Friday, February 12, 2021


On Learning Foreign Languages

[Basil L. Gildersleeve,] "On Learning Foreign Languages," The Nation 42 (1886) 335:
In the last number of the Revue Internationale de l'Enseignement M. Bréal has published a lecture on learning foreign languages, in which he has attacked a practical problem in a practical way, not as a philologian, not as a determined tracker down of etymologies, not as an ingenious restorer of such dilapidated linguistic monuments as the 'Song of the Arval Brethren,' but, to use his own expression, as a paterfamilias. Literature, philology he ruthlessly puts aside, and absolutely discards all the cumbrous apparatus of grammar. The object he proposes is the practical acquisition of German, of English, Italian, Spanish. Philological study of these idioms he considers a waste of time for the young. Greek and Latin are the true educational gymnastic. English and German are needed as means of communication, of exchange among the peoples. He denies the familiar assertion that the French have not the bump of languages. The Minister of Public Instruction has recently tried the experiment of sending young Frenchmen abroad to learn English and German, and tbe experiment has had the happiest results. From Germany, from England the students have brought back not only a good knowledge of German, of English, but enlarged views. They have learned to appreciate different methods of thinking, reasoning, living. Of course the state cannot repeat this experiment on a large scale, but the system of exchanges so common between French-Swiss and German-Swiss families is recommended as an admirable and economical method of training young girls in foreign languages. M. Bréal admits that this is somewhat repugnant to French ways, but France has widened her ways so much in the last thirty years that we may look forward to greater latitude in this direction also. To those who can go abroad he gives the eminently sensible advice not to go abroad in order to pick up the language, but in order to study something definite, to work at something definite, whether banking at Frankfort, bookselling at Leipsic, brewing of beer or Aeginetan sculptures at Munich. You will learn banking, bookselling, beer-brewing, you will make yourself an authority on the origin of Greek art, and you will be a capital German scholar to boot.

Tbe trouble that a philologian has to encounter is that he carries with him the sense of his profession. He is too much bent on being gramatical; and M. Bréal tells an amusing story of the efforts of a young French professor who betook himself to Germany equipped with the orthodox apparatus for the acquisition of the language. Endowed with a good memory and a prodigious power of work, he mastered his grammar, the 248 irregular verbs and all, in the space of a week. Then he put his knowledge to the test by going to a lecture; but he found, to his dismay, that he could not catch even one grammatical form, not even one of those rascally irregular verbs he had acquired with so much pains. His next point of attack was the vocabulary. Grammar is only the skeleton, words the flesh and blood. So he addressed himself to the radicals of the German language first, and finding a book that offered him a complete assortment of German radicals, he devoured it eagerly and digested his 1,000 roots in four days. The result was not a whit better. His next resource was Ollendorff—'German in Ninety Lessons.' Ninety lessons—that means three months. Why not take three lessons a day? In thirty days Ollendorf is his—but not the German language. Jacotot, Robertson, Ploetz follow—all to no purpose. At last he conceived the heroic purpose of committing the dictionary to memory. 30,000 words cannot be considered a trifle. Still, at the rate of 1,000 words a day, a dictionary can be appropriated in a month. The failure was as absolute as before, and, to crown his humiliation, he met certain French artisans who had crossed the border with him and had learned German while working at their trade. The young professor finally succeeded in learning German, and afterwards published his experiences for the benefit of the world.

Still, with all respect for M. Bréal, the time spent on grammar, roots, Ollendorff, and dictionary was not all wasted. The true way to learn a language is to take it in at every pore, and the philological pore is not to be despised. A mature man cannot become a child again, although it is very true that in order to learn a language well one must get into childlike ways of mimicry. People who are plagued with a profound sense of their personal dignity never learn to speak a foreign language well. Of course M. Bréal is too sensible a man not to emphasize the fact that this infantine knowledge of language goes even more rapidly than it comes. A child learns a language perfectly in a year, and forgets it totally in six months; and those who learn languages as children do unlearn them with corresponding facility.

Much that M. Bréal says on the education of the ear, on the mastery of phrases, is excellent. For English as against German he has much to say. English is much nearer akin to the French than is German, it is the French form of the Germanic mind. It is a beautiful language, "all sinew and muscle, a language that seems to have resolved the problem of packing away the maximum of esprit in the minimum of matter"; and the short monosyllables which the German poet Platen detested, carry to M. Bréal's mind a sense of plenitude and strength. At the same time, he acknowledges that, owing to a false start, he has never been able himself to do much with it practically, and he unconsciously illustrates the trickiness of our idiom by supposing a child equally at home in English and in French to address his English-speaking mother with the startling phrase, "Let me come on your knees" (Prends-moi sur tes genoux)— which is, being interpreted, "Take me on your lap."
See Michel Bréal, "Comment on apprend les langues étrangères," Revue internationale de l'enseignement 11 (1886) 235-255.

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