intended to be contributions to literature were failures. Petrarch wrote most of his books in Latin; yet they are virtually forgotten while his Italian sonnets are known to all students of his vernacular. Many of his contemporaries spent their time in equally fruitless labor. Dante knew better. Although he wrote Latin with ease, he realized that he could not express his inmost thoughts in an alien tongue. He seems to have been the first man of modern times to discern a truth that Macaulay has expressed in his essay on Frederick the Great: "No noble work of imagination, so far as we can recollect, was ever composed by any man, except in a dialect which he had learned without remembering when or how, and which he had spoken with perfect ease before he had analyzed its structure."

When we try to answer the question whether it is worth while to study a language which conveys little or no information that we can not get in our own we are confronted with a serious problem. We can not draw a hard and fast line between what is useful and what is useless, perhaps not even between what is more and what is less useful. Few persons will deny that the beautiful is also useful and that the esthetic taste is as well worth cultivating as any other of our mental powers. The fairest flowers produce no fruit. Music is absolutely of no value, while sculpture and painting in their higher aspects are equally so. The same affirmation may be made of architecture. No man has championed more vigorously and more eloquently the claims of esthetics than the high priest of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill. He indignantly repudiates the charge that his system would exclude the cultivation of any art that makes life richer or more worth living than the pursuit of the narrowly practical. There is no room for doubt that a student whose native language is English, with an occasional exception, will get a more correct conception of Plato's philosophy, for example, from Jowett's translation and comments than from the original text. Some knowledge of Greek will be serviceable, but it is not essential. If it be answered that no man of scholarly tastes and scientific training will be satisfied with second-hand information, the patent answer is that if we knew nothing except what we have learned directly our stock of knowledge would be pitifully small. At the utmost, we can make an immediate inspection of the merest fragment of the immense domain of nature and life, while the entire past has for the most part been transmitted to us through many hands. If we purpose to acquire a language for itself alone there is nothing gained by approaching it in a roundabout way. But there is no doubt that if we wish to lay the foundation for studies of a similar character we can not do better than to begin with Latin. A person who knows Latin well will have far less difficulty in acquiring the Romance languages, barring the pronunciation, than he had with the Latin. The great body of the vocabulary of these languages is derived more or less directly from the ancient tongue. Most words, however, which designate modern objects are formed in various ways. Those words that have their roots in the Latin have merely been modified according to phonetic laws that are now well understood. On the other hand, it is admitted by most teachers who can speak from experience that a knowledge of Latin as gained in our schools is of small service in acquiring French, the Romance language most generally taught. With few exceptions the pupils fail to see the connection between the older and the younger vocabulary and teachers have virtually to begin at the beginning. It is only a small minority of learners that acquire French more rapidly because they have studied Latin previously. It is not too much to say that nobody fully comprehends what is written in those languages now called dead. Part of the difficulty is due to variations in the manuscripts, or to their defective character, but it is also largely owing to the impossibility of ascertaining the meaning of many words. To be convinced of this one needs but to examine the copious notes with which most authors have been provided. A few months ago I had occasion to read some of the later Books of the Æneid, a work that I had not had in hand for a number of years. As long as I had only the text before me I thought I understood the author except in a few passages. But after consulting a profusely annotated edition I was in doubt whether I had got the meaning of more than one verse in ten. So many possibilities and probabilities were suggested that nobody could tell who was right. There is always some difficulty in comprehending a profound thinker. But if we know exactly what he said we can usually come pretty close to an understanding of his meaning. If we are uncertain as to the words he wrote we encounter preliminary obstacles which no amount of ingenuity and intellectual acumen can overcome. It is doubtful whether the mind can be most profitably employed in seeking for something which in the nature of the case can not be found. On the other hand, the effort to acquire the facile use of a language, whether ancient or modern, is always a striving towards an attainable goal. We can obtain expert testimony as to whether we have reached it. There are hundreds of persons now living who understand Greek and Latin more thoroughly than Plato and Xenophon, than Cicero and Virgil understood them. But in the ability to use them there is a wide difference. In order to understand a language we must know its relation to other languages; in order to be able to use it we need to know it only. It profits nothing for the acquirement of a good style to study a foreign tongue. There is no evidence that the Greek classic writers knew any language except their own. When they discuss problems of philology they usually indulge in puerilities. It was not until the rise of the science of language, about a century ago, that scholars began to see the connection of languages with each other and to classify them according to their affinities. But none of the men who have put upon record the results of their investigations were great writers. It would almost seem as if profound thought and facile expression are incompatible. A knowledge of the etymology of words gives us their history and a clue to their meaning; it does not enable us to understand them exactly, nor aid us in the structure of the sentence. Skill in the use of language is a matter of native ability and something which the most painstaking study can not give us. There is a wide difference between the bald statement of facts and grouping them in their relations in such a way as to gratify the esthetic sense. In the latter the imagination plays a large part; but if it be allowed to become unduly prominent, the result is disastrous.

