Heinrich Schliemann's Method of Language Learning
I have always believed that in order to learn more about how to do something, it can be quite beneficial to study the methods of those who are experts at it. While reading a book on ancient Greece recently, I came across a description of how Heinrich Schliemann went about learning a new language.
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The famous 19th-century German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), who pursued a life-long dream of excavating the remains of Homeric Troy, no doubt had a genius for language. Within the space of two years, he taught himself fluent Dutch, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, and later went on to learn seven more, including both modern and ancient Greek.
How could we, who generally consider ourselves lucky if we manage to learn only one or two foreign languages in the course of an entire lifetime, not be curious about the method he used? Let's hear what Schliemann himself had to say about how he approached the challenge of mastering another tongue:
"In order to acquire quickly the Greek vocabulary," Schliemann wrote, "I procured a modern Greek translation of 'Paul et Virginie' [a French novel; Schliemann already knew French], and read it through, comparing every word with its equivalent in the French original. When I had finished this task I knew at least one half the Greek words the book contained; and after repeating the operation I knew them all, or nearly so, without having lost a single minute by being obliged to use a dictionary. Of the Greek grammar I learned only
the declensions and the verbs, and never lost my precious time in studying its rules; for as I saw that boys, after being troubled and tormented for eight years and more in school with the tedious rules of grammar, can nevertheless none of them write a letter in ancient Greek without making hundreds of atrocious blunders, I thought the method pursued by the schoolmasters must be altogether wrong... I learned ancient Greek as I would have learned a living language."
He doesn't say how he learned to pronounce ancient Greek, but since nobody speaks it any more, this probably didn't really matter to him too much. In any case, one must admire the man's ingenuity, and above all, his freedom from conventional ideas about how languages "should" be learned. Though we tend to put such people into a category
of their own, labeling it "genius", the truth is that one of the things that separates a so-called genius from ordinary mortals is simply the fact that they don't limit themselves by doing everything the way most other folks do, or by the way that "authorities" say it must be done: they find, or create, their own methods, and do whatever works well for them.
When we begin to learn a foreign language, we usually use a book whose first chapters are filled with "baby stuff": "Hello, how are you? My name is David.", or "The cat is in the house. My brother lives in Rome.", and such things. Of course, that would seem easier to learn than picking up a regular book in your target language and, only
with the help of an English translation, working your way through it sentence by sentence, the way Schliemann did. But then, he taught himself to speak ancient Greek in such a way, so who is to say that his method wouldn't work for us if we wanted to learn French, Italian, or German? We could always take a few classes with a native speaker for the pronunciation, and to take our first steps in conversation.
And the grammar? Well, by comparing the foreign language text to an English translation, we would get a good idea of grammatical structures; the fact that such structures would repeat themselves quite often during the course of an entire book would mean that we would have ample opportunity to "absorb" them, and to learn to use them properly
on our own.
There are really only two reasons why this method might not work for you. First of all, it would take a lot of thought, and a lot of discipline, to work your way through a foreign language book this way. You would have to basically construct your own grammar book as you go along, taking notes comparing structures in both languages, making your own lists of prepositions, pronouns, verb forms, etc., as you encounter them, and so on. Of course, when you buy a standard language-learning book, all the grammar has already been "spelled out" for you, which makes it seem a lot easier. On the other hand, I can't help but think that if you did do it Schliemann's way, collecting and organizing such grammatical information on your own might well help you to learn it considerably faster, and to understand it a lot better.
The other reason why this method may appear to be beyond our abilities is merely because it is so unusual: "Nobody does it that way!" may be the way you respond when you read about Schliemann's procedure. You may feel that if it is so uncommon, it can't be so great, or maybe that it just couldn't work for a "normal person" like yourself. This is more of a psychological block than anything else, and overcoming it could be a rather mind-expanding experience. It is true that especially at the beginning, when you don't have any vocabulary at
all, the idea of actually beginning to read a book (albeit with the aid of a translation) in the other language would seem daunting, almost to the point of appearing to be impossible. But I suspect that if you actually tried it this way, after a week or so, it wouldn't seem so hard at all, and you may well make rapid progress. And if the book you use (or I should say, "books", since you would have one in your target language, as well as a translation in your native tongue) is about something which greatly interests you, by the time you finish it, you
will not only have learned a lot about the new language, but also a good bit of fascinating information.
I myself have not tried this method yet, but at some time in the future, I certainly will. I may not be so ambitious as to want to follow in the archeologist Schliemann's footsteps, searching out the ruins of ancient Troy, but trying out the linguist Schliemann's method of language learning holds a definite attraction for me, and could well be rewarding for anyone who tries it.
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