We have no classical Latin that is suitable for boys. This is a strong objection to giving it a place in the lower schools. Almost all the Latin read in both school and college deals with war and politics. Besides, it is too difficult for beginners. More than a century ago a French teacher compiled an elementary reading-book from good writers by omitting difficult constructions and the less interesting passages. It has been in use in Germany and France ever since his time and has been introduced in this country to some extent. Nevertheless, it is merely the old matter somewhat simplified in form. More recently Professor F. W. Newman made an abridged translation of Robinson Crusoe into Latin with a view to providing reading matter for beginners that is both correct in form and interesting at the same time. But his little volume never found a place in the schools. In this respect the ancients were no better off than we are. As soon as the young Greeks and Romans had learned to read a little they were set to work on Homer or some similar author. No account was taken of their mental immaturity. Perhaps the work has already been done; if not, I am sure that he who shall trace the rise and development of textbooks for elementary schools will make an interesting contribution to the history of education.

Although the Latin taught in the European schools for more than fifteen hundred years was not that of the classic writers, the proceeding was in many respects more rational than that now in vogue. The pupils were taught to speak and to write the language, to use it in the affairs of every-day life. It was not only the Latin of books, but of the playground, of the street, of public discussion. While it was not the speech of the common people, it was the general medium of correspondence, of law and of diplomacy, until superseded by French. One needs but to read the letters of Erasmus or the Letters of Obscure Men to see what a facile medium of expression it was. How easily a foreign language may be acquired is daily demonstrated in the public schools of our large cities. The children of the immigrants who come into this country by tens of thousands from all parts of the world usually learn English, to them a foreign tongue, in a year or less. "Were it not so common the phenomenon would be called marvelous. Children do not employ the principle of association; they simply yield to the natural instinct to imitate. Unconsciously they strive to reproduce speech-sounds until they get them to conform to those they hear uttered in their presence. When they begin to talk, usually in the second year, their enunciation and pronunciation are very defective. But by constant though unconscious effort they approximate more and more nearly to the correct sounds until they attain complete conformity. When they are engaged in learning two or three languages at the same time they rarely confound them. They usually answer in the language in which they are addressed. Children under favorable conditions before they are old enough to attend school learn a list of some thousand of words without knowing how. Their vocabulary grows faster than their minds. It is easier for them to learn the words that designate common things in two or three languages than to comprehend an unfamiliar idea. After the age of mental maturity the task becomes more and more difficult and is rarely accomplished correctly. There are, however, here and there persons who can, by an effort, reproduce any speech-sound they hear, as long as their auditory apparatus is unimpaired.

Contrary to the popular belief, the ability to speak several languages is not a mark of mental power. It merely indicates a retentive memory of a certain kind and a knack for imitating sounds. Sir Richard Burton relates in one of his books that once when near Jeddah he was accosted by a man in Turkish. Getting no response, he tried Persian; then the same silence made him try Arabic. When his listener still kept silent he grumbled out his astonishment in Hindustani. That also failing, he tried in succession Pushtu, Armenian, English, French and Italian. When Burton could no longer restrain his risibilities, he admitted his nationality and chatted for some time with the stranger in English, which he spoke very well. Professor Starr says in his "The Truth about the Congo" that members of the Bantu tribes are often met with who speak several languages readily. A recent denominational periodical gives the names of several men who preach in four different languages and a larger number in three. One clergyman is named who uses Spanish, French, Mandarin, Chinese, Japanese, Italian and English. Of another it is said that he preaches in Burmese, German, English, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Danish, French and Quechua. When one visits an auction-room on the continent of Europe at a point where several languages are spoken and prospective buyers arrive from all parts of the world, he may hear the auctioneer drop one language and take up another until all present have heard in their own tongue what the goods are and the bids. One also meets on the trains traveling salesmen who speak several languages with almost equal fluency. Cardinal Mezzofanti, who died in 1849, spoke fifty-eight languages and knew fairly well about fifty more. He was a man of very ordinary ability except that he had a singularly tenacious memory of an unusual kind, so that when he once heard a speech-sound he never forgot it. About twenty years ago there was an employee in one of the London offices who was able to receive and to send telegrams in twelve different languages. But he soon gave himself up to drink and became so unreliable that the company felt obliged to discharge him. The testimony regarding fluent speakers in several languages must be received with great caution. It is almost always exaggerated, usually very much exaggerated. While there is virtually no limit to the number of languages one may learn to read rapidly and intelligently, their oral use is almost infinitely more difficult. I have taken careful notes for many years and am convinced that not half a dozen men in a generation can speak even three languages simultaneously with native purity. Some years ago a lady informed me that a friend of hers spoke eight languages as well as if each one was his native tongue. I happened to know that the man himself makes no such preposterous claim. I once made the acquaintance of a young Swiss whom I asked what his native dialect was. He replied that he did not know, since he had been brought up to speak German, French, and Italian. As his English was correct and fluent, although he had been in this country only a few years, he probably told the truth. But his pronunciation betrayed the foreigner in every sentence.[1] Many years ago I was making a foot-tour through the Black Forest with a fellow American. Among other things he informed me that he spoke German like a native. Presently we came to a farmhouse at which he asked for some milk. But he gave the word a wrong gender. An ignorant native might have made a mistake in the grammatical structure of his sentence, or he might have had a local pronunciation, but no native would have made a blunder in the gender of this word, since it is not one of those of which the spoken and the written gender differ. It needs to be remarked, however, that the local dialects vary so widely from each other and from the language of books that the natives of one section have great difficulty in comprehending one another. Historically considered, the attitude of intelligent men toward foreign languages presents some interesting aspects. From about 500 B.C. until well into the third century, everybody who laid any claim to be educated or even well informed, spoke Greek, no matter what his native speech might be. The reader of the history of antiquity meets with ever-recurring surprises at the wide dissemination of a language that is now considered particularly difficult. The utility of this knowledge is never mentioned by any writer: it was taken for granted. While the Greeks themselves rarely knew any tongue but their own, all foreigners possessed a speaking knowledge of Greek. Quintillian, who taught in Rome in the first century, urges his pupils to learn Greek at the same time with their mother-tongue. But he deplores the prevalent custom of teaching Roman children Greek before they know Latin. Yet there were virtually neither grammars nor dictionaries. The language was either picked up from those who spoke it or systematically taught by private tutors. Young men of literary tastes often supplemented the instruction gained at home by a brief sojourn in some Greek city. It should be remarked, however, that the Greeks had no need to acquire any other language for either literature or science, since all that was worth knowing was accessible in their native speech. Roman literature is so pervaded with Greek ideas that it is in no sense an original product. It contains hardly a thought that may not be found in Greek. It was in government alone that the Romans developed their own ideas and profited by their own experience. Although the Greek thinkers wrote a great deal upon the theory and practise of administration, the populace paid no heed and failed everywhere. It is a melancholy fact that they never learned wisdom from their constant succession of fiascoes repeated in every city throughout Greek lands.

There is no best method of teaching foreign languages: the method needs to be adapted to the pupil and to the purpose for which a language is learned. If the mind is to be trained at the same time in logical thinking, the procedure will necessarily be different and the results much slower than when the memory of the learner is to be filled with words and phrases to express concepts which are already in existence. Children learn languages because they can not help it; adults, because they want to. There is besides the much larger number who have to be taught for the reason that they are only half in earnest. It is this class of so-called students who furnish one of the serious problems for teachers. If one wants to teach an adult foreigner the English language there is no better method than that which bears the name of M. Gouin. The teacher suits the action to the word or phrase. He stands, he sits down, he gets up, he points to his eyes, his forehead, his hair, and so on, each time using the appropriate words. If he knows the language of the foreigner he is trying to teach, so much the better. But this knowledge is not essential. In this way the most ignorant person will soon acquire a few hundred words and phrases which will be a nucleus about which he may enlarge his vocabulary as much as he pleases. Although his pronunciation will be very faulty, he will be able to express himself in a way, and to understand fairly well what is said to him. When teacher and pupil are equally in earnest progress will usually be quite rapid up to a certain point. This point is difficult to pass. For the successful teaching of Latin and Greek to schoolboys a much higher degree of pedagogical ability is essential. Here the teacher has to deal with complex thoughts strangely expressed and more or less above the comprehension of the learner, one of the objects of this kind of instruction being to train his mind up to them. The instructor should not only have a competent knowledge of the language he teaches; he should also have psychological insight, fertility in resources, vivacity of manner and a good measure of literary training. When pupils are only half in earnest or somewhat defective in verbal memory, and the teacher lacks any or all of the above-named qualifications, instruction is "up-hill work," and the results decidedly unsatisfactory. My personal observation of the teaching of Latin and Greek leads me to believe that there is generally too much grammatical hair-splitting and too little reading. A teacher needs to know very little about a language to be able to spend day after day with a class discussing verbal niceties. The serious student of a foreign language soon discovers the method that is best for him, and his progress is usually rapid. In any case the textbook ought to occupy an inconspicuous place.

With the advancing years our educational system will supply more and more fully the needs of the rising generation. The time is not far distant when schools will be called into being wherein everything will be taught that is worth learning. So far as languages are concerned, there will always be persons who will study them for their literature rather than for their practical value. There will always be professors of Latin and Greek, although it is a misnomer to call the latter a dead language. It is more alive than the English of Chaucer. Besides, it may be predicted with confidence that those persons whose native tongue is English will have less and less need to learn any other, except for a more or less permanent residence abroad.

  1. It may be stated in this connection that there are districts in Switzerland in which German is the language of every-day life; Italian the language of the school, and French the language of the church.